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legacy: essay

Frank Lloyd Wright and the Principles of Organic Architecture
By Kimberly Elman

“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

Frank Lloyd Wright introduced the word ‘organic’ into his philosophy of architecture as early as 1908. It was an extension of the teachings of his mentor Louis Sullivan whose slogan “form follows function” became the mantra of modern architecture. Wright changed this phrase to “form and function are one,” using nature as the best example of this integration.

Although the word ‘organic’ in common usage refers to something which has the characteristics of animals or plants, Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture takes on a new meaning. It is not a style of imitation, because he did not claim to be building forms which were representative of nature. Instead, organic architecture is a reinterpretation of nature’s principles as they had been filtered through the intelligent minds of men and women who could then build forms which are more natural than nature itself.

Organic architecture involves a respect for the properties of the materials—you don’t twist steel into a flower—and a respect for the harmonious relationship between the form/design and the function of the building (for example, Wright rejected the idea of making a bank look like a Greek temple). Organic architecture is also an attempt to integrate the spaces into a coherent whole: a marriage between the site and the structure and a union between the context and the structure.

Throughout his 70 year career, Frank Lloyd Wright published articles, gave lectures, and wrote many books. The philosophy of organic architecture was present consistently in his body of work and the scope of its meaning mirrored the development his architecture. The core of this ideology was always the belief that architecture has an inherent relationship with both its site and its time.

When asked in 1939 if there was a way to control a client’s potentially bad taste in selecting housing designs for his Broadacre City project, Wright replied, “Even if he wanted bad ones he could find only good ones because in an organic architecture, that is to say an architecture based upon organic ideals, bad design would be unthinkable.” In this way, the question of style was not important to Frank Lloyd Wright. A building was a product of its place and its time, intimately connected to a particular moment and site—never the result of an imposed style.

In 1957, two years before his death, Frank Lloyd Wright published the book, A Testament, which was a philosophical summation of his architectural career. In an essay entitled “The New Architecture: Principles”, he put forth nine principles of architecture that reflected the development of his organic philosophy. The principles addressed ideas about the relationship of the human scale to the landscape, the use of new materials like glass and steel to achieve more spatial architecture, and the development of a building’s architectural “character,” which was his answer to the notion of style.