"IN THE CAUSE OF ARCHITECTURE":
COMMENTARIES IN MEMORIAM
WHAT DID WRIGHT MEAN BY ORGANIC?
Organic is a word that looms large in the lexicon of Frank Lloyd Wright. Although he never offered his collective audience a cogent explanation for his use of the word, he did shed some light on his use of the word in a conversation with Steve Oyakawa and me in the summer of 1953. My purpose now is to make a record of that conversation.
To say that you had a conversation with Mr. Wright is probably a contradiction in terms. There were precious few of the notables who visited Taliesin, not to mention the apprentices, who ever engaged Mr. Wright in a serious conversation, much less a conversation that developed into an in-depth dialogue. There were a few occasions, and when they happened, it was memorable. Mr. Wright's ability to dominate a conversation is demonstrated by an interview with Mike Wallace. The best source is: "The Master Architect," Conversations with Frank Lloyd Wright; edited by Patrick J. Meehan, Architect, AIA (John Wiley and Sons, 1984).
For present purposes I will call our interaction a conversation, although there was precious little response on our part. The moment was a sunny summer afternoon in 1953 after I had returned from supervising construction of the Zimmerman House in Manchester, New Hampshire. I have no idea how Steve and I happened to be in the living room at Taliesin in Wisconsin talking with Mr. Wright, a certainly uncommon circumstance. Mr. Wright was sitting at the head of the dining table in that high backed slatted chair. Steve and I were sitting in the barrel chairs at the side. After some talk, he asked us, "Would you rather have people like you or respect you?" Steve responded with 'like' and I with 'respect.' The answer he was probably looking for was 'both.' Mr. Wright then went on to talk about the word organic.
The gist of the discourse was that, if you wanted people to remember you and your work, you had to have a simple descriptive word or phrase that people could easily remember and associate that word with both you and your work; the hook, as they say in the advertising business. Then he said, "For that purpose, I chose the word organic. If I were doing it today (1953), I would choose a different word, probably bionic. One of you boys can use that." Those are his exact words.
The implications are obvious for the use of Organic, Prairie or Usonian as descriptive names for categories of architecture. It is the word he chose to represent his work and for good reason. If he had chosen bionic, it would have made no difference in the work. But don't expect an esoteric dissertation on the use of the word organic from Mr. Wright. He simply did not think that way. Had he been a deductive thinker; he might have been a doctor, an architectural historian or even a scientist, but not the world's most creative architect. He was an inductive thinker. The creative process for architects is different from that of the scientist, as MacKinnon has indicated in his In Search of Human Effectiveness. One measure of Wright's penchant for being ahead of the times is that, in 1953 at age 86, he would have chosen bionic as a current alternative to organic. The common use and understanding of the word bionic was some 20 years in the future, and organic was 100 years in the past. These words are only labels anyway, and irrelevant to substance of the work. His architecture stands on its own with or without words.
I suspect that the same logic engendering the possible use of bionic in place of organic also prompted the shift from Prairie to organic, whenever that took place. I don't know if Mr. Wright was originally responsible for applying Prairie to architecture, but it is certain that after it became associated with the Chicago School of architects, Mr. Wright was through with the use of that particular word. Organic, as applied to architecture, had been in use since the 1840s by Horatio Greenough and later by Louis Sullivan, but Mr. Wright made it his own. In the 1930s he needed a fresh, unique word of his own to reference the new work typified by the Jacobs #1 house. He coined 'USONIAN' and attributed it to Samuel Butler to give it credibility in the first instance. The term eventually became his own ID tag, which is why he coined it in the first place. The association with Butler became irrelevant, as he knew it would.
There was also mystery. "Every building has to have mystery," he said. Mystery accounts for the circuitous routes required to enter many of his buildings and for the sheer magic of space in others. The 1933 Playhouse at Hillside, destroyed by fire in 1953, was for me the epitome of the "mystery" that Mr. Wright spoke of. That incarnation of the Playhouse was, along with the living room at Taliesin, the quintessential Wright space; what I like to call his personal spaces: ones he lived in, modeled and refined until there were no further appropriate changes. That finality did not mean that the buildings were perfect, but that they embraced the exact degree of imperfection required for a true work of art. The Playhouse had mystery at every turn. It was marvelous in the afternoon with the wood slat blinds closed, but still admitting a reasonable amount of light. The beamed ceiling, screened in part by the intervening balconies and projection horizontal planes cantilevered from them, was far away and so dark you really could not tell where or what the shape was. Mysterious.
The play of the 45-degree angles of the balconies against the 30/60-degree of the seating was always a mystery to reconcile. The Playhouse was best at dinnertime on Saturday night with candlelight and a hundred sources of soft light, including those glorious light pendants and other built in light sources, with space continuing in every direction. The quotation, "So works the artist to make form, as God does, one with spirit," lettered on the wall of the entry vestibule, paraphrased from Hovey's Masque of Taliesin, was the perfect introduction to the magic and mystery of the Playhouse. The quotation lettered on the wall to the right of the stage opening in the playhouse from Whitman's "Song of the Open Road," beginning with "Here is the test of wisdom" and ending with "Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the Soul". It is probably pedantic to draw a parallel between the quotation and the floating planes abounding in the Playhouse but Wright chose to post the selection in a conspicuous location.
There were more words. This time they are quotations from the Chinese for a book. He could not find anything that expressed what he wanted to say so, "I had to write them myself, and attribute them to the Chinese." This comment was accompanied by the infamous wry smile.
Until I sat down to write this, I had not realized the entire conversation was about words and the meaning Mr. Wright attached to those words.