I recently visited Falling Water, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses in Pennsylvania. Arguably one of the American architect’s most well-known constructions, it was built as a summer home for the Kaufmann family in the mid-1930s.
As the docent guided us through the house, narrating elements of the architect’s life and how it intertwined with his design philosophy, she consistently used “organic” as an adjective to describe his architectural style.
A few people in the group chuckled the first time they heard the phrase. My mind immediately lept to the primary association I have with “organic”. Organic food.
“Organic” has pretty narrow connotations in American society, often associated only with food that is labeled as expensive, alternative to the mainstream, maybe even a bit pretentious.
My understanding of the term widened, after experiencing the Frank Lloyd Wright house.
Frank Lloyd Wright interpreted “organic” more broadly, as an approach that takes into consideration the entire existence of something as a complex system with interrelated parts. Parts that, when altered, directly or indirectly affect the whole system’s function.
He situated his design choices in relation to how the house would function in the larger system in which it was a part. On one level, this translated as the interactions between the building and its surrounding physical environment.
His ultimate goal was to make the house seamlessly grow out of nature. He did this in obvious ways, for example constructing the entire house of horizontally laid stone that mimics the horizontal lines of the limestone cliff out of which it was built.
There were also hundreds of nuanced details – not always noticed individually, but collectively creating a sense of interconnection. Literally building around trees; rounding the corners of shelves; combining big glass windows and low roofs to squeeze attention to the forest outside.
He also saw connections between architecture and the human systems that function within it – particularly in the balance between human psychology and the human spirit.
The walls of the home were constructed largely from glass. The points of which they met in the corners opened outwards, 90-degree angles suddenly inverting. A play on the idea of opening a box – and the opening of the mind.
The low ceilings and big cushions – because organic architecture also means designing every aspect of the home’s interior, including furniture – created nooks, evoking a certain human need to feel cozy and confined.
“Don’t you just feel like you could curl up there and take a nap?” the guide asked.
Sets of stairs grew from the natural limestone walls, low and winding – leaving impressions of mysterious origins and unknown destinations.
I felt innately drawn to the house, wanting to sit in its hidden spaces and do something creative. To think about something. To make something. And to just be.