Transcendentalist philosophy, a XIX century school of thought, posits that humans and nature are equal forces of the Earth, meant to coexist in harmony. Organic Architecture, born of the drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright, seeks to embody such principles, aiming for a thriving, sustainable ecosystem of the natural and built environment.
The space must flow
Although musings over the blending of man-made housing and surrounding landscape had long before existed, it is only in the cryptic notes left behind by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright that we first see coined the term “Organic 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…Frank Lloyd Wright
With these words, Wright committed to defining – and systematically incorporating in his style – the features of a new brand of architecture, building upon the lessons of his mentor, Louis Sullivan.
Taking after his teacher’s tenet of “form following function”, Wright decided to take this idea a step forward, believing that both elements were meant to be not just interconnected, but equally fundamental in a project as well. Thus, the new principle, upon which organic architecture rests, was born: “Form and function are one”.
This new expression could be distinguished from more traditional styles through a number of characteristics: the most important, undoubtedly, the core concept that buildings are to be likened to living organisms, and much like them, have to grow from within the environment and adapt to it; this resulted in structures that appeared “molded” from the same matrix as the surrounding environment, and colored with soft, fields and woodland-themed palettes.
However, one should not confuse organic architecture for a mere aesthetic, an architecture in an organic shape. Organic architecture was born as a critical stance on traditional functionalism as well (such as the one pioneered by Le Corbusier): while it does embrace some of its core structural concepts (the free plan, the use of modern materials, and concrete…), it wholly rejects its ideological basis, the glorification of machinery and the use of standardization as a mean of paving for the future. Simplicity and free flow of space are key to construction, rooms are replaced by open spaces, doors and furnishings take on practical and aesthetic functions alike; overall, each building’s style is meant to suit the personality of its associated owner – defying standardization by giving each design its own unique charm.
Wright thus sought independence from classicist constraints, preferring a flexible, free interpretation-based approach to better reach harmony in the final project. This, first and foremost, can be easily recognized in Wright’s plans for prairie houses, shaped by its future inhabitants and its surroundings alike, striving for an equilibrium between artificial and natural in its highest form.
Although it always escaped any precise definition, [organic architecture] seems to have eventually meant for Wright the economic creation of built form and space in accordance with the latest principles of nature as these may be revealed through the application of the reinforced-concrete constructionKenneth Frampton, journalist and critic
While Wright, as its originator, is the most well-remembered author of Organic Architecture, he was far from the only one, even among his peers: similar or complementary views to his own had already begun spreading, in U.S. and Europe alike, positing how to better emulate and honor nature through architecture.
Key names included Louis Sullivan, Claude Bragdon, Eugene Tsui, and Paul Laffoley in the U.S., whereas in Europe we could count Hugo Häring, Hans Scharon, and Rudolf Steiner amidst its ranks. Others, like Wright’s former collaborators Rudolf Schindler (1887-1953) and Richard Neutra (1892-1970), the author of the well-known Lovell Health House in Los Angeles (1927), would trace their own path from Wright’s teachings, culminating with the creation of the “bio-realism” theory; in Italy, historian and critic Bruno Zevi would greatly contribute to spreading Wright’s ideas throughout all of Europe.
However, the most relevant of these figures is undoubtedly Alvar Aalto, a Finnish architect, and designer, already well known for his individualist and genre-breaking approach to the subject. In terms of context, Aalto’s environment was much different from Wright’s, as Finland, by 1917, had begun to make itself independent from Russian control; as such, Aalto’s interest towards the habitat, its more or less artificial nature, stemmed in part from a desire to reaffirm Finnish/Scandinavian traditions and identities (compared to Wright’s approach of “refunding his native country”).
Aalto was even more staunchly opposed to industrial mechanization than Wright often preferring the usage of traditional materials (woodwork, bricks…) over modern ones, and had a tendency to freely innovate and mutate the flow of his project’s parameters, often taking into account elements that would be overlooked by a Functionalist methodology: solar light and heat, ventilation, acoustics, the identity links between house and its occupants… Projects such as the Viipuri Library (1927-1935) or the Paimio Sanatorium (1927-1934) are a testament to such care.
As such, Wright and Aalto, each representing a side of the world, are considered the initiators of this new conception of architecture, contributing to a free-flowing exchange of ideas and trends between the Old and New world.
Between nature and man
Architect and planner David Pearson formulated a list of rules meant to encapsulate the rules of organic architecture, known as “Gaia Charter”:
Let the design:
be inspired by nature and be sustainable, healthy, conserving, and diverse.
unfold, like an organism, from the seed within.
exist in the “continuous present” and “begin again and again”.
follow the flows and be flexible and adaptable
satisfy social, physical, and spiritual needs.
“grow out of the site” and be unique.
celebrate the spirit of youth, play, and surprise.
express the rhythm of music and the power of dance.The Gaia Charter
Organic architecture and its features were first born of Wright’s all-inclusive, revolutionary design process. Materials, motifs, and spacial principles repeat themselves throughout the whole building, mimicking the patterns and components of natural surroundings; organic architecture, as such, refers not only to the relationship between building and environment, but spacial design and planning as well, designing the whole project as a single, unified organism of simple geometries; moods and themes are integrated into its visual languages, and every building as such receives a unique, highly personal imprint from its creator.
As a whole, organic architecture concerns the supervision of the entire design process of a building, in its every component: from windows to floors, from furniture to spatial planning, relating every element to each other, reflecting the symbiotic order of nature – the best example being Fallingwater house.
Over time, the interpretations of organic architecture – thanks to the growing influx of creative talent – have become more and more varied: some consider its core to be the connection between interior and exterior space, others locate it in planning abstract plant geometries, or in juxtaposing artificial forms within a natural environment, or even solely Wright’s vision of interpenetrating contrasts and volumes.
Today, organic architecture still thrives, reshaped by the changes of the new world: according to Wright’s own philosophy, it is a means to answer the ongoing challenges of change, social, technological, and conceptual; as the world evolves, so does organic architecture, removing the staticity that could otherwise make it obsolete. As such, buildings considered “organic” range on a large and diverse spectrum, incorporating themes and tenets from other ideologies as well, such as life as an informatics and cybernetic construct (as dictated by futurism), or embracing the bizarre, otherworldly shapes of Post Modern and deconstructivist styles.
To this day, many hope that organic architecture may be a sustainable and viable answer to the ever-increasing urbanization, gentrification, and deforestation characterizing modern cities, reconciling our growing needs with our world’s own.
A jungle of buildings
Spanning more than a century and having as one of its core precepts the need to adapt its style to the changes of time, it’s no surprise that the catalog of Organic Architecture is as vast as it is varied.
Quite possibly the most beloved, especially by its creator, example, and synthesis of Organic Architecture’s principles, Fallingwater House is Frank Lloyd’s Wright’s flagship creation. Wright designed Fallingwater for the Kaufmann family, in rural Pennsylvania, placing it, over a typical large site, on a waterfall with a creek, adding to the already suggestive environment a soothing sound of rushing water.
The horizontal striations of stone masonry with cantilevers of colored beige concrete blend with native rock outcroppings and the woodland environment.
Moving away from its birthplace, Organic Architecture spread in the East as well, taking root in India via the Lotus Temple. Built to evoke the homonymous flower, the edifice is considered a modern architectural wonder, born of Iranian-Canadian architect Fariborz Sahba’s designs. In accordance with the architectural principles stated by Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the religion, the building is a nine-sided circular shape made up of 27 free-standing marble-clad ‘petals’ arranged in clusters of three.
This Bahá’í House of Worship (a holy place where every denomination is invited to practice its worship), building acts as a beacon of hope and harmony, to its maker’s eyes:
Out of the murky waters of our collective history of ignorance and violence, mankind will arise to inhabit a new age of peace and universal brotherhood.Fariborz Sahba, the temple’s creator.
Moving back to Europe, Organic Architecture could not be absent from Antoni Gaudì’s body of work. The extravagant and strikingly iconic Catalan architect-artist, maker of bizarre, almost oniric buildings, experimented with the subject through Casa Mila (“Mila” is short for “milagro”, meaning “miracle” in Spanish), known also as “La Pedrera” (“The Stone Quarry”). Its ondulated, somewhat drooping edges bring to mind warm, melting wax, or gentle sea waves; its odd proportions were made in part by referencing natural, “holy” geometries. The building receives the special mention of being among the oldest in the genre, dating back to 1912.
Combined with its roof, filled with chimneys, skylights, fans, and staircases, all of which stand as sculptures on their own, Casa Mila appears as if out of a dream world, with Gaudi as its Sandman.
Moving back into modern times, one of Austria’s most oddly striking buildings is 2003’s Kunsthaus Graz, located in the eponymous city of Graz. Fashioned after a giant, otherworldly slug slithering through the classical buildings, the Graz Art Museum is likely is one of the boldest and best examples of organic architecture anywhere. Nicknamed “the friendly alien” due to its “skin” of iridescent blue acrylic panels, the building aims to be both subversive and integrated within the cityscape, by striking a dramatic contrast with the surrounding baroque roofs of its ‘host city’ with its red clay roofing tiles, and at the same time integrating the façade of an 1847 iron house.
Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/marc_smith/1340840125
The “Gherkin” (in reality, 30 St Mary Axe) is not only one of London’s most peculiar architectural pieces but one of the best examples of modern Organic style managing to stay relevant. Nominated since its 2003 construction as “best-loved tall building” of London, this pickle shaped building (likened to an egg or stalagmite as well, enforcing its connection to the natural world) isn’t a mere exercise in aesthetic; true to its architecture’s harmony-oriented roots, the Gherkin’s peculiar shape helps it conserve energy, reduce wind resistance and thus increase its sustainability.