Organic Architecture as a Design Tool

Frank Lloyd Wright's Natural Harmony

a long, low, wooden structure nestled in the woods on the banks of a river
Taliesin Visitor's Center on the Wisconsin River. Farrell Grehan/Getty Images (cropped)

Organic Architecture is a term that American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) used to describe his environmentally integrated approach to architectural design. The philosophy grew from the ideas of Wright's mentor, Louis Sullivan, who believed that "form follows function." Wright argued that "form and function are one." Author Jósean Figueroa argues that Wright's philosophy grew from the American Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Organic architecture strives to unify space, to blend interiors and exteriors, and create a harmonic built environment not separate or dominant from nature but as a unified whole. Frank Lloyd Wright's own homes, Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona, exemplify the architect's theories of organic architecture and lifestyle

Wright was not concerned with architectural style, because he believed that every building should grow naturally from its environment. Nevertheless, Wright's architectural elements found in the "prairie house"homes built for the prairie have overhanging eaves, clerestory windows, and one-story rambling open floor plan — are elements found in many of Wright's designs. In Spring Green, the structure Wright designed that is now the Taliesin Visitor's Center is like a bridge or a dock on the Wisconsin River Likewise, the roof line of Taliesin West follows the Arizona hills and steps in downward paths to pools of liquid desert.

Wright's architecture seeks harmony with the land, whether it be desert or prairie.

Definition of Organic Architecture

"A philosophy of architectural design, emerging in the early 20th cent., asserting that in structure and appearance a building should be based on organic forms and should harmonize with its natural environment." — Dictionary of Architecture and Construction

Modernist Approaches to Organic Design

In the last half of the twentieth century, Modernist architects took the concept of organic architecture to new heights. By using new forms of concrete and cantilever trusses, architects could create swooping arches without visible beams or pillars. Parque Güell and many other works by the Spanish Antoni Gaudí have been called organic.

Modern organic buildings are never linear or rigidly geometric. Instead, wavy lines and curved shapes suggest natural forms. Classic examples of modernist approaches to organic architecture include the Sydney Opera House by Danish architect Jørn Utzon and the Dulles International Airport with its swooping, wing-like roofs by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen.

Modern approaches are less concerned with integrating architecture within the surrounding environment as did Frank Lloyd Wright. The World Trade Center Transportation Hub by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava may well represent a modernist approach to organic architecture. "The white winged Oculus is an organic form in the center of a new complex of towers, and memorial pools," is how Architectural Digest described it, "at the sites of the two that fell in 2001."

"Taliesin" as Organic Architecture

Wright's ancestry was Welsh, and "Taliesin" is a Welsh word. "Taliesin, a Druid, was a member of King Arthur's Round Table," Wright has said. "It means 'shining brow' and this place now called Taliesin is built like a brow on the edge of the hill, not on top of the hill, because I believe you should never build on top of anything directly. If you build on top of the hill, you lose the hill. If you build on one side of the top, you have the hill and the eminence that you desire. You see? Well, Taliesin is a brow like that."

Houses should not be boxes set together row on row. If a house is to be architecture, it must become a natural part of the landscape. "The land is the simplest form of architecture," wrote Frank Lloyd Wright.

Both Taliesin properties are organic because their designs adapt to the environment.

Horizontal lines mimic the horizontal range of hills and shoreline. The slope of a roof mimics the slope of the land.

If you can't get to tour the Wright homes in Wisconsin and Arizona, perhaps a short trip to southern  Pennsylvania would illuminate the nature of organic architecture. Many people have heard of Fallingwater, the private home nestled on top of a hillside stream. Through the use of modern materials — steel and glass — cantilever construction enabled the structure to appear like smooth concrete stones skipping along the Bear Run waterfalls. Very near Fallingwater, another Wright-designed home, Kentuck Knob, may be more landlocked than its neighbor, yet the roof almost becomes the forest floor as one walks around the house. These two homes alone exemplify organic architecture and construction at Wright's best.

"So here I stand before you preaching organic architecture: declaring organic architecture to be the modern ideal and the teaching so much needed if we are to see the whole of life, and to now serve the whole of life, holding no 'traditions' essential to the great TRADITION. Nor cherishing any preconceived form fixing upon us either past, present or future, but — instead — exalting the simple laws of common sense — or of super-sense if you prefer — determining form by way of the nature of materials..." — Frank Lloyd Wright, An Organic Architecture, 1939

Sources

  • The Philosophy of Organic Architecture by Jósean Figueroa, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014
  • Organic Architecture: The Other Modernism by Alan Hess, Gibbs Smith, 2006
  • New Organic Architecture: The Breaking Wave by David Pearson, University of California Press; 2001
  • The Future of Architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright, New American Library, Horizon Press, 1953, pp. 21, 41
  • Dictionary of Architecture and Construction edited by Cyril M Harris, McGraw-Hill, 1975, pp. 340-341
  • "Santiago Calatrava Explains How He Designed the Oculus For Future Generations" by Elizabeth Fazzare, Architectural Digest online posted October 24, 2017, https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/santiago-calatrava-explains-designed-oculus-for-future-generations
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Craven, Jackie. "Organic Architecture as a Design Tool." ThoughtCo, Dec. 5, 2017, thoughtco.com/organic-architecture-nature-as-a-tool-178199. Craven, Jackie. (2017, December 5). Organic Architecture as a Design Tool. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/organic-architecture-nature-as-a-tool-178199 Craven, Jackie. "Organic Architecture as a Design Tool." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/organic-architecture-nature-as-a-tool-178199 (accessed January 20, 2018).