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,
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
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
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
We pollute Nature first
with the mind -- with concepts and ideas -- and only later
with toxic waste and unsightly and dysfunctional
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
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
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,
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
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.
in 1982 from Natural Architecture