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Organic Architecture: Definition & Architects

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson takes a closer look at organic architecture to help explain the field and philosophy. Sections in this lesson define the concept, its origins, and key architects involved.

Organic Architecture

You may be familiar with the term 'organic' from the produce aisle of your grocery store. When it comes to architecture, however, 'organic' means something very different.

Organic architecture refers to designing and building structures and spaces that are balanced with their natural surroundings and tailored to the function they serve for their inhabitants. Organically designed structures seem to meld with the landscape or rise from it as if the surrounding spaces gave birth to them.

Bachman House by Bruce Goff
Bachman House

Frank Lloyd Wright

As early as 1908, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, while not the first to use the term 'organic architecture,' began expounding his philosophy of organic architecture. His vision was for architects and designers to abandon the style traditions they learned and embrace designs shaped by the nature of the component materials, in harmony with the surrounding landscape.

He wanted them to envision form and function as a single, interconnected element. Among the many famous structures Wright designed, two of the most celebrated are:

  • Fallingwater - Wright's most famous work, it uses natural stone and an existing mountain stream to blend habitation and nature.
  • Unity Temple - Wright used straight lines and right angles to represent the city landscape while leaving the concrete surface uncovered.

Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright
Falling Waters by Frank Lloyd Wright

Wright's Principles of Organic Architecture

Wright's principles of organic architecture are as follows:

Shelter: Buildings must serve to protect their inhabitants' safety and privacy.

Space: The interior of a building is as much a part of its decor and aesthetic as the furnishings. Spaces should flow naturally from one area to the next without formidable separation, yet no room or space should be completely visible from any angle. The use of alcoves and other elements will create a constant sense of discovery as one moves through the space.

Nature: Inspiration should be drawn from the natural surroundings, not in imitation of them, but as guides to selecting materials, textures, and colors.

Peacefulness: The design should avoid jarring contrasts with the landscape while providing inhabitants with a sense of openness free of clutter and offering a sense of tranquility.

Language: Wright saw the patterns and forms of a building's designs as elements of grammar in the building's language. When put together the design speaks, but each construction much have its own unique voice.

Ornamentation: If ornamentation is to be used on a building, it must not appear as if it was a decorative afterthought. Rather, it must be an integral part of the structure, seamlessly joining with the overall form.

Simplicity: Designs must be clear with a uniform scheme.

Mechanical components and furniture: Whenever possible, furniture should be a built-in part of the space in order to integrate the unity of design. Mechanical components, like light fixtures, appliances, furnaces, and plumbing should be considered as part of the space itself, not overly obvious, but not a disjointed or hidden aspect.

Bruce Goff

Considered a creative genius for his architectural designs, piano compositions, and paintings, Bruce Goff stands out as a leader in the organic architecture movement for both his designs and his mentorship of new architects at the University of Oklahoma.

Originally a Kansas native, Goff took his inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, one of Wright's mentors. Of his more than 500 designs, Goff witnessed the realization of over 150 of them constructed in 15 states. The majority of his works however, still stand in Oklahoma, Texas, and the Chicago region of Illinois.

Notable works by Goff include:

  • The Bavinger House - Goff used locally excavated ironrock sandstone and used parts of an old oil field drilling system to unite local nature and industrial history.
  • The C.A. Comer House - using repeating triangular patterns and selecting tan color schemes, Goff's creation evokes memories of teepees of Oklahoma Native Americans.

Bavinger House by Bruce Goff
Bavinger House by Bruce Goff

E. Fay Jones

After serving in WWII, E. Fay Jones returned to his home state of Arkansas where he worked in drafting for an architectural firm. In 1946, he enrolled in the University of Arkansas' new architecture program, then earned a masters at Rice University. This led to a teaching position at the University of Oklahoma where he met Bruce Goff.

Already enamored by the organic architecture movement from his studies and mentorship by Frank Lloyd Wright, Jones pursued organic design throughout his career, winning numerous fellowships and awards. His most notable designs include:

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