Taliesin West, the school and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright 2018

Photography and text by Michael Pagnotta

In 1914 Frank Lloyd Wright originated the phrase “organic architecture” to describe his philosophy regarding the characteristics a building should have with respect to its surroundings. Simply stated, the tenets of organic architecture include a unique relationship between a building and its environment, where the building grows naturally from its setting and is so unique that it would be out of place in any other location. The form of a structure should reflect the characteristics of the few materials used in its design, and the use of these materials should be true to their nature. Interior space should determine the exterior form and spaces should flow freely.

As an architect, I have great respect for the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. I’ve been a follower and at times a practitioner of “organic architecture.” In 1980, when I was a sophomore at the University of Texas I had the incredible opportunity to work with architect Bradford Duncan on the Honduran island of Utila. Duncan had been an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in the 1930s. I found myself only two degrees of separation from Frank Lloyd Wright.

Mike Pagnotta on the roof in a 1993 example of LBI organic architecture.

Working on an island with only four hours of electricity during the day gave Duncan ample time to talk about his days with Mr. Wright, as he still referred to his mentor, and the experience he received in the Arizona desert working with free-form organic architecture and its creator. My job that summer was to prepare measured drawings of the resort complex Duncan was creating with poured-in-place concrete slabs rising in and around the palm trees in the jungle overlooking the beaches of Utila.

Duncan took great care to identify the specimen trees that would remain, along with the ocean views and solar orientation before laying out the resort’s floor plans among these natural features. The materials used were concrete, natural stone, mahogany, and ceramic tile, all derived from local sources.

This work of Brad Duncan was an honest interpretation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture as the work was “appropriate and natural” for the island of Utila in the 1980s.

I believe there is a time and place for this kind of organic architecture but there are few examples found on the Jersey Shore as site restrictions and budget constraints limit the possibilities. Instead, the definitions of a successful building should be changed to reflect the time and place of its design.

In this post-Sandy environment, an “appropriate and natural” building on LBI would need to meet a different set of criteria. I believe the design tenets for successful architectural design for LBI in this era would need to meet the following criteria:

Mike Pagnotta in Utila, 1980

The design should be appropriate for its site. Organically, our design takes advantage of views, breezes, and proper solar orientation, with passive solar design concepts implemented as possible. The human factors that need appropriate responses are designing within zoning limitations, adherence to CAFRA regulations, and the use of available utilities.

The design must reflect and implement the latest in flood-resistant design and low-maintenance materials. Piling foundations, flood louvers, and storm water retention systems are all required in making our design appropriate for LBI.

The design should be appropriate for its time. The post-Sandy era gave us an opportunity to reboot the aging housing stock on the island. Gone were the slab on grade and short below flood level foundations of the small cottage or beach bungalow. Homes now are designed for year-round use and many have become homes for retirees. Organically, our design would appear to be a timeless extension of its site, but in our new definition, our design would utilize the latest technologies and materials of our time. Our design reflects the latest trends in conveniences and appointments. Additionally, the design should reflect market conditions and be an appropriate product for its location. And of course, taking advantage of sustainable options would only strengthen the relationship between site and structure.

The design should reflect and advocate for our client’s needs. Organically, this one is easy. As we design from the inside out, the floor plan is designed to be a tangible stage set for the many functions of the family beach house. Our open floor plan will be light-filled and airy and our kitchens will act as a central hub and gathering area for family. The form of our internal stair tower not only offers ease of access to the roof deck, but also functions as a solar chimney to naturally cool the home.

Further, our design must meet the budget of the client and represent good value. Our design should protect the investment as a product that could be rented or sold easily in the future. And in the age of the internet and HGTV, the aesthetics of the home must satisfy the unique preferences of the client.

While not organic architecture in the truest sense of the definition, our new design criteria for LBI results in buildings that are appropriate and natural for their site and reflect the standards of our time in the post-Sandy era.

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