Charles G. Woods AIA / Award Winning Architect

   

Do we need a philosophy of architecture?  That question is not a prelude to an intellectual game; it is the very foundation upon which the work of an architect or designer rests.  Are we lacking a coherent philosophy of architecture?  My answer:  Just look around.

                                                                       

Look at our cities:  100-storey towers of steel and glass, dehumanizing in scale, loom as clones of one another.  Hubris characterizes their demeanor.  The glass on all four sides mockingly attests to the lack of concern for energy conservation.  There is defiance, not deference, towards nature.

 

Witness the chaos represented by our gas stations, our fast food restaurants, our shopping malls and even our houses.  We see a mix of Greek, Roman, Mediterranean and contemporary design elements, sometimes in the same structure!  There is no proportion, no sense of wholeness, no sense of relationship to nature, to neighbors, to history.  We are drowning in an architectural sea of forms and details.  We need a raft -- a philosophy of architecture based on consistent principles.

 

I do not presume my own work to represent the ideal.  There are many great architects!  But in this book (Natural Architecture) I have tried to design buildings based on a set of principles.  Using a term applied to the works of Wright and Sullivan (those great and lonely geniuses who almost single-handedly established a natural and rational American architecture), I characterize my designs as “organic” in the sense of living and whole with interdependent parts; for that is how I visualize a building.  Architecture creates for humankind a second skin.  It is revealing that the word house often symbolizes body in the Bible and in other spiritual and religious writings.

 

Organic architecture is mystical as well as rational, humble as well as inspired.  Its principles are wholeness, simplicity and honesty.  Organic architecture must take into account an array of very human considerations.  Besides cost and practicability, the key to living, holistic design is the environment -- its geography, topology, history, climate and color and materials.

 

Let us begin our look at organic architecture with the concept of wholeness, for as the foundation supports the structure of the building, so the concept of wholeness supports the philosophy of organic architecture.

 

The idea of nature as an organism, in a sense of a living body (pan-psychism), has a long history.  It is evident in the writings of the pre-Socratic philosophers and Heraclitus and Parmenides.  In the late Middle Ages its champion was Spinoza; later, Hegel and Darwin.  Today Nature as a living organism is seen in the developing philosophies of Samuel Alexander, A.N. Whitehead, Sri Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin.

 

All of nature is one organic whole.  Everything is interrelated in a dynamic way.  Humanity (at least, the physical body, for those who believe in a separate and immortal soul) is a part of Nature.  Although many have tried, humanity cannot be cleaved from and set in opposition to Nature.

 

We pollute Nature both physically and visually as if it is not in any way related to ourselves; whereas, in fact, it is ourselves.  This havoc we wreak upon Nature has its origins in religious and metaphysical error.  Unconsciously we ascribe to the dualism of the great Rene Descartes, whereby humanity is separated from nature.  This concept, with its corresponding hubris and ignorance of what humanity truly is or can become, manifests itself in ugliness. 

 

We pollute Nature first with the mind -- with concepts and ideas -- and only later with toxic waste and unsightly and dysfunctional buildings.

 

Architecture is great, just as art is great, when it proceeds from an intuition of the ordered relationships and the wholeness that exists in nature.  Architecture can both reveal the essence of humanity and critique it.  It matters not whether one subscribes to the idea of Spinoza and the oriental philosophers that humanity has an essential nature or whether one sides with the Existentialists to declare that humanity has no essential nature other than what it wills or creates itself.  Architecture holds a mirror to both these positions.

 

Some may feel that to impose a philosophy on architecture is to wander far from the path an architect must tread.  I think not.  The concept of Nature as a living and vital organic whole may be argued, but it cannot be denied.  Wholism is revolutionizing medicine, psychiatry, ecology and other areas.  It will revolutionize architecture.  We may view the works of Antonio Gaudi, Rudolf Steiner, Erich Mendelsohn, Le Corbusier, Mies Van der Rohe, Herman Finsterlin and, of course, Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan to see the evolutionary and revolutionary impetus of organic architecture.  On the contemporary scene we may glimpse the future via the worlds of Malcolm Wells, Paulo Soleri and Roland Coates.

 

These architects and designers have accepted the obligation and duty of their professions -- to design for the essence of what we are, and can become.  Architecture, as our reflection, should show us at our best.

 

Architecture tells us much about ourselves and about our past.  What does the architecture of societies in the past represent?

 

Egypt:  the striving for eternity.  Greece:  the pursuit of beauty and grace.  Rome:  the drive for power.  The Gothic cathedrals of Europe:  the yearning of finite beings for a transcendent God.  It is not happenstance that Hitler and his architect Speer looked to Rome as the model for Third Reich architecture.  Gigantic in proportions, scale models of Speer’s buildings were sometimes one hundred feet long.  These huge designs dwarfed human proportions as surely as the government they symbolized effaced human individuality.

 

We have had great architecture in America.  Early colonials developed a beautifully simple architecture in response to their environment, but it was soon bogged down in duplication of ornamentation from the past.  Early colonial architecture is superb compared to later gingerbread designs.

 

(It is interesting to note that in historical societies with a linear view of time, architecture tends to retain historical details from earlier periods.  However, in non-historical societies, the so-called primitive cultures -- those with a cyclical view of time -- one sees a more perennial architecture.  For example, I submit that Roman architecture is not as great as Greek architecture, for the former superimposed the latter over its own innate Roman identity).

 

And what of America’s architecture today?  If we were to judge by influence alone, there are four or five unknown designers who would be called great.  Representing over 90 percent of all housing built in the United States, their designs are familiar to us all.  But if we were to judge those designs by the use of energy, cost or aesthetic standards, they would surely be seen as disasters.

 

We see diamond shapes in entry doors next to French provincial lanterns, next to colonial windows.  I do not intend to criticize individual homeowners.  Perhaps Americans expect too little of their architects.  Nonetheless, their architects have failed them (and our codes).

 

The post-modern movement continues this tradition of disaster, creating, for instance, buildings with Ionic columns and fluorescent lights painted pink and blue.  These are the most famous architects around!  One cannot deny they are brilliant and creative, but their misplaced creative energies serve only to degrade architecture to an indulgent, even silly, individuality.

 

Happily, there are beautiful exceptions.  For instance, the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright was an attempt to create a truly American architecture, a departure from the hodgepodge of Greek and Roman stone details imposed on wood structures.  Although Wright had, and continues to have, great influence on American architecture, his philosophy has never really taken root.  His Usonia houses are incredibly beautiful.  Wright, and Louis Sullivan before him, have much to offer.  Why not design according to the principles (not the details) they represent?  That is what I have tried to do in this book.  Building on the foundation of the wholeness that exists in Nature, I have used simplicity and honesty as my guiding principles.

 

Simplicity need not be dull, as the Japanese have shown.  In all its periods, Japanese architecture is easily recognizable.  Yet it has many variegated forms, and in addition to its basic simplicity, it is honest.

 

What do we mean by honesty in architecture?  Let us begin with what honesty is not.  It is not asphalt shingles made to look like wood.  It is not plastic made to look like stone, or rubber made to look like brick.  Wood, brick and stone are beautiful, but if they are too expensive to use, seek honest alternatives.  A concrete slab floor may be scored with module lines or stained a natural color.  Remember:  Be honest.  Do not even try to make it look like brick; it is concrete!

 

An organic house should virtually design itself.  All one must do is ask the right questions and follow the logical conclusions.  What is the water table and how does it affect our design?  Can we cover the home with earth, or should we only partially berm?  What local building materials are available -- stone and hemlock?  Conclusion: We build a bermed structure of stone and hemlock.

 

Where does the sun shine?  Where does the wind blow?  We are confronted with a rugged site strewn with boulders and dotted with clusters of old oaks.  We terrace downhill, placing our home among and around mighty trees and giant rocks.

 

The organic home is simple.  It uses only a few materials, and it uses them honestly.  We design the house on a module for structural and design uniformity.  Elevations reflect the module in its glass and post placements.  The smallest detail reflects the whole, and the whole is related to each part.  The house is easy on the eye.

 

The colors are natural and healing.  The spaces are proportioned to the human body; cabinets are designed so that short as well as tall people can conveniently use them.  The organic house is naturally warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  It relates compatibly with its setting, both wild and man-made.

 

All this and more is what I have tried to accomplish in the designs in this book.  I welcome dialogue and discussion on these ideas, and I sincerely hope I have not offended architects and homeowners with these frank remarks.  However, I hope I have stirred their thought processes, for what I have written I firmly believe to be the truth.

 

*Written in 1982 from Natural Architecture

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"[Woods' work] will be refreshing to architects in much the same way that E. Fay Jones [1990 AIA Gold Medal Winner] has appealed to the architectural community." - John C. Lahey,AIA/ President of Solomon, Cordwell, Buenz and Associates, Inc.
last update 1/16/11