What is Organic Architecture and what is its importance, not just to each one of us as individuals, but also to society as a whole? Does it simply make us think green and sustainability? Certainly this is of great importance, due to the impact that buildings have on the environment. Buildings consume 40% of the world’s energy and materials. Perhaps it becomes important to look toward companies such as Tesla, who have created solar paneled roofing, for example, to help us to strive to regenerate nature, rather than simply depleting it, and to take an active role in responsibility. But materials alone will not bring us to full awareness. For that we must look deeper. As our surroundings come back to life, we become more alive. As a result, in a well-designed ‘organic building’ we can actually feel better, freer, and calmer. A major contributor to this feeling is not just the open concept and lack of clutter in these designs, but the allowance for as much natural light as possible. Exposure to sunlight stimulates the brain to release serotonin. This hormone is associated with boosting mood and helping a person feel calm, and focused. The sun is also responsible for re-energizing our bodies as it increases the oxygen content in our blood, and for overall health by lowering blood pressure, improving bone health, and brain function. Also there is a central mood and theme to ‘organically’ designed buildings, a flow in their flexibility and adaptability, and as a result we can feel the same positive energy. Nature and building become harmonious with society. I agree with the words of the great philosopher and architect, Rudolf Steiner, who said, “Man can only experience true harmony of soul where what his soul knows to be its most valuable thoughts, feelings and impulses are mirrored for his senses in the forms, it follows that well-designed buildings can exert a healing and spiritually supportive effect on both individuals and society.” (the breaking wave, pg. 40) As early as 1908, Frank Lloyd Wright had coined the phrase ‘Organic Architecture’ This man with such a forward vision, took his mentor, Louis Sullivan’s premise of ‘form follows function (where outward appearances should resemble inner purposes) further to the concept that ‘form and function are one’. Wright’s belief was that the concept of the building would emerge naturally out of the site. A building would be designed with feeling to generate feeling; it would therefore not be built on the land but as part of nature itself. His philosophy of design, rather than an architectural style, allowed for structures to be created and built, in harmony with both humanity and the environment. This harmony creates a freedom of spirit. Wright himself said, “How soon will ‘we the people’ awake to the fact that the philosophy of natural and intrinsic building we are here calling organic is at one with our freedom—“ (Frank Lloyd Wright’s Testament pg. 320) to understand his concepts one only has to look at his work. Two of his most famous, within and outside the architectural world is Fallingwater and the Guggenheim. Wright designed and built his masterpiece ‘Fallingwater’ between 1936 and 1939 when he was 70+ years of age.
<–Fallingwater. 1939, Frank Lloyd Wright
Wright felt that the closer man associated himself with nature, the greater his personal, spiritual and even physical well-being could grow and expand as a direct result of this association. The home was built as a weekend house and summer retreat for the Kaufmann family, who owned the large department store conglomerate and were nature enthusiasts. Their son also studied with Wright. The Kaufmann’s were originally disappointed to find that in the design the 30’ waterfall was actually to be part of the house rather than facing it. Wright said that the waterfall should be part of their everyday life. It was not to be gazed upon but it should live with them. Wright was strongly influenced by the Japanese philosophy of the existence of harmony between man and nature and that architecture that conforms to nature would conform to what is basic in people. The building was to be seen as if it had grown out of the ground and simply sitting in the light. Fallingwater took shape in is mind and was built to be an accompaniment to the music of the stream and the sound of the waterfall. Like the sound of crashing sea waves, the waterfall would have a healing effect on mind and body as it would induce a deep state of relaxation. There would be a connection beyond oneself in this environment.
There is a vast openness to the sitting areas inside the home, and of course many windows to welcome natural light. This allows for an unchecked flow from inside to outside. Some windows are designed so that the corners open to allow fresh air from outside to flow freely inside, or corner turning windows are used which cause the corners to completely vanish.
Window, no corner.
The cantilevered terraces and balconies reach out as arms to embrace nature itself and even the paint that was used was eco-friendly and minimalistic in the choice of only two colours; light ochre to blend with nature and Wright’s signature colour of Cherokee red (which he said was the colour of creation) that he used as contrast on the metal. In 1966 Fallingwater was deemed a National Historic Landmark.
Though Wright was commissioned to design his most iconic building, the Guggenheim Museum in 1946, for Solomon Guggenheim’s art collection, construction did not commence until 1956 and the building did not open to the public until October 1959, six months after Wright’s death.
<–Guggenheim, 1959. Frank Lloyd Wright.
It was the last major project designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright. Solomon’s desire was for Wright to create a natural and organic relationship between artworks and architecture. Wright said he wanted to make the building and the art as a symphony, unlike anything that had ever existed in the art world, and he did as it provides and uninterrupted contemplation of works of art. The organic curves of the museum, much like a nautilus shell, are in strict contrast to Manhattan’s strict city grid, as they swirl towards the heavens. Wright was once asked if he believed in God. He said yes, but he spells it Nature, and that adjacent to nature was the only place this museum could stand in New York City, and that was in front of a large pond in Central Park. The giant curves create one continuous ramp of floor space on the inside, where each floor flows into another, and allows for interaction and awareness of people on different levels, and a feeling of spatial freedom.
The ramp gives a sense of passing time. You can see where you have been and where you are going. The whole building is about movement through space. In the center is an atrium rising 92’ to an expansive glass dome, which has the symmetry of a spider’s web that allows patrons and art to drink of the same natural light. Wright deemed artificial light as dishonest, also natural light illuminates the art in an indirect way so as not to do damage.
<– Light in the Guggenheim
When you enter this building you are enveloped in the same sense of wonder and awe that you feel when you are tapped into nature. Awe facilitates positive behavior towards others. By creating a reduced sense of self- importance relative to something larger and more powerful a pro-social emotion which creates personal connection is felt. Many working people do not experience this in the drudgery of day-to-day routine. In an awe moment your brain is fixed to that event and not the frantic world of, ‘what’s next.’ It was Wright’s vision to have a unified space and that patrons would rise to the top by elevator and then gently descend while admiring paintings. Much like Fallingwater in the way it was seen to have grown out of the ground, the Guggenheim is sunk from the level of the street and separated by a planter, as though it has sprouted and grown from the bottom of the earth. It is also interesting to note that the original colour of the Guggenheim was to be red, a vibrant colour of nature.
Moving forward it is important to look at a more recent design of an Architect who still embodies much of the same beliefs as Wright and his ‘organic’ building lends to the same sense of well being. The Shell House designed by Kotaro Ide of ARTechnic designs has been compared to Wright’s Guggenheim, and more so to Fallingwater. The Shell House is a holiday villa in Karuizawa Japan it was designed and built in 2008 and as the idea of the Guggenheim came from a nautilus shell so was this building’s design, derived from a conch shell.
Shell House, 2008. Kotaro Ide.–>
All three building use concrete, however in Japan this is what gives the structure the power to withstand not just the humidity of the forest, but also the cold of the region, and to provide a comfortable environment. This also minimizes maintenance by not using traditional wood materials that have proven to decay. Originally villas such as this were simply summer retreats, but due to the new high-speed trains shortening the trip to approximately one hour, they have also become weekend retreats. Since Tokyo is so crowded and fast paced, when people get away to their retreats to relax and commune with nature, they are not wanting to spend precious time on maintenance. It is a Japanese virtue to leave the boundary between human life and nature ambiguous. The Shell House was built to co-exist and be in sync with nature, which some 70 plus years later still follows Wright’s philosophy. The organically shaped Shell House appears to float over the ground like a space ship that has fallen to earth, waiting to be integrated into the landscape. Like Fallingwater there are vast amounts of glass in the design to allow natural sunlight to illuminate the indoors with its healing power, and to welcome nature in with picturesque views. There are also multiple access points to the outdoors so there is never far to wander to be one with the earth. There is a vast openness to the interior living space and great simplicity in the furnishings giving the occupants an immense change from the clutter of city life and a much-needed atmosphere of serenity.
<– Fir Tree, Shell House
The focal point of the site is a large fir tree that is encased by the deck of the villa. Again the way the shape of the house sweeps around the tree is reminiscent of how Wright bent a steel beam at Fallingwater to accommodate a tree as well.
The floor of the home has a red tint, which is in sharp contrast to the oak of the remaining features, as Wright’s Cherokee red was a contrast to the ochre, which matched the underside of the leaves. This red tint as a complimentary colour to the outside surrounding green of nature creates balance of yin and yang. This red tinted wood come from the local cherry trees and it has been a long standing custom for families to have picnics on the ground under the cherry trees at blossom time. Trees and the forests have always been of great importance to the Japanese people. In 1982 a National Health Program was initiated for all citizens to spend more time around trees. This practice in Japan is called ‘forest bathing’, and its benefits are spreading to North America. The Japanese have studied relaxation and meditative times spent around trees and have found there are physical and psychological effects that improve ones health. The trees emit certain oils into the atmosphere and when we breathe this air not only does it benefit our immune system, but it has proven to lower blood pressure, reduce stress and depression and boost energy levels. This again proves that regular contact with nature improves our overall well being.
With these three examples we have seen that truly serious architects, if they want presence, must consult with nature, and that a truly great structure, one that is meant to stand the tests of time, never disregards the environment. The architect must always be captivated by his surroundings, and that co-existing with nature, creating harmony with humanity and the environment has too many benefits for us to ignore. If more buildings were designed ‘organically’ what a happier people we would be, not just on the weekends when we are able to get outdoors, but all week long. If our homes, schools and offices allowed for more natural light, more greenery from plants or plant walls, water walls or water features, we would feel calmer and freer and as a result be more productive. As we find peace within ourselves so would we find peace with others and perhaps as a society, nation or even the world, there would be hope for a better world.
Wright, Frank Lloyd. The Future of Architecture, New York City, Plume, 1953.
Pearson, David. new organic architecture the breaking wave, Oakland, California, University of California Press, 2001.
Wright, Frank Lloyd. A Testament, College Are Assoc. Vol. 18, No. 4 (summer, 1059) pp. 319-329.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.