Tips from the Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright's Organic Architecture

August 26, 2015

Frank Lloyd Wright is considered by many to be one of the greatest architects of all time. He endeavored to create a style that was distinctly American. Wright was a student of Louis Sullivan, who is regarded as “the father of skyscrapers” and who coined the term “form follows function”. Frank Lloyd Wright took this term and developed his own style of design and living called “organicism”.

Organicism, or organic design, involves the ideas that “form follows function” and “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” Wright employed these concepts to integrate all aspects of a project into a cohesive whole. The elements of his designs were created to be so interdependent that they would be like parts of an organism, with nothing superfluous. If one element was removed or constructed incorrectly, the entire project would suffer. Wright was considered to be an especially controlling architect, coordinating every aspect of the project from the landscaping down to specific furniture. He had an uncompromising vision for his projects. If work was not executed according to his exact specifications, he was known to come on-site with a sledgehammer and start knocking down walls.

The idea of organicism also implies a deeper understanding of the materials used in construction. Wright strove not only to understand the qualities and abilities of the materials he used, but also to achieve complete mastery in working with them. During Wright's early years of work, he witnessed traditional materials such as brick, stone, and wood being used in such a way that their inherent meaning, qualities, and properties were lost. This was brought about by the use of steel structures, which were then haphazardly covered with more traditional materials, oftentimes completely out of context. Unfortunately this practice continues today in cases where it not cost-effective to use materials in historical ways. It is important to understand how these materials can be used in order to convey their inherent quality, even if they are only being used in an aesthetic sense.

At the turn of the century, as the scale of buildings continued to increase, Wright turned back to the human scale approach. He created careful designs with qualities and details that could be translated to the skyscrapers and larger projects that were sought after by modern society. This organic design allowed him to design every element of the project; from sconces and window light patterns, to skylights, structural column systems, and furniture. All of these elements related to one another through the materials used and the ideas employed.

This method can be seen in one of his later works, the Kentuck Knob, which is just 8 miles up the road from Wright's masterpiece Falling Water. The moment you see the building rise up from the hillside on approach, its geometric concept is apparent. The hexagon is the seed of the form, and from this Wright generated all of the other architectural elements. The building’s footprint is a hexagon, there are hexagonal skylights on the terrace, and the kitchen is a hexagon. Wright delves deeper into use of the shape, employing the 6 equilateral triangles that form a hexagon as well. The triangles appear in the columns, recessed lighting, and gutters of the building. His use of materials in this project is remarkable; using only wood, stone, and glass, Wright created a warm composition that highlights the raw nature of the materials and connects the building to the larger natural world.

This idea of having a designed cohesive whole, one which ties together all disparate building elements at every scale, is one that is essential to great architecture. The idea goes beyond the geometric, as it does in many of Frank Lloyd Wright's projects and the projects of other great architects. The more abstract ideas of organic design can be difficult to grasp without experiencing a project firsthand. We encourage you to explore more about Frank Lloyd Wright and to take a tour of one of his many incredible works.

Architecture Tours and Information

Frank Lloyd Wright Trust

10 Great Frank Lloyd Wright Tours (Nationwide)

Kentuck Knob (Pennsylvania)

Falling Waters (Pennsylvania)

Tours, Cottages, and Inns Featuring Wright's Work (Midwest)

Wright in the Region Day Trip (Midwest)