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Organic architecture is a living tradition that is taking on new and exciting directions. It is not a unified movement but is diverse, perverse, contradictory, and mercurial. Always controversial and difficult to pin down, it is best experienced "in the round" with all one¼s senses by visiting real buildings. Sometimes called "the other tradition", it has a long and celebrated history, from Ancient Greece to Art Nouveau. Organic architecture is rooted in a passion for life, nature, and natural forms, and is full of the vitality of the natural world with its biological forms and processes. Emphasizing beauty and harmony, its free-flowing curves and expressive forms are sympathetic to the human body, mind, and spirit. In a well-designed "organic" building, we feel better and freer.
The fact that the rectilinear, orthogonal mode came to dominate the 20th century is a reflection of materialist values of an industrially driven age. The post-industrial age is awakening to a new world, which also echoes an older and wiser vision. The re-emergence of organic design, represents a new freedom of thought; an expression of hope for the future. This is affecting most fields of design from products and furniture, lighting and textile design to architecture, landscape architecture, and interior design. As this occurs, organic design is becoming less a fringe style than a mainstream design trend.
The new "free style" approach has also been influenced by modern philosophy as expounded by such writers as Fritjof Capra, and scientific ideas as diverse as advanced astrophysics, chaos theory, and James Lovelock¼s Gaia theory (that describes the living Earth, "Gaia", as a self-regulating super organism). There is a parallel here with the effect that Charles Darwin's revolutionary theory of evolution had on Victorian architecture, inspiring decorative natural forms and motifs. Modern information technology and the rapid spread of computer-aided design (CAD) to all fields of architecture and design, has helped to free up design and designers' creative processes. With the latest three-dimensional design software it is much easier to design and model sophisticated and complex shapes and forms. No longer need the straight line, right angle, and cube be the dominant features. Using the "strength through shape principle", curved forms such as arches, vaults, domes, and spheres are stronger, more efficient, and more economical than the equivalent rectilinear structures. Both modern and traditional materials can be used organically: new lightweight, tensile tent structures emulate the idea of the Native American Indian tepee, while modern curving earth or strawbale-built walls and vaults rediscover an ancient vernacular.
Organic thinking can also be seen as part of the expression of the feminization of society (or re-balancing the feminine in Western society). This approach is not new. It is a very old tradition stretching back to times when feminine values were more prevalent. This way of thinking can be traced back to Earth Mother goddess cults and can be seen in the beautiful and flowing art and artefacts of the Anatolian, Minoan, Etruscan, and Ancient Greek cultures. There is a correlation too between straight line and rectangle, and angular, masculine design and mechanistic politics.
Organic architecture is not a nostalgic style. It will always fascinate and inspire, and is being reincarnated today as a new international movement that combines a respect for nature with a celebration of the beauty and harmony of natural forms, flows, and systems. In the new millennium a more holistic and organic image of the universe is emerging, and demanding new forms of expression that reflect the variety and creativity of nature itself. Like a breaking wave, this new and exciting paradigm is sweeping over the world and transforming architecture and design for the 21st century.
Inspired by the non-linearity and creative forces of nature and biological organisms, organic architecture is visually poetic, radical, idiosyncratic and environmentally aware; it embodies harmony of place, person and materials. Organic architecture is multi-faceted, free and surprising. Yet its myriad images, ever changeable and overlapping, all grow and flower form the same seed—the inspiration of nature.
The main part of the book is in two parts. Part One gives a thematic overview of organic architecture: its roots and concepts, its sources of inspiration from natural forms, fascination with geometry, and the environmental challenges it presents. Part Two is a unique review of the work of architects drawn from 15 countries, whose work reflects these concerns. The 30 profiled architects write about their own approaches in their own words.
PART ONE: SOURCES AND INSPIRATION
Roots and Concepts
Primitive vernacular architecture was innately organic, based on natural forms and structures and simple, local materials. More deeply, it was part of a spiritual continuum of survival and fertility, life and death that linked earth to spirit.
Egyptian and Ancient Greek civilizations studied natural forms and the human body and abstracted them as geometry. They used the circle, ellipse, triangle, and rectangle to derive harmonious proportions for their shrines and temples and so promote harmony between themselves and their elemental gods and spirits of Earth and cosmos. Fundamental discoveries included geometric relationships such as the Golden Section (see page 65), generator of the logarithmic spiral, a basic curve of life and growth.
Plato believed that all things flow and change in nature but are directed by eternal and immutable patterns, forms, or ideas that are the true reality. Aristotle, however, as a founder of the scientific approach, used observation to understand and classify nature. In architectural terms both contributed to key ideas and concepts that run through organic design and the debate between holistic and analytical approaches that has continued ever since.
The Roman, Vitruvius, agreed with his forebears that the human body, with its modular construction, is the ideal expression of nature's unity. His homo quadratus—the figure of a man, with extended arms and feet, fits neatly into what were considered the most perfect geometrical figures—the square and circle. The Romans moved on from philosophy to practice and to develop arches, vaults, and domes—structurally stronger and more economical of materials than earlier straight post and beam designs.
Toward the end of the Roman Empire theories of proportion lost their original divine significance and became a series of secular rules applied by rote to any building of importance. Later, in the Byzantine Empire, Christian spirituality re-inspired architecture with ideas of divine proportion and the mystique of numbers, and developed the Roman form of the dome placed on a square to create the typical Byzantine cross-in-square church plan.
Divine geometry was also very much alive in the Islamic world. Here representation of the human and other animal forms was strictly prohibited. Mathematics and abstract geometry were the only appropriate expression of order and perfection created by Allah. Thus pure geometric shapes—circle, square, polygon, and star—were employed to produce the timeless Islamic architectural language of cupola, half dome, tunnel vault, horseshoe arch, stalactite "pendentive", and rich ornamentation. Like Allah, the limitless one, building forms, spaces, and ornament seem to cascade, like fractals, into the distance without end.
Early Celtic art, like nature, abhorred straight lines and preferred the organic forms of the tree, plants, water, and earth. Rather than representing nature as it appears, the Celtic artist expressed a mystical and ambiguous world of highly stylized abstract forms. The motifs ranged from geometric patterns to chevrons, circles, whorls, tendrils, spirals, and, later, animals. Used as repeating and entwined patterns, they were executed with free-flowing grace and beauty and also a sense of wit and individuality.
Gothic architecture absorbed elements of both Greek geometry and pagan Celtic expression. Master masons revitalized the sacred purpose of proportion and used plant forms for decoration. The circle was the basic controlling device for Gothic cathedral design. The whole structure derived from underlying star diagrams, subdivided by polygons (especially, pentagons and decagons, which relate directly to the Golden Section), generated harmonious and "heavenly" proportions. The pointed Gothic arch and vault, being more akin to the parabolic arch, shed structural loads more efficiently than the massive Roman semicircular arch. This innovation allowed unrivalled building heights to be reached with an apparent lightness and delicacy never before imagined possible in stone—a real flowering of the organic in architecture!
With the Renaissance came renewed interest in Classical theories of proportion based on human form. Michelangelo held that knowledge of the human figure was vital to a comprehension of architecture. Alberti remarked that a building must appear whole like an organism and Leonardo da Vinci made his famous drawing of Vitruvius's homo quadratus. But the Renaissance also brought new science. When Descartes stated "I have described the earth, and all the visible world, as if it were a machine" he heralded the Age of Reason and gave birth to modern scientific method. With this new age came a conviction that architecture was a science, too, and that each part of a building, inside and out, had to be integrated into one system of mathematical ratios. The opposing visions of holism and mechanistic science began to diverge into separate camps.
As a reaction to the dominance of this overly scientific view sprang the desire of the Gothic Revival for freedom from Classical rules and a return to what were seen as truer spiritual and holistic values. New architectural principles proposed by Ruskin, Pugin, and Viollet-le-Duc drew inspiration from the forms and processes of nature and promoted medieval building traditions such as hierarchy of functions and forms, structural expression, truth to materials, craft skills, and rich polychromy and ornament. The Oxford University Museum, by Deane and Woodward, and the Natural History Museum, London, by Waterhouse, are examples of these principles in action.
"Art for the people and by the people" was the cry of William Morris, one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts Movement. And it was these social aims (reiterated later by Frank Lloyd Wright) that underpinned the movement's concentration on creativity, naturalness, craft production, and co-operative effort to counter the spread of machine production and poor quality mass-produced goods. Red House, Bexley Heath, Kent, by Philip Webb, echoes the medieval but is highly original in its internal layout. Its asymmetrical massing and creative use of materials embodying, as Morris wished, the concept that a building should be like an organic being.
The rejection of 19th century stylistic imitations for a simpler, more abstract approach with natural continuous forms paved the way for the wilder fantasies of Art Nouveau. Exotic sources, such as those from Islam, Japan, and the Far East, and folk art were used in novel ways to create this shimmering new modern style. Its influence quickly spread throughout Europe, from Munich's Jugendstil (youth style) to Barcelona's Modernistas, and on to the USA. But it was the deep, and sometimes near pantheistic or mystical, affinity with the natural world that was the universal source of inspiration. Typical was the use of long, curved, asymmetrical lines somewhat reminiscent of Celtic art. Inspired by the delicacy of such living forms as sinuous vine tendrils, flower stems, buds, and insect wings, the line could be gentle and graceful or powerful and tense like a whiplash. In architecture, ornament and structure became fused into a free-flowing, plastic, organic unity. Structures resembled sinuous vegetative growths, windows appeared as diaphanous membranes, and materials an exotic palette of brick, stone, mosaic, terracotta, wrought and cast iron, stained glass, and wood veneers. Victor Horta's revolutionary Hotel Tassel, Brussels, exemplified this style as did the light and elegant Glasgow School of Art by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. So too did the robust and curvilinear furniture and interiors of Horta's compatriot Henry van de Velde. The latter, however, later rejected ornament and what he saw as sentimental and degenerate romanticism of Art Nouveau for a clean, logical and rationalist style that embraced the machine. With the re-appearance of the dominant straight line and right angle, van de Velde's cool and restrained Art School, Weimar, and Werkbund Theatre, Cologne, ushered in the Bauhaus, the International Style, and the predominant course of mainstream modern architecture. But before this took hold, Expressionism had a brief but influential life with such renowned buildings as the Einstein Tower, Potsdam, by Erich Mendelsohn. Intended as a vision of new monolithic concrete architecture, he aimed to create streamlined exteriors and organically flowing interiors that defied traditional structural laws.
Metaphor and materials
For Antoni GaudÌ, supreme and passionate master of the organic, the straight line belonged to men and the curved line to God. Always at the bizarre and surrealist end of the organic spectrum, the early medieval, Islamic, and Catalan influences gave way, in his later work such as Casa BatllÛ and Casa Milý (La Pedrera—the quarry), to extreme plasticity that superbly integrates structure, materials, and sculptural form. GaudÌ closely observed natural forms and was a bold innovator of advanced structural systems. He designed "equilibrated" structures (that stand like a tree, needing no internal bracing or external buttressing) with catenary, hyperbolic, and parabolic arches and vaults, and inclined columns and helicoidal (spiral cone) piers, first cleverly predicting complex structural forces via string models hung with weights (his results now confirmed by computer analysis). He loved to instil his projects with many levels of meaning and delighted in metaphor and symbol, overtly religious as in the church of the Sagrada Familia but more subtle and mysterious as in G¸ell Park with its strange mix of Catalan and masonic symbolism. Yet, its weird pinnacled lodges, serpentine mosaic bench, and winding rustic viaducts all evoke the exuberance of youth.
Alvar Aalto brought a Scandinavian clarity, simplicity, and lightness to organic design. He was a genius at handling asymmetrical massing of diverse volumes and gradually moved from earlier angular forms (Town Hall, S”ynats”lo) to evolve vigorous curved forms (Finlandia Concert Hall, Helsinki). He could create a fluidity of space and quality of natural lighting and colour that were poetical, and use simple natural materials, particularly wood, in new and creative ways so as to "allow the materials to express themselves". J¯rn Utzon, the Danish architect who worked briefly in Aalto's office, evolved his own original style based on nature, and ultimately won the design competition for the Sydney Opera House with its billowing white concrete "sails".
From inner purpose to outward appearance
But it was in the USA that organic architecture began its great modern flowering. "By speaking generally, outward appearances resemble inner purposes" was one way Louis Sullivan described his famous axiom that form follows function—a key concept for organic design. Influenced by the massive Romanesque style of H.H. Richardson's Marshall Field Warehouse, Chicago, he evolved his own monumental round-arched style first used in the Auditorium Building, Chicago, and his unique feathery and vegetal Art Nouveau ornament. At first, he used this sparingly to adorn specific parts of his otherwise plain functional steel-frame offices but later, his mature work attempted to fuse function and ornament into a unified whole.
Perhaps it was the Celt in him from his Welsh mother that gave Frank Lloyd Wright a special love of nature. It was certainly reinforced via early readings of Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc and working with his mentor Sullivan. He wished his buildings to be part of nature and would often choose sites close to woods, rock formations, or even waterfalls as with Fallingwater, Pennsylvania. Like "a thing growing out of the nature of the thing", the concept of the building would emerge naturally out of the site. If nature was absent, he would provide ample space for plantings in and around the building or turn the building inward and fill the centre with trees and plants. He disliked static symmetry and preferred the dynamic irregularities of nature and of Gothic architecture, where according to Ruskin a plan might "shrink into a turret, expand into a hall, coil into a staircase, or spring into a spire". He developed geometrical themes beyond the rectangle and experimented with circles and spirals divided into 30 and 60 degree angles such as the Jacobs House, Wisconsin, an innovative solar hemicycle, and culminating in the dramatic springing coil of the Guggenheim Museum, New York. Linked to his earlier desire to produce low-cost homes and communities, which he termed "Usonian", he called for a universal organic society via his new "Declaration of Independence".
The organic legacy
Frank Lloyd Wright is, for many, the true father of organic architecture. He was not only an architect of rare genius, he was a charismatic speaker, writer, and educator, who inspired a generation of young architects who have continued to work and innovate in the same spirit of design. These include Paolo Soleri, Arthur Dyson (page 206), Dan Liebermann (page 122), Kendrick Bangs Kellogg (page 196), and John Watson (page 172).
Advised by Sullivan and Wright to avoid college if he wished to keep his individual creativity, Bruce Goff was largely self-taught from diverse sources in art, architecture, and music (see page 154). A maverick, he believed that designing a building was an act of self-discovery and that one's own personal development, and that of the client and students, were more important than adhering to any style or movement. He worked in what he called the "continuous present", his maxim being "beginning again and again". Goff described his approach "as a concept that grows from within outward". He liked to play with competing natural elements, earth, air, fire, and water, and delighted in combining opposites—heavy masonry with light walls and roofs, free-flowing space with angular geometric forms, solid structure with crystalline or lacy elements, and natural materials with prefabricated parts.
This futuristic organic architecture superbly integrates many complex elements. The Bavinger House, Oklahoma, is a continuous logarithmic spiral of open-space platforms, suspended by cables from a central mast. The spaces seem to defy gravity and float over one another and the indoor pools below, yet are rooted in the ground via the massive stone core. A natural teacher, he wanted to establish a school of art and architecture called "Kebyar"—a Balinese word for the process of flowering. Although he never did so, he influenced many young architects such as Herb Greene, Bart Prince (see page 86), Mickey Muennig (see page 152), and Eugene Tsui (see page 182), some of whom formed Friends of Kebyar, the US association of organic architects.
From seed to plant
A separate strand of the organic tradition has its roots in the Germanic cultural tradition. Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian thinker, was so impressed with the studies of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe into morphology and the metamorphosis of plants and animals that he referred to Goethe as "the Galileo of the organic". This, together with Goethe's theory of colour, had a deep impact on Steiner's later life and his anthroposophic architectural theories. Steiner developed a special intuitive process he termed organischen Baugedanken (organic structural thoughts) to help comprehend the essence of an organic being. He never imitated natural forms, nor were his designs allegories or symbols for anything but themselves. "Man can only experience true harmony of soul where what his soul knows to be its most valuable thoughts, feelings and impulses are mirrored for his senses in the forms, colours and, so on, of his surroundings." From this projection of bodily feelings into building forms, known as Einf¸hlung, it follows that well-designed buildings can exert a healing and spiritually supportive effect on both individuals and society. His two Goetheanums were a dramatic illustration of this new style of architecture that united spirit and matter with a living interaction between part and whole, the crucial link being the metamorphosis between the small (seed) and the large (plant) whereby the new form is always, as in nature, prefigured in the previous form. In his later work he evolved related concepts such as the "living wall", which "like an organism allows elevations and depressions to grow out of itself", and like bones, allows convex and concave double curves with torsion between them. A living luminous quality was also sought via the use of transparent Lazur wall paints and stained glass.
Anthroposophic architecture has now grown into an international organic movement (perhaps one of the most coherent) with acclaimed work in Europe, USA, and Australia, and a network that hosts international conferences and exhibitions. Notable architects in Europe include Imre Makovecz (see page 166), Erik Asmussen (see page 100), Thomas Rau (see page 202), Ton Alberts and Max van Huut, Joachim Eble, Christopher Day, and Camphill Architects. Working in this tradition outside Europe, are architects such as Thompson and Rose (USA), Denis Bowman (Canada), and Gregory Burgess (Australia—see page 110).
Another key Germanic influence was Hugo H”ring. Although he produced important buildings, such as Garkau Farm, L¸beck, Germany, his real contribution lay in organic theory. In Wege zur Form (Approach to Form) he expressed his belief that every place and task implies a form, and that it is the architect's job to discover it and let it unfold. Function, he felt, was derived from nature and life whereas expression came from the human intellect. Functional forms are the same throughout the world and history, while expressive forms are bound by Blut und Erkenntnis (Blood and Knowledge) and thus dependent on time and place. He abhorred the trend in the 1920s, by such architects as Le Corbusier, to impose simplistic geometric forms from the outside and then justify them by their inherent beauty. Whereas a polished metal sphere may appeal to us intellectually, a flower, H”ring felt, is an emotional experience and a higher order of expression. He spoke of buildings as organhaft (organ-like) exhibiting Wesenhafte Gestalt (being-like form). But although this did not automatically lead to curved rather than orthogonal shapes, it did lead away from the poverty and dominance of the straight line and right angle. H”ring's ideas had a strong influence on architects such as Alvar Aalto, Louis Kahn, and his close friend Hans Scharoun.
The prolific projects of Hans Scharoun, one of the chief exponents of organic building in Germany, range from individual houses, apartment blocks, and schools to large-scale post-war re-developments in Berlin and other cities. He successfully translated H”ring's concepts of organic functionalism into reality and went beyond this to develop new spatial experiences, as well as forms, based on careful research into site, functional needs, and deeper social meanings. In his best-known project, the Berlin Philharmonie, the radical arena auditorium places performers in the centre of the audience and embraces both within a free-ranging asymmetrical auditory space. By contrast, the adjacent Musical Institute takes on a more sober orthogonal design to reflect a concern with reason and knowledge. Scharoun had considerable influence on post-war Germany and the spirit continued through the work of B–hm, Behnisch, and Fehling & Gogel.
The passionate and playful brand of organic design, as exemplified by GaudÌ and the Spanish Modernistas, continues to arise out of Latin culture and folk traditions. CÈsar Manrique of Lanzarote displayed a natural feeling for the organic: beauty of the site, local volcanic materials, vernacular forms, free and flowing spaces, and a mood of youth, spontaneity, and fun. Apart from being a talented artist, he had a deep commitment to nature and the culture and environment of his home, the small volcanic island in the Canary Islands. He spent his life warring against speculators and authorities responsible for environmental destruction and unbridled tourism. He raised local and international awareness of Canarian culture, its fragile wildlife habitats, and its vernacular architecture. The island, now a declared UNESCO World Heritage Site, has achieved much in protecting itself from the unrestricted spread of ubiquitous high-rise hotels and the worst ravages of tourism. Manrique was involved in the design of a series of imaginative public projects built to entertain (and educate) locals and visitors about different facets of Lanzarote's landscape, wildlife, and indigenous culture. They include Mirador del Rio, JardÌn de Cactus, Jameos del Agua, and his former home, now the FundaciÛn CÈsar Manrique.
While the American, Germanic, and Latin strands of organic architecture continued to evolve, a maverick modern movement—Deconstructivism—arose whose free-form products are sometimes confused with the organic tradition. Architects such as Frank O. Gehry, Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, Enric Miralles, Rem Koolhaas, Ben van Berkel, and Zaha Hadid have all set out, in their different ways, to displace order, harmony, hierarchy, and orthogonal form. Although their work shares some organic interests, such as the use of fractal geometry, it is driven by quite different imperatives. These stem from a hard intellectual view of the modern world, characterized by Gehry as "dirty realism". The contorted and fragmented forms of Deconstructivist buildings, full of sharp angles, dislocated spaces, and harsh, high-tech materials, all speak of a world of uncertainty and apprehension rather than one of organic holism, ecological design, and hope for humanity and the planet. However, elements of Gehry's later works, such as the gleaming roof of the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain (page 53), that "unfolds" like the petals of a huge flower, do evoke positive feelings.
Deep organic, deep green
Mainstream architecture is also adopting outward organic forms. The stronghold of rectilinear design is under siege. Free-form design is on the attack. More liberated and imaginative forms, unacceptable to major corporate clients a few years ago, are now actively sought. Notable examples include the Bordeaux Law Courts and London's Millennium Dome (Sir Richard Rogers), the curvaceous London mayoral headquarters (Sir Norman Foster), the competition-winning elliptical dome for the Chinese national opera house and concert hall, Beijing (Paul Ardreau), the Media Centre, Lord's Cricket Ground, London, and the Earth Centre Ark, Doncaster, England (Future Systems).
But are these projects motivated by the spirit of organic design? Geometry and science are, once again, prime movers. The intellectual attraction of new science and the purity of geometric forms, made even more dazzling via three-dimensional modelling, are stimulating their use for their own sake. They are being applied as design imposed from the outside rather than organic design created, like life and nature, from within. Even fractal geometry, a deeper representation of natural relationships, is being applied externally, divorced from the internal functions of the building. The use of geometry and science, alone, does not produce organic design.
"Green" or sustainable architecture is evolving fast, too, but there is a danger that, instead of being the vanguard of a new, holistic architecture, it will become engrossed in high-tech and energy-saving issues. Few eco-architecture projects go beyond these parameters to explore the deeper world of spiritual expression and organic form where the wonder and sensual beauty of the natural world are combined with essential practical needs of economy, efficiency, and conservation. What is now coming, as the Breaking Wave, is a new architecture that expresses the union of organic inspiration and truly sustainable design.
Patterns and forms in nature, such as the spiral and fractal, are products of internal laws of growth and of the action of external forces, such as sun, wind, and water. Architects learn to use natural forms from observing living structures: trees, bones, shells, wings, webs, eyes, petals, scales, and microscopic creatures—as illustrated in the following pages. They are the very forms of life and growth and have been key inspirations in organic architecture, whether for ornament, as in Art Nouveau, structure, as with GaudÌ, or metaphor, as with Makovecz.
The dynamics of form Pioneering students of nature's forms, whose influences are still felt today, included Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749ã1832), Ernst Haeckel (1834ã1919), and D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860ã1948). Goethe studied natural forms and coined the term morphologie. He also applied ideas of metamorphosis to art and architecture, the dynamics of form active in all living organisms, whereby an orderly and cyclic transformation can be traced in all plant forms from seed to calyx to blossom to fruit (and to seed again)—a concept central to the development of organic architecture (see page 40).
Biologist and zoologist Ernst Haeckel studied Radiolaria (plankton) and was captivated by their exquisite geometrical forms and complex patterns. He is best known for his work Art Forms in Nature with its magnificent illustrated plates by lithographer Adolf Giltsch. Such stunning illustrations had an immediate impact on Art Nouveau and the work of Hermann Obrist, August Endell, and Louis Comfort Tiffany. Architect RenÈ Binet not only produced a book of ornament based on Haeckel's illustrations, but also designed the monumental entrance gate to the 1900 Paris World Exposition, as a vast radiolarian. Haeckel, himself, used beautiful jellyfish forms as ceiling decoration in his former home, the "Villa Medusa".
Zoologist D'Arcy Thompson also set out to define and classify form and studied an astounding range of natural forms from microscopic Radiolaria to shells, insect wings to raindrops, snowflakes to the splash of a pebble in a pond. His thoughtful results are published in his classic work On Growth and Form where he concludes that we must "ärealise that in general no organic forms exist save such are in conformity with physical and mathematical laws".
Forms of the future There is an upsurge in interest in nature's designs spurred on by modern science and mathematics and particularly amongst engineers, who are using new computer-modelling technology to twist, fold, and curve shapes to support stresses more elegantly. As science sees further into the microscopic world of matter and uncovers more about the remarkable structures of living things, nature continues to surprise us and teach us how we might build more cleverly, economically, subtly, and ecologically.
In modern architecture, geometry is manifest more in materials, structures, and new mathematics than in notions of proportion and symmetry. Some of the greatest 20th century champions of non-rectilinear organic forms have been engineering pioneers such as Max Berg, EugËne Freyssinet, Robert Maillart, Pier Luigi Nervi, FÈlix Candela, and Buckminster Fuller. They pushed new geometry and new materials, such as reinforced concrete, to their limit to create daring and beautiful structures. Their search for structures to span ever wider spaces with less material led to a light, "floating" architecture that uses thin shell, frame, and tent constructions of audacious three-dimensional shapes using parabolic and hyperbolic curves, barrel vaults, folded slabs, and geodesic domes.
Today, detailed study of nature's forms, use of non-linear geometry, and computer modelling are exploring an exciting, and as yet, little-known world of new non-linear organic architecture. At a time when nature is viewed as being a mercurial mixture of order and chaos, pattern and accident, simplicity and complexity, it is not surprising that the creators of buildings should respond with new concepts.
Cecil Balmond of Ove Arup & Partners, London, specializes in what he calls "informal or exotic structures", based on new science, number systems, fractals, and powerful computer modelling systems. Discovering patterns hidden within numbers is the key to re-animating structural engineering in a process that he likens more to weaving and basketry than traditional engineering.
The lightweight timber gridshell, for example, is simple, economical, and strong, and uses sustainable materials. Like the catenary structures derived by GaudÌ from his hanging models (see page 34), the thin wooden laths of the gridshell act like chains to take up optimum structural forms. Pioneered in the 1970s by Frei Otto for Germany's Mannheim Garden Festival, the gridshell has been chosen by Edward Cullinan Architects, working with B¸ro Happold, for the undulating tunnel structure of the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum, Sussex, England. Elsewhere, Philippe Samyn has evolved "harmonic" double curved structures, using fractals, which are low-cost, lightweight, and easy to erect (see page 212), Shoei Yoh uses local craftsmen to "weave" organic bamboo grids (see page 162), and Santiago Calatrava has engineered sculptural bridges (see page 66), roofs, and towers (see page 46) with great panache and elegance.
Boat design is also another example of an allied craft that employs specialist knowledge of complex double curved forms. Gehry used naval architecture computer software to model the fractal shapes of the Guggenheim Musem, Bilbao (see page 53) and Future Systems used boatbuilders to fabricate precision parts for the Media Centre at Lord's Cricket Ground, London (see page 47). Roofers familiar with domes were employed by Alsop & St–rmer to detail the free-form "pods" at Peckham Library, London, and the hull-like La FrÈgate CafÈ, Jersey, Channel Islands (see page 42).
Patterns and forms in nature are products of internal laws of growth, such as the spiral and fractal, and external forces acting on them, such as sun, wind, and water. One of the most powerful and widespread natural laws is the Fibonacci series. Named after Leonardo Fibonacci, the medieval Italian mathematician, the infinite number sequence is 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89 and so on, where each new number is generated by the sum of the two preceding numbers. It governs phyllotaxis (the arrangement of leaves on a stem) to give optimum chlorophyll production. It also describes spiral growth patterns of objects as diverse as pine-apples, sunflowers, pine cones, seeds, tendrils of climbing plants, animal horns, and numerous shells, the most often cited being the nautilus. The number series generates the Golden Section, the ratio of 1:1168 or 8:13, and the Golden Rectangle, whose sides are in that ratio. This ratio was held by Classical and Renaissance architects to create harmonious proportions. Furthermore, arcs drawn with the radii of the squares in larger and larger golden rectangles will generate a continuous logarithmic spiral.
If according to Dutch architect Ton Alberts "every angle has its angel", then surely every curve must have its archangel! According to GaudÌ "curves are for God". The circle representing the path of the sun, moon, and stars, and the cycle of life and death, has been used since pre-historic times for the henges and barrows of sacred sites. Domes, arches, and vaults were used in religious architecture because of their power to evoke the sublime. Even in secular use curves can still retain a special emotional power. Curves may be gentle and graceful like the swan-neck or S-curve of life, so prevalent in decorative designs using plant motifs, or they may be tense and explosive like a coiled spring. They may also be sleek and streamlined to respond to the energy and force of wind and water, or sensual and erotic in suggesting the beauty of living forms. Curves are very strong and can reach optimum structural shapes as parabolic and hyperbolic arches and shells.
Fractal and iterative systems
When in the 1970s Benoit Mandelbrot coined the term fractal, in his groundbreaking book The Fractal Geometry of Nature, he fundamentally changed the way we look at the natural world. Central to the concept is that of self-similarity —from the macro to micro scales. However far you zoom in or zoom out of a fractal system there will always be an unending cascade of self-similar, but not identical, detail. Fractal geometry describes natural shapes and rhythms such as snowflakes, leaves, tree branches, mountains, waves, and coastlines. Applied to architecture, rhythm and composition become fractal self-similar detail, often referred to as "textural progression". From a fractal point-of-view, Modern Movement architecture lacks textural progression and harmony with its surroundings, while the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, and other organic architects, show fine fractal cascades of detail from the large (plans and elevations) to the small (windows, doors, and decorative patterns). As Mandelbrot commented: "A Mies van der Rohe building is a scale-bound throwback to Euclid, while a high period Beaux Arts building is rich in fractal aspects." Fractal geometry opens up endless possibilities for designers interested in expressing the more complex underlying rhythms and random patterns of nature. As music has been found to display fractal distributions, it is even possible to use music to generate natural organic designs.
Rectilinear buildings are not ideal "green" buildings. While buildings are mostly still linear, the physical laws governing the dynamics of fluids, heat, light, sound, and force are mostly non-linear. The processes of growth and decay occur, not in straight lines, but in curves and cycles. Yet we continue to design and build rectilinear straightjackets that constrain and block natural energy flows. Curvilinear buildings, on the other hand, work with nature and allow optimum shapes and forms to be developed that are more efficient, economic, and appropriate to local climate and environmental conditions.
It is well known that wind flows, for instance, are best responded to with curved aerodynamic forms that reduce "drag" as seen in the smooth curving profiles of modern cars and planes. Passive ventilation, to avoid or reduce energy-hungry air-conditioning, is also enhanced by aerodynamic shapes (see the wind towers at Bluewater Mall, page 74). Why then are architects and engineers so slow to bring these benefits to the world of building?
The sun moves in a semicircular path across the sky and yet most buildings are rectangular —their orientation, layout, and straight faÁades limiting the full benefits of natural lighting and passive solar gain. For cooler climates, however, a curving sun-facing faÁade, which catches the sun throughout the day and the seasons, seems the obvious solution. If feasible, it would be even better if rooms, or even entire buildings, could slowly revolve, ecologically powered, like a garden summerhouse, to track the sun or shade according to the climate or season.
Temperature flows also behave better in curvilinear interiors. Heat is more evenly distributed avoiding corner hot and cold spots. Heat is most efficiently conserved within a compact form, the sphere being the most efficient. Ventilation flows are more easily controlled bringing an altogether more equitable and comfortable indoor climate. In harsh climates, semi-underground earth-sheltered structures can produce zero-energy buildings—ideally suited to organic design.
The shapes and forms of internal spaces affect our feelings. Maybe because natural forms have many positive associations, they evoke feelings of harmony and wellbeing. In esoteric terms, curvilinear structures and forms are said to produce different subtle energy resonances. According to ecological designer and teacher Victor Papanek: "On a near-mystic level, various sensory and subconscious triggers released by such structures flood our minds with a sense of joy and wellbeing."
In the past, organic architecture has not always used the "greenest" materials. But this is changing and many more organic buildings are now being designed with an increased ecological awareness to incorporate low-energy, sustainable, and recycled materials and energy-saving systems.
We have come full circle to consider the future of organic architecture and design. In my first book The Natural House Book (revised as The Gaia Natural House Book), I proposed a Gaia Charter for design to satisfy the three themes of Health, Ecology, and Spirit. What is now needed is an integration of these themes with the philosophy and power of organic architecture.
The Gaia Charter for organic architecture and design
Let the design: