Frank Lloyd Wright and Nature
"I believe in God, only I spell it Nature."
Nature, above all else, was Wright’s most inspirational force. He advised students to “study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” He did not suggest copying nature, but instead allowing it to be an inspiration.
Wright’s love and appreciation of nature began early in his life while working summers on his uncle’s farm. The rigorous routine, home-grown food, milking cows, putting up fences—all made a strong impression. In addition to the exhilaration of honest outdoor work, he was also learning to sense the deep mysteries of nature.
Wright often brought aspects of nature into his buildings with his use of natural light, plants, and water. At the Guggenheim Museum, it is thought that a nautilus shell inspired the spiral ramp and that the radial symmetry of a spider web informed the design of the rotunda skylight.
Eric Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s grandson, was one of his grandfather’s apprentices during the 1940s and 50s, when the Guggenheim Museum was designed. He recalls, “…every Sunday at breakfast he'd give us a talk… And sometimes he would have placed before him a whole bunch of seashells. And he said, "Look here, fellows. This is what nature produces. These shells all are based on the same basic principles, but all of them are different, and they're all created as a function of the interior use of that shell" (Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward Audioguide [New York: Antenna Audio, Inc. and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2009]).
However, Wright believed that nature’s secrets could only be discovered by diligent contemplation. Reality and truth were not to be found on the surface of things, but required extensive probing and thought to yield valuable lessons (Robert C. Twombly, Frank Lloyd Wright, An Interpretive Biography [New York: Harper & Row, 1973], p. 86).
1. Look closely at the photographs showing the large rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum. What natural forms might Frank Lloyd Wright have contemplated in creating the design? Explain your responses.
2. Wright designed the Guggenheim to include several natural elements, including natural light, plants, water, and natural materials. During your visit, find evidence of each of these.
- As you look around at your built environment, do you notice any designs that were inspired by nature? What are they? What natural forms, materials, or phenomena do they echo?
- Ask students to gather a collection of natural forms. Seashells, leaves, flowers, and seed pods are just a few possibilities. A wonderful resource for examining the incredible variety of plant forms is the work of Karl Blossfeldt (1865–1932), a botanist and photographer in turn-of-the-century Berlin whose photographs depict magnified plants. His images influenced many architects and decorative artists of his time, who quoted Blossfeldt’s forms on scales as small as ornamental ironwork and as large as the shapes of entire buildings. Blossfeldt’s photographs are available in affordable books and online.
- Ask students to choose an object from their collection of natural forms and develop a drawing and/or model for a building based on that natural form. What are the major physical characteristics of this natural form? Include shape, color, pattern, and texture in your description.
- Draw the form from three different viewpoints.
- Simplify the form.
- Make a drawing for a building that uses this simplified natural form as inspiration for an architectural design.
- How will this building be used?
- Where is its ideal site?
- What materials should be used in its construction?
When the designs are completed, have students present their ideas to the class.