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The embodiment of the concept of organic expression: Frank Lloyd Wright

  • Merfyn Davies

Of the many architectural theories that were being discussed during the early years of the present century one of the most comprehensive and intriguing was the theory of Organic Architecture. This theory, as expounded by its two most prominent exponents — Louis H. Sullivan (1856–1924) and Frank Lloyd Wright (1869–1959)—was based on the concept of organic expression — a concept which, interpreted in architectural terms, incorporated many of the underlying principles of the more popular theories associated with the Modern Movement in Architecture — ‘functionalism’, ‘rationalism’, ‘expressionism’, etc.

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1 Orsini, Giordano, ‘The Ancient Roots of a Modem Idea’, in Rousseau G. S. (ed.), ‘Organic Form’ — The Life of an Idea (London, 1972), p. 11 .

2 De Witt Parker, H., The Analysis of Art, (New Haven, 1926) p. 37 .

3 Quoted in Raysor, T. M., Coleridge’s Shakespearean Criticism, I (1930), p. 224 ; see also pp. 4, 5.

4 Frank Lloyd Wright, ‘In The Cause of Architecture’, The Architectural Record, May 1914. See also Modern Architecture, front endpaper. As an indication of the profundity of this aspect of organic expression, Wright was fond of quoting, or paraphrasing, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tse (500 BC), pointing out that ‘the reality of the vessel is the void within’: ‘We have now coming clear an ideal, the core of which must soon pervade the whole realm of creative man and one that, I know, dates back to Laotze 500 BC’, The Architect’s journal, August 1936. See also Wright, Frank Lloyd, An Organic Architecture, p. 2 .

5 Ibid. Throughout his career, Frank Lloyd Wright worked towards this end. In a special number of The Architectural Forum devoted to his work in 1938, the following sentence by Henry Thoreau was quoted on the title-page: ‘What of architectural beauty I now see, I know has gradually grown from within outward, out of the necessities and character of the indweller.’ (Walden and Other Writings, N.Y. Modern Library, 1940, p. 42).

6 Frank Lloyd Wright, ‘In the Cause of Architecture, 1’, The Architectural Record, March 1908.

7 Quoted in Gutheim, Frederick, Frank Lloyd Wright on Architecture — Selected Writings (1894-1940) (New York, 1941), p. 88 , from ‘Chicago Culture’.

8 Ibid., pp. 149–50, from ‘American Architecture Today, 1931’.

9 Ibid., p. 105, quoting the section ‘How Ideas Grow’ from an unpublished paper by Wright of 1928, entitled ‘The Use of Metal Plates in the Art of Building’.

10 Sullivan, Louis H., Kindergarten Chats and Other Writings (New York, 1947), p. 119

11 Ibid., p. 159.

12 Frank Lloyd Wright, ‘In the Cause of Architecture, I’ The Architectural Record, March 1908.

13 Sullivan, Louis H., Kindergarten Chats and Other Writings, p. 193 .

14 Quoted in Frank Lloyd Wright on Architecture, p. 167.

15 Wright, Frank Lloyd, An Organic Architecture (London, 1939), p. 3 .

16 Frank Lloyd Wright: Writings and Buildings, p. 284, from an address to the Junior Chapter of the A.I.A., New York, 1952. Also quoted in Blake, Peter, ‘Frank Lloyd Wright — Architecture and Space (Harmondsworth, 1963) p. 52.

17 Wright, Frank Lloyd, An Autobiography (New York, 1943). See also Manson, Grant C., Frank Lloyd Wright to ipio, pp. 15662 , for an earlier controversial church design by Wright.

18 Starrer, W. A., The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, A Complete Catalogue (M.I.T. Press, 1979).

19 This sum was the estimate given in Construction News (Chicago), 20, September 23 1905, p. 235 . However, in An Autobiography, Wright mentions the figure $45,000.

20 Construction News (Chicago), 20, 23 September 1905, p. 235 .

21 Construction News (Chicago), 21, 3 March 1906, p. 167.

22 But two years and more later than Auguste Perret’s concrete apartment house, No. 25 bis, Rue Franklin, Paris, of 1903, and Tony Garnier’s project in concrete, La Cité Industrielle, exhibited in 1904.

23 Wright, Frank Lloyd, A Testament (London, 1957), p. 66. Wright here also lists other innovations: “The work was cast in wooden forms or boxes — and the forms bear the impress of that technique. The plan first began the destruction of the box, and the emphasis of interior space as the reality of the building subsequently carried on. The Entrance is between the Temple and the Secular Rooms. Here electric lighting took visible form in wiring and became a decorative feature of the structure’.

24 Wright, Frank LloydThe Early Work (New York, 1968), p. 8. This is a reissue of Ausgefilhrte Bauten, originally published in Berlin by the firm of Ernst Wasmuth in 1911. The foreword was provided by C. R. Ashbee, leader of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Ashbee had known Wright for some years. See A., Crawford, ‘Ten letters from Frank Lloyd Wright to Charles Robert Ashbee’, Architectural History, 13 (1970), pp. 64–76.

25 This corresponds to Louis Sullivan’s interpretation of the creative process which he interpreted as an act involving these three inter-related and inseparable faculties: ‘Imagination’, ‘Thought’ and ‘Expression’. Sullivan sought hard to explain the workings of the imagination believing (like Kant and Coleridge) that it was an active shaping faculty — an inner force — analogous to the ‘organic’ in Nature. Imagination, therefore, was the most powerful agent of the creative process and could be interpreted as the divine quality of the mind. Yet imagination on its own was of little consequence and had to be linked with the faculty of ‘thought’. It was this link of the imagination with deep thought that underlined the truly creative work, and the result of this interaction of the two facultieswould be the final poetic ‘expression’. Sullivan’s most astute observations on these three faculties appeared in his essay ‘Emotional Architecture as compared with Intellectual’, where he wrote of how the desire to create could only assert itself by means of these three agencies.

26 Wright, Frank Lloyd, An Autobiography (New York, 1932). Also in Frank Lloyd Wright: Writings and Buildings, pp. 74, 83.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 Emerson believed, like Coleridge, that Nature worked in the same way as the human imagination and that, consequently, the creative act was a form of Divine Act: All parts and forms of Nature are the expression or production of Divine Faculties and the same are in us’. The Works of Waldo Emerson, III, p. 157 .

30 Wright, Frank Lloyd, An Autobiography (New York, 1932).

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 Blake, Peter, Frank Lloyd Wright — Architecture and Space, p. 50 .

34 Frank Lloyd Wright, ‘In the Cause of Architecture, I’, The Architectural Record, March 1908. See also Frank Lloyd Wright on Architecture, edited by Gutheim, F. (New York, 1914), p. 39 .

35 Frank Lloyd Wright, ‘The Logic of the Plan’, The Architectural Record, January 1928. See also Frank Lloyd Wright on Architecture, p. 107 . In this context, a comparison of Frank Lloyd Wright’s statements with those of Le Corbusier in Towards a New Architecture (1972 edition, pp. 166–67) shows a close relationship between certain aspects of their thinking.

36 Nikolaus Pevsner in his Pioneers of Modern Design consistently emphasised the importance of establishing a ‘universally recognised style’. Consequently, architecture in this book was assessed and classified purely on stylistic merits.

37 Frank Lloyd Wright himself was aware that critics had overlooked certain vital aspects of his work. ‘No critic’, he wrote, ‘has yet seen it as it is for what it is except to realise that here at least was “something”.’ The Architect’s Journal, August, 1936.

38 Behrendt, Walter Curt, ‘The Example of Frank Lloyd Wright’ in Modern Building (New York, 1937), pp. 129238 . See also Mumford, Lewis, Roots of Contemporary American Architecture (New York, 1972), p. 402 .

39 Sullivan, L. H., The Autobiography of an Idea (New York, 1956), p. 193 .

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Architectural History
  • ISSN: 0066-622X
  • EISSN: 2059-5670
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