Organicism may be defined as the philosophy whose major categories are derived metaphorically from the attributes of living and growing things.

Organicism is based on the conviction that art should imitate the hope of effectuating the metamorphosis of dead matter into a living being. The metaphorical application to architecture of concepts originally reserved for living nature, is one of the most widespread and constant themes in the history of Western architecture and its theory, but also one of the most variable and elusive." (Caroline van Eck, Organicism in 19th cent arch., p.18) For Van Eck, organicism did not arise at the end of the eighteenth or early nineteenth century, but was, in fact, an integral part of the Vitruvian tradition. In discussing the range of intercolumniation, or how high temples should be raised from the ground, Alberti simply reinvigorated the Vitruvian tradition when he used proportional measurements, based on the analogy with the body. .."just as the head, foot, and indeed any member must correspond to each other an to all the rest of the body in an animal, so in a building, and especially a temple, the parts of the whole body must be so composed that they all correspond one to another, and anyone, taken individually, may provide the dimensions of all the rest." (book VII, section 5) From Aristotle and Alberti on, "Purposive Unity" was the aspect of living nature that art should imitate above all others. see Critique of Judgement. According to Van Eck's account, "both the use of modular proportions in architecture and the advocacy of organic unity in designs are only the expressions of an underlying and more fundamental notion, that of purposive unity. The works of God and nature are unified wholes, based on the regulative use of a concept of the whole." (p.21) (cf. the "argument from design")

The term 'organic' was first used by Aristotle, but not in the modern sense. While the term organic was used of the living body as a whole, it more frequently applied to the members of the body, which are, as it were, its tool. (G.N. Orsini. "The ancient roots of a modern idea" in Rousseau, Organic Form.) Organs are specialized structures in the body tailored to carry out a particular function. Corresponding to the word organon , or instrument, organic meant instrumental. Aristotle compared the organs of animal movement with the "organa," or parts of war machines, like the arms of a catapult about to launch a projectile. (Deleuze and Guattari reprise a metaphysical usage of the term in their concept of a Body without Organs)

It was Plato in the Phaedrus who first enunciated the principle of organic unity in art. In it Socrates says that a composition "should be like a living being, with a body of its own as it were, and neither headless nor footless, but with a middle and members adapted to each other and the whole." Thus part of the classic formulation of organicism is that the parts of a work of art are not arbitrary or factitious, but as close and intimate as that between the organs of a living body. In his Poetics, Aristotle used the organic analogy to call for coherence in time: "The construction of (epic) stories should be like that in a drama; they should be based on a single action, one that is a complete whole in itself, with a beginning, middle, and end, so as to enable the work to produce its own proper pleasure like a living creature which is one and a whole."

The idea of organic unity implies basic concepts of the One and the Many, for organic unity consists of a multiplicity of parts which is reduced to a unity, and of a unity which is made up of a multiplicity. The question of "How the one can be many, and the many be one" is one of the questions that was argued in Socrates' circle.In the Thaetetus, Plato's idea of the whole plays an increasingly important role. He advances the notion that "the whole made up of the parts is a single notion (eidos ) different from the parts." This passage seems to be the origin of the maxim that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. (see emergence) (on eidos also see transcendence / immanence)

Plato's organicism was the foundation of his critique of systems of rhetoric--the rules for writing, which Butcher, the Aristotelian commentator, called "the uselessness of mere mechanical rules." This was the beginning of the historical function of organicism as a way to loosen the rigid rules of rhetoric and the pedantry of genres.

In the nineteenth century, under the influence of romanticism, organic qualities were explicitly valued in art and upheld as a criticism of the mechanical. For Coleridge, "The form is mechanic, when on any given material we impress a pre-determined form, as when to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened. The organic form, on the other hand, is innate, it shapes as it develops from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form." --Coleridge, "On the Definitions of LIfe" (1830)in Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism. Coleridge developed his notion of organic form out of an analysis of Shakespeare's plays, which he held to have been designed from a unified view of human nature. One of his favorite concepts was that the peculiar power of artistic genius lies in the ability to combine tension and reconciliation of manifold opposites.

Coleridge develops the theory of the romantic imagination as distinct from memory and fancy. Its metaphor, for M. H. Abrams, is the lamp, as opposed to the mirror. Coleridge defined organic form in terms of five attributes:

1. The whole is primary. The parts are derived. (principle of the seed)

"The difference between an inorganic and organic body lies in this: In the first, the whole is nothing more than a collection of the individual parts or phenomena, while in the second, the whole is everything and the parts are nothing."

2. Growth: An organic form conveys the process of its own development to the observer.

(genetic interest: process (or becoming ) as much as being)

3. Assimilation: As it grows, the organism assimilates diverse elements into its own substance.

Similarly, the mind feeds on images of sense.

4. Internality: The achieved form is directed from within. The plant "effectuates" its own secret growth.

An artefact needs to be made, but a plant makes itself. For Coleridge, the organic form is an educt rather than a product--to educe something is merely to "bring out" (latin educere) something that has a (predetermined) form. (Does this concept side with preformism as opposed to epigenesis?)

5. Interdepedence: The parts are interdependent.

(see M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp, pp 170-176)

The nineteenth century preoccupation with style is the context for studying organicism in architecture during that century. Caroline Van Eck distinguishes three versions of organicism in the nineteenth century: tectonic organicism, which considers nature as a model for constructional procedures and for the way these must be represented in ornament (eg. Schinkel), religious organicism, which considers nature as the art of God, and Gothic architecture to be the most suited for the conveyence of religious experience (eg. Ruskin, Oxford Museum), and scientific organicism , based on developments in comparative anatomy, which uses biological concepts such as " type" and "conditions of existence" to understand and impose order on the history of architecture, to introduce new materials, and even to reject style.

In 19th cent. architects such as Viollet-le-Duc, Ruskin, Semper, Bötticher, Root and Sullivan sought to represent a natural history in stone, to imitate the methods rather than forms of nature: . Viollet-le-Duc singled out unity as the aspect of nature which architecture should imitate. Unity in architecture is based on structure, that is on the means and ways of construction. "In one word, creation is unity; chaos, the absence of unity." For Viollet-le-Duc, architecture is not an imitative art, but rather a logical system equivalent to the workings, rather than the appearances, of nature, one in which forms were the inevitable emanation of universal and natural laws, discernable through observation and subjective investigation. (But, at least in France, these laws were not those of Darwin, they remained a structural principle increasingly associated with function)

Georges Cuvier's principle of correlation of 1812 linked the part to the whole in a "pure logic of a law of tendency" For Cuvier, "Every organized being forms a whole, a unique and closed system, in which all parts correspond mutually and contribute to the same action by reciprocal reaction. None of its parts can change without the others changing too; and consequently each of them taken separately, indicates and gives all others." "La forme de la dent entraine la forme....tout comme l'equation d'une courbe entraine toutes ses proprietés. "(for relationship between Viollet and Cuvier, see Bernard Thaon, in Actes du Colloque International Viollet-le-Duc, Paris, 1982. pp 131-142) The great innovation which Cuvier had introduced was to shift the emphasis from description by the identifiable members of an organism, and classification by description, to classification by the function performed: so that ressemblance was no longer the principal criterion of classification, but the working of the member within the organism. Michel Foucault situates Cuvier in the shift away from representation, as a structure of visibility, towards "organic structure." With this shift of episteme, which Foucault dates to the 1790's, character in biology is now linked to function. (see homology for a specific instance of this shift.)

The celebrated debate between Cuvier and Geoffroy Ste. Hilaire, which Goethe followed avidly, was seen as a debate between comparative anatomy -- a modern, positivistic, approach to the requirements of functional coherence -- and a idealizing concept of morphology, despite the fact that Cuvier was a staunch opponent of evolution, while Ste. Hilaire espoused the concept. Cuvier's conviction that each animal has a logical coherence that ties its parts to each other and to the environment, allowed him to dismiss evolution while affirming the scientific certaintly of biology. Ste. Hilaire based his extensive system of comparative anatomy on the doctrine of an ideal fundamental type. (see analogy / homology)Deleuze and Guattari characterize the "never-ending" debate between Cuvier and Ste. Hilaire in unexpected ways. They describe Cuvier's scientific definitions of the relations between organs and functions as making a unity of analogy that is transcendent, while Geoffroy's abstract descriptions assume a plane of consistency or composition. (A distinct echo of this concept is the contemporary interpretation of species as individuals which are the units of evolution)

Gottfried Semper was struck by the success of Cuvier's arrangement of the great collection of natural specimens at the Jardin des Plantes, especially compared to the confusion of the material in the Great Exhibition. Influenced by his visit to the Jardin des Plantes, Semper attempted to formulate a typology of architectural forms. For Semper, architecture takes a unique position among the arts because it imitates not the visible and tangible forms of nature but her laws. what is the history of this claim? Although nature creates an infinte variety of forms, she is very parsimonious and simple in the use of basic laws. The analogy between Cuvier and Semper is often described in terms of the (positivistic?) stress on the "conditions of existence." However, at least in Semper's case, this materialistic and reductive interpretation, first promulgated by Riegl, seems unfair. (On Cuvier, see Dorinda Outram, Georges Cuvier. Semper's relationship to Cuvier has been outlined by Rosemarie Bletter, "Semper" in Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects)

Semper's reaction to his visit to the Jardin des Plantes was set out in the paper Wissenschaft, Industrie, Kunst, in which he proposed a quadruple organization of human artefacts, and in which the primitive hut provided a model of articulation. This hut is made up of four radical, irreducible elements: the hearth, which is the "moral foundation of settlement", the walls, the terrace, and the roof. These four radicals correspond to four ways of making: moulding for the hearth, weaving and plaiting for the walls, carpentry and joinery to the terrace and the roof, to which was added stereotomy, or masonry. (see Joseph Rykwert, "Gottfried Semper and the Problem of Style" in Architectural Design 51, 6/7-1981.) Semper examined craft, material, and technique as sources of meaning, as "self-illuminating symbols." (see Podro, Critical Historians of Art, Chapt. IV) Meaning is generated through both both making and metaphor, and the transference of motifs from one material (or culture) to another is a central element of Semper's thought. Thus the literal character of material and techniqe are not themselves objects of our stylistic appreciation unless their potential has been brought out by their handling. Ornament can bring out latent potential, as for example, when clothing and bodily ornament "clothe the naked form with an elucidating symbolism." Semper acknowledges the role of masking, of denial of reality, as well. In his prologemena to Der Stil, he says explicitly that in order to become an idea brought to realization in appearance," is not absolutely necessary that the material as such be a factor in the artistic appearance." (quoted in Podro, p.49) "Architecture, like its great teacher, nature, should choose and apply its material according to the laws conditioned by nature, yet should it not also make the form and character of its creations dependent on the ideas embodied in them, and not on the material?" (Four Elements of Architecture, p.102)

Caroline Van Eck describes the nineteenth-century transformation of organicism from a philosophical and religious complex of thought, based on Aristotelian notions of purposive unity, into a scientific and secular view of the connection between architecture and living nature, in which functionality is singled out as the most important similarity. The "conditions of existence and the demands of material" which determine the functional integrity of a building are the same as those of natural organisms. According to Eck, in the 1880's and 90's organicism "loses its spell". It is no longer associated with the classical tradition, infused with rhetorical and Aristotelian concepts, but becomes an esoteric pseudo-philosophy. "Purposive unity" is replaced by function, which at times comes close to the 18th century defintion of "character" when Louis Sullivan, in his discussion of "Function and Form", states that "outward appearances ressemble inner purposes."

In the twentieth century, Frank Lloyd Wright raised the banner of organicism. "By organic architecture I mean an architecture that develops from within outward in harmony with the conditions of its being, as distinguished from one that is applied from without." Frank Lloyd Wright, "In the Cause of Architecture, 1914, or again "An organic form grows its structure out of conditions the way a plant grows out of the soil...both unfold similarly from within." (Modern Architecture, flyleaf) For Sullivan and Wright, great architecture must evolve organically out of the specific architectural problem to be solved, a thesis which clearly suggests the necessity for direct and "natural" expression. (see natural form)

Louis Sullivan describes "real thinking," thinking in the present tense, as organic thought. "It is in the present, only, that you really live, therefore it is in the present, only that you can really think. And in this sense you think organically. Pseudo-thinking is inorganic. The one is living, the other dead. The present is the organic moment, the living moment." (Kindergarten Chats, "Thought.")

In his Princeton lectures on Modern Architecture, published in 1931, Frank Lloyd Wright states that "the word (organic) applies to 'living' structure--a structure or concept wherein features or parts are so organized in form and substance as to be, applied to purpose, integral. Everything that 'lives' is therefore organic." (quoted in Donald Drew Egbert, "The Idea of Organic Expression and American Architecture" in Stow Persons, ed. Evolutionary Thought in America.) Thus, to Wright, a building that is "integral" (by which he means a building whose every part is a direct result of the process of construction for use) is a "living" organism.

For Frank Lloyd Wright, organic architecture meant primarily a living architecture in which useless forms were sloughed off as part of a nation's growth, and in which every composition, every element, and every detail was deliberately shaped for the job it had to perform. Wright stressed the unity of building, furnishings, and environment in an "organic-entity, as contrasted with that former insensate aggregation of parts...One great thing instead of a quarrelling collection of so many little things." (quoted in Ulrich Conrads, Programs and Manifestoes, p.25)

At different moments Wright also meant:
crystalline plan forms,
the possibility of growth by asymmetrical addition,
the relationship of composition to site and client,
the use of local materials,
the individuality of every created thing,
the need for every artist to endow his work with the integrity of his inmost being, etc.
(Peter Collins, "The Biological Analogy", in Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture.)

In Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Robert Venturi criticizes what he call Wright's self-limiting biological analogy, and links it to Wright's hatred of cities. Venturi quotes Edmund W. Sinnott, The Problems of Organic Form, who describes the specific form of a plant or animal as an interaction between a genetic constitution and an environment, not as a pure action of the gene. (cf. continued criticism of the " discourse of gene action" in genotype / phenotype) Venturi describes architecture as registering conflicts between exterior and interior, as a complex order that registers often opposing forces. He descibes Wright as working primarily in a suburban environment, which posed few limitations to the continuities of interior and exterior and points to Wright's refusal to recognise the setting of the Guggenheim Museum that was not sympathetic to the direct expression of the interior.

Is organicism the same as naturalism? Donald Drew Egbert describes naturalism as "a philosophy which, in both its romantic and functionalitic aspects, encourages man to be "natural" by living in accord with what he judges the phenomenal world of nature to be." Buildings can be thought of as in harmony with the the natural world from different points of view. Donald Drew Egbert contrasts the "romantic" from the functionalistic" attitudes when discussing organic expression and architecture, both of which he considers forms of naturalism.

Against van Eck's account, is organic form in architecture to be opposed to the Renaissance Humanist tradition? Is it a contrast between a design method based on universal and abstract princples versus one that stresses the uniqueness of the local, the intuitive, and the specific facts on nature? Is Organicism a strategy of invention, or of interpretation ? (Is it fruitful for one and dangerous for the other?) When organicism is a strategy of interpretation, the work of analysis raises a number of questions: Is it possible to divide an organic work into parts? What purpose is served by the division? What procedures should be followed in order to divide the work into parts that are vital and not artificial? As Plato said in the Phaedrus, one must not hack away at the parts of a beautiful whole like a clumsy butcher.