Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice shares vision for community, development and artfulness

Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice shares vision for community, development and artfulness

GOSHEN, Ind. — As a 17-year-old, Vern Swaback became an apprentice of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, spending 22 years living and working at Wright’s Taliesin home and office — “a model of community where life and work were one.” The greatest lesson he learned there from Wright was that “everything is artfully related and integrated.”

Today, as founder of the 40-person and 25-year-old Swaback Partners architectural firm in Arizona, Swaback is continually asking, “Can we take [Wright’s] artfulness and put it in a production-driven society?”

On Jan. 23, Swaback shared his vision for the built environment, community and artful development at Goshen College as part of the Yoder Public Affairs Lecture series, including a morning convocation, classroom presentations and an evening lecture. He then visited GC’s Merry Lea Environmental Center the following day.

“We are at a place where we have exhausted doing things the easy way,” Swaback said. “We have never had more clear warnings or more clear opportunities to do things a better way.”

As he presented slides of dense European communities, Swaback redefined the commonly used word, “sprawl,” because “no one knows what it means,” by saying that sprawl isn’t about density or growth as many believe, but rather it “has everything to do with artless development” and has “a look” of total dependency on the automobile. He showed slides of American suburbs and “cookie cutter” developments to illustrate his point.

Instead Swaback encourages building and designing community, which he defines as the “art of doing more with less; the conservation and amplification of resources.” He said one essential ingredient is beauty, but not as an afterthought or only if there are enough resources left over. Instead, Swaback said “community can thrive by its design” and that “it is all about people.”

Examples of ways to build this kind of community, a “new urbanization” as Swaback said, are to learn from the past and include front porches, pathways and alleys in design; to blur the edges between lots; to make streets for people and not just cars; to design for informal encounters; and to create buildings that fit with the land. He also pointed to co-housing communities as a solution, where people share resources, have others around and where there is a mix of business, recreation and residences. One model of this “new urbanization” that Swaback believes is working is the 130-year-old “experiment in community” at Chautauqua, N.Y.

Swaback asserted though that solutions need to be both visionary and relevant, which are “the most profitable and exciting.” Showing a slide of Central Park in New York City, Swaback said that there is a need for a redefinition of environmentalist, because it shouldn’t mean just “don’t touch.” Central Park was created by draining a swamp and intentionally not developing it as a business or residential area and today it is one of the city’s hallmarks. And he said, “I am not opposed to technology, but I don’t think that because we can do something it is the right thing to do.”

In the fall of 2003, Swaback’s fourth book, “The Creative Community, Designing for Life,” was released by Images Publishing in Australia.

Editors: For more information about this release, to arrange an interview or request a photo, contact Goshen College News Bureau Director Jodi H. Beyeler at (574) 535-7572 or


Goshen College, established in 1894, is a residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values – passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership – prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron’s Best Buys in Education, “Colleges of Distinction,” “Making a Difference College Guide” and U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” edition, which named Goshen a “least debt college.” Visit