gb&d: So how did your fascination with architecture begin?
Aaron Betsky: Well, I grew up in the Netherlands, and my fascination started at a young age. While I was still in high school I went to see the Schröder House, a 1921 masterpiece by architect Gerrit Rietveld described as a three-dimensional Mondrian. That was my first inspiration to think about what architecture can be. Then, in college at Yale, I was very much inspired by Vincent Scully. I became his teaching assistant and did my senior thesis for him. Those were the strongest influences. But since I was a kid, I remember looking at buildings; they’ve always held a strong fascination for me.
gb&d: How have your experiences as director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, and head of the 11th International Architecture Exhibition at the 2008 Venice Biennale prepared you for your new role?
Betsky: I am interested in experimental architecture that does not pretend it is the most efficient way to solve problems, but rather, considers how we can make the world more sustainable, open, and beautiful—and does so through continual experimentation and learning by doing. Obviously, Taliesin is a great place that has worked in that tradition. I hope what I bring is a combination of having run cultural institutions for several decades—and the knowledge of institutional leadership that comes with it—as well as a three-decade-long history of teaching; I have taught for a long time with great pleasure.
gb&d: You are charged with raising $2 million by the end of 2015 to help transform the school from a subsidiary of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation to an autonomous institution in order to keep accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission. How are you doing that? Where are you in relation to your goal?
Betsky: I have worked out a plan with the board that will allow us to raise necessary funds. We are beginning to do the work necessary to achieve that.
gb&d: The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, founded by the renowned architect in 1932, is a master’s degree program located on two campuses on the estates of Frank Lloyd Wright: Taliesin East in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. How does it attempt to carry on Wright’s legacy?
Betsky: Frank Lloyd Wright came out of traditions of American pragmatism, the arts and crafts movement, and elements of romanticism, and he developed positions and responses to those traditions that have carried on at Taliesin East and West today. He was the first architect to think seriously about sprawl, and the foremost architect to make sense of the concatenation of human dwellings from here to Timbuktu. He taught us not to ignore sprawl but to make it better, and that means making it environmentally sustainable, socially just, and more beautiful. Projects like Broadacre City are evidence of his research interests and the work of his students. Taliesin, in various fashions, carries on all those elements of his legacy.
gb&d: What do you see as your primary responsibilities as dean?
Betsky: To lead the school. Obviously, you don’t do that alone, given a community as established as Taliesin. I see myself very much working with faculty, staff, and the foundation to build on a great tradition and move it forward: first, to achieve the school’s independence and, then, to turn it into the best experimental architecture school in the United States.
gb&d: How would you like to see the school transform under your leadership?
Betsky: I think we need to take traditions that are there and use them as a basis to attract the best students and faculty to gather and engage in that kind of experimentation in the real world. This will be the place to deal with sprawl: design buildings where people can be at home in the modern world, create a democratic architecture, and show how experimental architecture can be the solution at the center of debate and to which people turn.
gb&d: While a proponent of sustainable building design, you are critical of methods that use expensive variations of standard building technology. What popular building technologies are problematic in your view? Has the green design movement become a province of the elite?
Betsky: The technology itself isn’t problematic, but you don’t make something sustainable just by slapping solar panels on it with double-glazing. The first question of sustainable building is, do we need to make a building at all? Do we need to engage in new construction? Second, if it is necessary to build something, can we reuse the materials? Is the building designed in such a manner as to respond to and use the surrounding landscape? Is it built with the land rather than on it? Does it have a correct solar orientation? Does it make use of the land and require a minimum amount of energy to build and climatize it? Finally, whatever you’re using in terms of energy should be used in a manner that ensures its source does not deplete natural resources. But, that is the end of a process that should start much earlier and consider the necessity and nature of new building.
gb&d: You write that, “We don’t know usually what a ‘better’ reality is when it comes to architecture,” and yet you believe this should be architecture’s goal. How can architecture create a better reality?
Betsky: Well, again I have to try to be specific. I’m referring to architecture that is more sustainable and uses fewer natural resources. All buildings should be net zero. I’m also referring to architecture in a social sense. We are, too often, enclosed in boxes that are made by others and are abstract and imprisoning. Architecture should strive to incorporate open spaces, which encourage open interaction across classes and between peoples where we work, play, and live. We’ve produced a human world that is extraordinarily ugly and dumbing. We need to figure out how to make it more beautiful—and understand what beautiful is. That’s very much open to debate, but we need to at least have that debate.