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The History of Organic Architecture, From Past to Present

Organic architecture is a philosophy of architecture that promotes harmony between human habitation and the natural world. This is achieved through design approaches that aim to be sympathetic and well-integrated with a site. There is a long history of this practice, however, that is perhaps less acknowledged that some contemporary examples. 

The term “organic architecture” was coined by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), though never well-articulated by his cryptic style of writing:

“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…”

Organic architecture is also translated into the all-inclusive nature of Wright’s design process. Materials, motifs, and basic ordering principles continue to repeat themselves throughout the building as a whole. The idea of organic architecture refers not only to the buildings’ literal relationship to the natural surroundings, but how the buildings’ design is carefully thought about as if it were a unified organism. Geometries throughout Wright’s buildings build a central mood and theme.

Essentially organic architecture is also the literal design of every element of a building: From the windows to the floors, to the individual chairs intended to fill the space. Everything relates to one another, reflecting the symbiotic ordering systems of nature. Today, many views exist on the nature and qualities of organic architecture. For some, it is an architecture rooted in nature’s forms and principles; for others, the focus is on the connection from interior to exterior and the use of abstracted plant geometries. Some see it in the use of natural materials such as unadorned wood and stone, juxtaposed with modern materials like concrete. Others see it in Wright’s use of interpenetrating volumes and contrasts—light and dark, compressing and releasing—to take the occupant of a building on a journey as if through nature. All of these interpretations have a basis in Wright’s words, and of course in his works, and so organic architecture is at once all of these things.

 

The Definition of Organic Architecture 

Yet, there is an underlying idea, a theory of organic architecture, that knits these expressions of organicity together. It is true that one can no more synthesize Wright’s idea of organic architecture in a short essay than the architect himself could synthesize the idea over the course of a long career. Nonetheless, there is much that we can learn about the underlying concept of organicity in Wright’s work when we view it through the contemporary lens: sustainable design. Sustainability is, in fact, the clear import of Wright’s theory of organic architecture, and precisely the reason why his work has become ever more relevant, urgently so, in our time. “Ecosystem” is the critical term in this formulation; coined in 1935 from two Greek roots (oikos, meaning home, and systema, meaning “combined in a whole”) by British botanist Arthur Tansley to mean “a particular category of physical systems, consisting of organisms and inorganic components in a relatively stable equilibrium, open and of various sizes and kinds.” As the concept of ecosystems became generally accepted, it is not surprising that the term has been applied beyond the universe of interactions among plants, animals, and the surrounding environment, to refer to any complex network of interdependent systems. We now speak of information ecosystems, economic ecosystems, social ecosystems, and other similar concepts; even among the varied public and private Frank Lloyd Wright organizations and owners, we sometimes refer to the “Wright ecosystem” to represent our interdependence.

In fact, it is the notion of interdependence that is central to every ecosystem, because within an ecosystem all components survive and thrive only because every component survives and thrives. The dominance of any single component capable of monopolizing resources needed by others spells the death of any ecosystem. It is for this reason that nature abhors monocultures—the dominance of a single species consuming all available resources to the detriments of any competitor species. This quality of interdependence results in specialization through natural selection, and biodiversity emerging from the most hostile environments with the fewest nurturing resources.

Long before the coinage of the word ecosystem, however, botanists, farmers, and others were well aware of the interdependency of living things in relation to their environments. Food chains had been studied in the Middle East beginning in the ninth century, and companion planting—such as the Native American “three sisters” technique of planting squash, beans, and corn together—had been in use for centuries. The selection of plants requiring less sun to accompany shade trees and dense shrubs had long been employed in the design of European gardens. And farmers since as early as 6000 BCE were well aware of the need to diversify and rotate crops to restore vitality to soil, as well as the desirability of incorporating livestock into their fields to process nutrients and make them available to crops during the planting season—today practiced as biodynamic agriculture.

Other modernist architects in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere held complementarily and often competing views of how architecture could best emulate nature. Key figures in the U.S. included Louis Sullivan, Claude Bragdon, Eugene Tsui and Paul Laffoley while among European modernists Hugo Häring, Hans Scharoun, and Rudolf Steiner stand out. Following World War II, organic architecture often reflected cybernetic and informatic models of life, as is reflected in the later work of futurist architect Buckminster Fuller.

Architect and planner David Pearson proposed a list of rules towards the design of organic architecture. These rules are known as the Gaia Charter for organic architecture and design. It reads:

“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.”

A well-known example of organic architecture is Fallingwater, the residence Wright designed for the Kaufmann family in rural Pennsylvania. Wright had many choices to locate a home on this large site but chose to place the home directly over the waterfall and creek creating a close, yet noisy dialog with the rushing water and the steep site. The horizontal striations of stone masonry with daring cantilevers of colored beige concrete blend with native rock outcroppings and the wooded environment. In postwar Europe, the Hungarian Imre Makovecz was one of the most prominent proponents of organic architecture.

There are contemporary creations of organic architecture. The definition of ‘organic’ has dramatically changed during recent times. Avoiding materials of construction that require more embodied energy to build and sustain it, when the building blends naturally and sits seamlessly to its surroundings, reflecting cultural continuity, it is ‘organic’ and is idealistic. Examples include leaving natural material, such as bedrock, exposed and unsculptured, such as the underground Rådhuset metro station in Stockholm, which appears to occupy a natural cave system.

The History of Organic Architecture 

While this all may make it seem that Organic Architecture was just invented in the 20th century, it has in fact been a part of building practices for a long long time. The term indeed originated with Frank Lloyd Wright, but Indigenous peoples have been building Organic structures since the beginning. 

The traditional or vernacular architecture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia varied to meet the lifestyle, social organisation, family size, cultural and climatic needs and resources available to each community. The types of forms varied from dome frameworks made of cane through spinifex-clad arc-shaped structures, to tripod and triangular shelters and elongated, egg-shaped, stone-based structures with a timber frame to pole and platform constructions. Annual base camp structures, whether dome houses in the rainforests of Queensland and Tasmania or stone-based houses in south-eastern Australia, were often designed for use over many years by the same family groups.

The original Indigenous people of Canada developed complex building traditions thousands of years before the arrival of the first Europeans. Canada contained five broad cultural regions, defined by common climatic, geographical and ecological characteristics. Each region gave rise to distinctive building forms which reflected these conditions, as well as the available building materials, means of livelihood, and social and spiritual values of the resident peoples. In the far north, where wood was scarce and solid shelter essential for survival, several unique and innovative architectural styles were developed. One of the most famous is the igloo, a domed structure made of snow, which was quite warm. The curved form made from bricks of ice is adaptive to its environment, energy efficient, and integrated with the natural landscape. It is also beautiful, ingeniously constructed, and of a curved style that has become more and more popular these days. 

Pueblo-style architecture imitates the appearance of traditional Pueblo adobe construction, though other materials such as brick or concrete are often substituted. If adobe is not used, rounded corners, irregular parapets, and thick, battered walls are used to simulate it. Walls are usually stuccoed and painted in earth tones. Multistory buildings usually employ stepped massing similar to that seen at Taos Pueblo. Roofs are always flat.

 

All of these styles use the principles of organic architecture, as well as stylistic innovations that are beautiful and integrated with their respective environments. It’s important to recognize the innovations and ideas that have been gifted to us by Indigenous peoples over centuries, while generally white male architects with international acclaim gain all of the merit for these concepts. 

 

10 Most Iconic Organic Architecture Buildings

1.Falling Water

Fallingwater is Wright’s crowning achievement in organic architecture and the American Institute of Architects’ “best all-time work of American architecture.” Its owners, Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann, were a prominent Pittsburgh couple, reputed for their distinctive sense of style and taste.

In Fallingwater, Wright anchored a series of reinforced concrete “trays” to the natural rock. Cantilevered terraces of local sandstone blend harmoniously with the rock formations, appearing to float above the stream below. The first floor entry, living room and dining room merge to create one continuous space, while a hatch door in the living room opens to a suspended stairway that descends to the stream below. Glass walls further open the rooms to the surrounding landscape. In 1938, Wright designed additional guest quarters set into the hillside directly above the main house and linked by a covered walkway. Fallingwater remained the family’s beloved weekend home for 26 years. In 1963 the Kaufmanns donated the property to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, together with 1,543 acres of surrounding land. It opened its door as a museum in 1964 and has since hosted more than five million visitors.

 

2.Casa Mila 

Organic architecture is hardly a new trend, even allowing for shelters and structures constructed in the pre-industrial age. If only “modern” architecture is considered, the Casa Milà in Barcelona, Spain, would have to be given props for its daring originality. Designed by the aforementioned Antoni Gaudí, the Casa Milà was built between 1906 and 1912 with a comprehensive renovation being undertaken in the 1980s.

Casa Milà  popularly known as La Pedrera or “The stone quarry”, a reference to its unconventional rough-hewn appearance, is a Modernista building in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. It was the last private residence designed by architect Antoni Gaudí. The building did not respect any rules of conventional style, for which Gaudí received much criticism. To begin with, the name “La Pedrera” is in fact a nickname assigned by the citizens who disapproved of its unusualness

The building was commissioned in 1906 by Pere Milà  and his wife Roser Segimon. At the time, it was controversial because of its undulating stone facade, twisting wrought iron balconies and designed by Josep Maria Jujol. Several structural innovations include a self-supporting stone façade, and a free-plan floor, underground garage and the spectacular terrace on the roof. In 1984, it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Since 2013 it has been the headquarters of the Fundació Catalunya La Pedrera which manages the visit to the building, exhibitions and other cultural and educative activities at Casa Milà. 

 

3. Palais Bulles

Palais Bulles (“Bubble Palace”) is a large house in Théoule-sur-Mer, near Cannes, France, that was designed by the Hungarian architect Antti Lovag. It was built for the French industrialist Pierre Bernard, and later bought by the fashion designer Pierre Cardin as a holiday home.  The 13,000-square-foot house was built between 1975 and 1989 for Pierre Bernard, a French industrialist. The architect Antti Lovag hated straight lines as “an aggression against nature” and designed the house as a “form of play—spontaneous, joyful, full of surprise”.

Pierre Cardin bought the house after Bernard’s death in 1991. While Bernard never actually lived in the building, he said “(t)his palace has become my own bit of paradise. Its cellular forms have long reflected the outward manifestations of the image of my creations. It is a museum where I exhibit the works of contemporary designers and artists”. In 2016, a 5-year renovation by the French architect Odile Decq was completed.  In March 2017, it was listed for sale with an asking price of €350 million but did not find a buyer. It could be rented to groups for $33,200 a day.

Constructed over 14 years and completed in 1989, the curvaceous compound was the magnum opus of avant-garde Hungarian architect Antti Lovag, who designed the home for one of his biggest patrons, French industrialist Pierre Bernard. Lovag’s interest in spherical architecture stemmed from his belief that straight lines are an “aggression against nature” and that curves were better suited to the mobility of man.

 

4. Sharma Springs

Sharma Springs is currently the tallest bamboo structure in Bali. This bamboo villa is not only an architectural wonder, but also a work of art. As the latest addition to the master-planned community Green Village, it has been featured on CBS This Morning and the front page of New York magazine. This bamboo property stands 6 storeys tall and is nestled along the edge of the Ayung River valley. It features 4 bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms, a spacious living room, a private plunge pool, and a guest house. The included bamboo furniture showcases a combination of different shapes and patterns that complements the décor. Built and furnished with sustainable bamboo, this artisanal Bali villa has its own unique flair. Bamboo is one of the world’s most sustainable and versatile building materials with tensile strength equivalent to steel.

Green Village is a living community of globally connected individuals who care about  nature, originally visioned and developed by John Hardy. Located by the terraced slopes of Ayung River in Bali, the compound hosts 12 unique and sustainable bamboo houses and villas, hand-constructed by the IBUKU architectural team. The master-planned compound has been designed to accommodate a sustainable and comfortable lifestyle; with all the luxury Balinese nature has to offer. Sharma Springs is part of this community and space.

 

5. Wilkinson Residence

Robert Harvey Oshatz is the brains behind the Wilkinson Residence, which combines flowing lines to symbolize the flow of music with the natural landscape. Don’t expect to see the usual flat ceilings and vertical walls as the Wilkinson Residence is all about blending into the natural environment to give the feeling of living in a tree house. Oshatz accomplished this blending by bringing the main part of the house within a tree canopy. The Wilkinson House by Robert Oshatz, completed in 2004, is an example of modern architecture at peace with its site. The house occupies a wooded Pacific Northwest site, with a fast sloping grade that allows the main level of the house to sit amongst the tree canopy. Walls made of glass let abundant natural lighting through into the interior spaces and provide views to the surrounding canopy. The openness created by the glass walls satisfying the resident’s desire to see and hear the surrounding bird life and let the home feel like a part of the surrounding landscape.

The house has a spacious, open plan, with a variety of built in furnishings, countertops, and cabinets. The main living space consists of a single open space that includes a sitting area, kitchen and dining area, and a fireplace nook. The space then opens out onto a large deck that cantilevers out amongst the trees. The house has a total of 393 square meters of floor space, 234 square meters of which are on the main floor, and 159 square meters on the lower level; which consist of three full bedrooms and two and a half baths. Natural materials provide a variety of colors and textures to create a warm interior environment. Materials used include cedar shingles, wood trim, gypsum board, carpet, slate tile, granite tile, and copper. The space of the house seems to flow effortlessly between inside and out by continuing the materials of the interior through the glass walls and out to the exterior. Curves add tranquility to the home; a series of curved, glue laminated beams support the high ceiling overhead, cedar shingles describe a series of organic curves, and a glass enclosed meditation room adjacent to the main space is a circle in section.Oshatz left no detail untouched; he provided for natural ventilation, and environmentally friendly gas-fired hot water radiant floor heating. As the resident is a lover of music, Oshatz carefully controlled the acoustics of the interior space, and designed the volumes of the house to resonate with the flow of music.

The exterior of the house consists of a series of horizontal layers featuring copper, cedar shingles, and a copper metal roof. The entrance walkway passes through a small Japanese garden.

 

6. Kunsthaus Graz

Looking like some kind of giant space slug trying to hide among the traditional buildings of Graz, Austria, the Kunsthaus Graz or Graz Art Museum, as it’s also known, is one of the boldest and best examples of organic architecture anywhere – at least on this planet. Its distinctive otherworldly form and ‘skin’ of made of iridescent blue acrylic panels has earned the building its nickname, ‘the friendly alien’. In both form and material, the building is designed to strike a dramatic contrast with the surrounding baroque roofs of its ‘host city’ with its red clay roofing tiles; however, it also integrates the façade of an 1847 iron house.

Kunsthaus Graz was designed by Colin Fournier and Sir Peter Cook. According to The Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London, the Kunsthaus’ design sought to be deliberately provocative, innovate museum design by offering a less “institutional” approach to organising exhibition spaces and employs new materials and manufacturing techniques. The building is an example of blob architecture, and has a skin made of iridescent blue acrylic panels that also double as photovoltaic panels. Owing to its shape contrasting with its surroundings. 

 

7. London Aquatics Centre

Hadid is surely one of the modern masters of organic architecture. In truth, we could have chosen many of Hadid’s buildings, such as the magnificent Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, but in the end the unique relationship between concrete and water in her Aquatics Centre, designed for the London 2012 Olympics, swung it.The architect describes the building’s design as ‘a concept inspired by the fluid geometry of water in motion, creating spaces and a surrounding environment in sympathy with the river landscape of the Olympic Park’. An undulating roof sweeps up from the ground as a wave, enclosing the pools of the Centre with its unifying gesture. The London Aquatics Centre is designed to have the flexibility to accommodate the size and capacity of the London 2012 Olympic Games whilst also providing the optimum size and capacity for use in Legacy mode after the 2012 Games. 

The pool hall is expressed above the podium level by a large roof which arches along the same axis as the pools.Its form is generated by the sight lines for the spectators during the Olympic mode.Double-curvature geometry has been used to create a structure of parabolic arches that define its form. The roof undulates to differentiate the volumes of the competition and diving pools, and extends beyond the pool hall envelope to cover the external areas of the podium and entrance on the bridge.

 

8. The Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé

Despite its building height restrictions, Paris actually has pretty good form when it comes to allowing bold architectural statements that mix traditional and modern architecture – The Louvre Pyramid, for example.

Carrying on this tradition is architect Renzo Piano’s unorthodox building designed to house the Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé, which also happens to be one of the best recent examples of organic architecture.Described by Renzo Piano’s firm as an ‘organic creature’, the slug shaped new building rises up cheekily above the traditional 19th century neoclassical facade which contains its entrance, so that it can be seen (but only just), from the street, before sloping down into the a former courtyard space behind. According to Renzo Piano building Workshop, ‘The peculiar design of this building is determined by the site’s major limits and requirements… While respecting the distances with the surrounding buildings, the building improves the neighbour’s access to natural light and air.’

 

9. Shell by ARTechnic architects

A large shell shaped structure finds itself in the middle of the woods. It is hard to determine what exactly the structure is, and unlike the surrounding caves and rocks, it clearly is not a part of nature – nor is it a ruin. A frame, a shape, made at a completely different place for a completely different purpose. Within this shell shaped structure will one find floors constructed, wall separating spaces, and rooms furnished. The scenery conjures a SF film-like image, in which locals inhabit over an abandoned spacecraft. With time, trees start to grow encircling the spacecraft, harmonizing it into the landscape.

This holiday villa in Karuizawa, Japan, could well owe something to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater: both buildings fit perfectly into their respective natural surroundings, while also echoing nature in their design. As its name suggests, the villa, which is set in woodland, is reminiscent of a shell. According to the architects, ARTechnic: ‘being in sync with nature isn’t about yielding to nature – it’s about coexistence. The existence of the structure depends on its power to endure nature. By isolating living space from the wilderness, and upgrading its quality as a shelter, the house will be protected from nature and will provide a comfortable environment. With this, the house will be taken care of and used frequently and continuously.’ The regions’ low temperatures and high humidity level makes for a harsh climate. As a result, many houses that take on traditional structures are decaying. Is it in sync with nature? Perhaps. But the whole idea of comfort seems to be put into question. Consequently, large numbers of villas have not been in use for many years bringing them down to further dilapidation. Despite the general avoidance of concrete material in the region, its usage and the lifting structure have helped the villa protect itself from the humidity.

 

10. Lotus Temple 

Shaped like a giant lotus flower, this modern architectural wonder was designed by Iranian-Canadian architect Fariborz Sahba. It is a Bahá’í House of Worship, meaning worshipers of all denominations are welcomed. According to the architect, the Lotus flower represented by the form of the building represents that idea that ‘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’. 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.

All Baháʼí Houses of Worship, including the Lotus Temple, share certain architectural elements, some of which are specified by Baháʼí scripture. ʻAbdu’l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the religion, stipulated that an essential architectural character of a House of Worship is a nine-sided circular shape. While all current Baháʼí Houses of Worship have a dome, this is not regarded as an essential part of their architecture. The surface of the House of Worship is made of white marble from Penteli mountain in Greece, the same marble used in the construction of many ancient monuments (including the Parthenon) and other Baháʼí buildings. 

 

 

Organic architecture is more than an aesthetic category. Often, it gets reduced to a building having curving lines. While this is certainly an aspect of it, it’s important to understand the historical context that has given rise to it, and the philosophy and ethics behind the modality. 

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