Attention, Bay Street: it's not just your workers who need to relax. Your buildings do, too. So sayeth today's prophets of organic architecture, an old movement with roots in ancient Greece, art nouveau and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright that is now experiencing a controversial revival.
Widely considered the modern pioneer of organic architecture, Wright held that the form and function of a building are inseparable.
Larry Richards, a professor of architecture at the University of Toronto, explains that for Wright, organic meant "intrinsic," whereby the "whole is to the part as the part is to the whole."
For Wright, a doorknob's design had to have an intrinsic relationship to the overall concept and design of an organic building. While Wright's philosophy was part of an overall aesthetic, today's organic architecture is more physical and grounded in environmental awareness.
Says Richards, "Organic architecture is about principles of conception and design but also about materials and material processes, about labour, and of course ultimately about community and sharing of the world's resources. Ideally, it should give back as much as, or more than, it takes from the earth."
Materials play a crucial role in today's interpretation. They should come from near the building site and be as unprocessed as possible, even recyclable. This raises some tough questions for architects. How do you make steel fit the organic standard?
The U of T and renowned Stantec Architecture recently collaborated on a project that addressed this issue. The Stantec-designed Student Centre at the Scarborough campus was conceived as an environmental structure to provide multi-purpose spaces for students, faculty and visitors. The construction involved reusing materials from demolished buildings. For instance, the builders harvested 18 tons of steel from the Royal Ontario Museum renovation, then cut it to size for reuse in the Student Centre.
Stantec also uses sustainable materials such as bamboo flooring. Stantec architect Stephen Phillips says bamboo is a choice material because of its durability and cost-effectiveness. Tree-huggers give it the thumbs-up because it grows and regenerates quickly. Phillips also gives the green light to wheat board made from compressed chaff left over from winnowed grain. Adds Richards, "A lot of the new organic materials are increasingly strange mixtures of natural subtances like hemp and synthetic binding ingredients."
For Richards, the ideal organic building would use few scarce resources and minimal amounts of materials to achieve maximum ends.
In no way would the building endanger the occupants' health. It would also reduce the use of other resources - for example, the building would not be located where a private car (and gasoline) was needed to reach it.
An ideal building, requiring minimal energy for heating, cooling and lighting, would rely on solar power and give energy back to the world. And, of course, it would be aesthetically sophisticated.
Today's architecture students are sparking the revival. According to Phillips, the students he worked with on the Student Centre have the appropriate mindset.
"The next generation thinks differently. They believe that a building should be organic. In fact, they were puzzled that there were other options. Their minds are more open and interested."
While these buildings may inspire curiosity and appreciation among the public, architects face bureaucratic challenges such as building codes and bylaws that prevent the use of certain materials. Insurance companies and bank lenders are reluctant to support organic endeavours, and the perception exists that these buildings are more expensive, which Phillips vehemently denies.
However, the biggest barrier is people's personal taste.
"I think that organic buildings frequently end up looking somewhat odd to the lay person," says Richards. "There must be some willingness to accept experimentation and things that look different from the norm." Phillips is more direct. "People have to rid themselves of their preconceptions of what a building should look and feel like."
You hear that, Bay Street? You can work productively in a non-rectangular building less than 68 floors high. Your billing numbers might even increase in offices with curving facades that catch the sun throughout the day and give your pale faces and tired eyes a rest from all that artificial light. Besides, natural forms evoke warm-fuzzy feelings of harmony and well-being.
Now, how groovy is that?