Arts Curriculum

Organic Architecture

“I’d like to have a free architecture. I’d like to have architecture that belonged where you see it standing, and was a grace to the landscape instead of a disgrace.” (Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward Audioguide [New York: Antenna Audio, Inc. and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2009])

Organic Architecture

Aerial view of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum with Central Park. Photo: David Heald

Although the word “organic” usually refers to something that bears the characteristics of plants or animals, for Frank Lloyd Wright the term organic architecture had a separate meaning. For him organic architecture was an interpretation of nature’s principles manifested in buildings that were in harmony with the world around them. Wright held that a building should be a product of its place and its time, intimately connected to a particular moment and site—never the result of an imposed style.

Wright was interested in the relationship between buildings and their surrounding environments. He believed that a building should complement its environment so as to create a single, unified space that appears to “grow naturally” out of the ground. He also thought that a building should function like a cohesive organism, where each part of the design relates to the whole. Wright’s organic architecture often incorporates natural elements such as light, plants, and water into his designs. His color choices reflected the environment as well with yellows, oranges, and browns. His favorite accent color was red, which has importance both in nature and in the Japanese culture, which he studied and visited and admired.

Through years of study and experimentation, organic architecture came to describe Wright’s total design ideology. Some of the governing principles of this philosophy included:

  • The belief that a building should appear to grow easily from its site
  • Choosing one dominant form for a building and integrating that form throughout
  • Using natural colors: “Go into the woods and field for color schemes”
  • Revealing the nature of materials
  • Opening up spaces
  • Providing a place for natural foliage.

Wright also embraced new materials, machinery, and technologies. Far from seeing them in opposition to nature, he saw them as allies. Depending upon each other for their integrity, nature would inform and machinery execute a totally new architecture—one where the machine’s capacities transformed natural principles into architectural forms.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Aerial view of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum with Central Park. Photo: David Heald

Frank Lloyd Wright

Bear Run site before construction. Courtesy of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy

Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. Photo: Robert P. Ruschak, courtesy of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy

1. In this aerial view of the Guggenheim you can see how the building relates to its environment. Do you think Wright was successful in applying his theory of organic architecture to the Guggenheim? Explain your response and find evidence in the photograph to support your ideas.

Aerial view of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum with Central Park. Photo: David Heald
Bear Run site before construction. Courtesy of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy
Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. Photo: Robert P. Ruschak, courtesy of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy

  • Ask students to imagine that they are architects who practice the principles of organic architecture. How would their designs change for a private home in the following environments?
    • On a tropical beach
    • In a city
    • Near snowcapped mountains

    Discuss how climate and terrain affect architectural design.

  • A Wright building and its site are wedded. One cannot be considered without the other. Ask students to choose a photo of a site and design a building that is in harmony with its surrounding environment. When the drawings are completed, ask students to describe how the building they designed adheres to the principles of organic architecture.

  • The principles of organic architecture are apparent in another of Wright’s buildings, a private residence known as Fallingwater, in Bear Run, Pennsylvania. On the left is the site, and on the right a photo of the completed structure. As you compare the photos, describe how Wright has applied the principles of organic architecture to his design.