What makes architecture ‘Organic’? A new visual definition.
Listening to Ma Yansong of MAD Architects at the UT School of Architecture, Austin.
The criteria by which architecture can be defined as ‘organic’ has changed dramatically in the last century. Since the time that Frank Llyod Wright coined the term—meant to describe architecture that would be true to itself and its intended function—architecture and construction technology have changed. Now, aided by parametric design and advanced construction techniques, we have buildings and spaces that mimic natural forms and patterns in mind-boggling ways. Millennials, in the fields of design like myself, have now studied and written about this new breed of ‘organic’ architecture for years, at school and beyond.
Today, I want to share a new experience of architecture that falls under this banner.
A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture. Ma Yansong from MAD Architects in Beijing was speaking.
I must confess, I went into the lecture afraid that I would be viewing a sea of all too familiar, glitzy, amorphous and technology-driven buildings. I was also biased in believing that with a majority of projects being in China, I would be seeing rapidly constructed feats of engineering, with little finesse or uniqueness.
I was proved wrong.
I was pleasantly surprised by the forms and materials I saw. Above all, the work that Ma Yansong presented provoked a new thinking about what could be considered organic.
Yansong’s lecture started with a slide composed of sketches of water and mountains placed together, titled “Shan-Shui City” and refers to the traditional Chinese style paintings of mountains. It was meant to represent the relationship of the city to nature—a relationship that is core to the firm’s work and ideology.
Yansong provided insights into several of MAD Architects’ projects, some of his own work as a student and the very first project by the firm—an aquarium whose twisting form was modeled around the behavior of fish.
Of these projects, and their behind-the-scenes stories and concepts shared, two pieces of architecture stood out for me. The first was the duo of the ‘Absolute Towers’ in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. The towers, the cover images for this article, stood out because learning about this construction and concept made me think of them ( rather surprisingly) as organic.
I have had the pleasure of seeing and studying many skyscrapers, none of whom I would ever consider organic, no matter how undulating their form.
These towers were different. They have been given many names—among them, the ‘Marlyn Monroe’ towers—for their feminine and curvaceous form. Their form is indeed curvaceous and womanly, and each tower is unique in its rhythm of rotations and curves. Like nature, no two entities are alike. Yansong shared that that the firm was asked to create the second tower soon after the first, and it was assumed that this could be done speedily, since it was identical to the first. MAD architects contended that the form (and therefore drawings) had to be unique and would be developed again.
This dedication to create a unique entity, natural in that quality, despite the familiar pressure to produce rapidly and easily, is a new ‘organic’ to me. It would have been extremely easy to create an identical undulating and beautiful form flanking the first tower. But that this was not done, and that each tower stood like a natural, unrepeatable form, made them both suddenly beautiful to me.
The second project was the Harbin Opera house in Harbin, China. As an Architect and Landscape Architect, this project had particular appeal for me. For one, it shaved down the barrier between building and landscape—its sloping, serpentine and flowing roof forms merging with the surrounding ground. Secondly it brought in natural light into the inner chambers of an opera house, a building and space typology that had until now been cut off from natural light and the exterior world. Light, through massive amorphous natural shaped windows, streamed into all parts of the building and exposed it to the outside world and its waterfront setting.
In an opera house, where acoustics are primary, this is was small engineering feat. But this had been made possible, and made me think of a building typology as organic.
There were other projects too—large groups of buildings rising out of mountain topography and taking their form from the contours below and even a so called ‘Fake mountain’ residential structure.
The two projects discussed in detail, however, are sufficient to indicate how MAD’s work, has redefined the term ‘organic architecture’ for me.