Organic Architecture from Frank Lloyd Wright to Modernist

Unique designs that integrate natural elements into manmade structures

Taliesin Visitor's Center on the Wisconsin River

Farrell Grehan/Getty Images

Organic Architecture is a term that American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) used to describe his environmentally integrated approach to architectural design. Organic architecture strives to unify space, to blend interiors and exteriors, and create a harmonic built environment that is not separate or dominant from nature but part of a unified whole. Wright's own homes, Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona, exemplify the architect's theories of organic architecture and lifestyle.

Early Elements of Organic Architecture

The philosophy behind the organic movement emerged in response to design precepts espoused by Wright's mentor and fellow architect, Louis Sullivan. While Sullivan believed that "form follows function," Wright argued that "form and function are one." Author Jósean Figueroa theorizes that Wright's vision likely grew out of his exposure to the American Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Wright was not concerned with a single, unified architectural style per se, because he believed that every building should grow naturally from its environment. Nevertheless, architectural elements found in the Prairie School—overhanging eaves, clerestory windows, one-story rambling open floor plans—are elements that recur in many of Wright's designs.

The unifying force behind Wright's architectural vision for private homes (as opposed to designs for commercial structures) is to achieve a harmonious balance with the building site, be it desert or prairie. Spring Green, a structure Wright designed that now serves as Taliesin's visitor's center is formed like a bridge or a dock on the Wisconsin River; the roofline of Taliesin West follows the Arizona hills, stepping in downward paths toward desert pools that are almost liquid in appearance.

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." —From "Dictionary of Architecture and Construction"

Famous Examples of Wright's Organic Architecture

The name "Taliesin" is a nod to Wright's Welsh ancestry. While the Druid Taliesin appears in Arturian legend as a member of King Arthur's Round Table, according to Wright, in the Welsh language, Taliesin means "shining brow." Taliesin was so named because it's built like a brow on the edge of the hill, not on top of the hill itself.

"I believe you should never build on top of anything directly," Wright explained. "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... Taliesin is a brow like that."

Both Taliesin properties are organic because their designs adapt to the environment. Horizontal lines mimic the horizontal range of hills and shorelines. The sloping rooflines mimic the slope of the land.

Fallingwater, a private home nestled on top of a hillside stream in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, is arguably Wright's best-known creation and the one most closely identified with the organic movement. By employing modern steel and glass materials in its cantilevered construction, Wright gave Fallingwater the appearance of smooth concrete stones skipping along the Bear Run waterfalls.

Six miles south of Fallingwater, Kentuck Knob is another example of Wright's commitment to fusing natural and manmade elements in the creation of his designs. Close-set to the ground, the roof of the modular one-story octagonal home appears almost as if it's rising out of the hillside, a natural part of the forest floor, while the native sandstone and tidewater red cypress from which the structure is built blend seamlessly into the surrounding landscape. 

Modernist Approaches to Organic Design

In the last half of the 20th century, Modernist architects took the concept of organic architecture to new heights. By using new forms of concrete and cantilever trusses, designers were able to create swooping arches without visible beams or pillars. Modern organic buildings are neither linear or rigidly geometric. Instead, their characteristic wavy lines and curved shapes suggest natural forms.

While also imbued with a sense of surrealism, Parque Güell and many other works by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí are considered organic. Other 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 from Finnish architect Eero Saarinen.

While embracing some past concepts of the organic movement, the modernist approach is less concerned with integrating architecture within the surrounding environment. The World Trade Center Transportation Hub by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava built at Ground Zero on the site of the original Twin Towers has been cited by some as a modernist approach to organic architecture. According to a 2017 story in Architectural Digest, "The white-winged Oculus is an organic form in the center of a new complex of towers, and memorial pools, at the sites of the two that fell in 2001."

Frank Lloyd Wright Quotes on Organic Design

"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."
"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..."
—From "An Organic Architecture"

Sources

  • Figueroa, Jósean. "The Philosophy of Organic Architecture." CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014
  • Hess, Alan (text); Weintraub, Alan (photography); "Organic Architecture: The Other Modernism." Gibbs-Smith, 2006
  • Pearson, David. "New Organic Architecture: The Breaking Wave," pp. 21, 41. University of California Press, 2001
  • Wright, Frank Lloyd. "The Future of Architecture." New American Library, Horizon Press, 1953
  • "Dictionary of Architecture and Construction" edited by Cyril M. Harris, pp. 340-341. McGraw-Hill, 1975
  • Fazzare, Elizabeth. "Santiago Calatrava Explains How He Designed the Oculus For Future Generations" in Architectural Digest (online), October 24, 2017