The desert ignites the imagination. In the austere vastness, you are reminded that you are a fleshy little piece of something endless. It is in this context – small acts of living expression in a larger arid wasteland – that visitors to the Arcosanti campus of the School of Architecture (TSOA) have encountered organic, an exhibition that ran for a month until mid-May. The show offered a contemporary take on an unconventional design term that continues to hold special relevance for TSOA.
Curated by director Stephanie Lin, the exhibition recognized that, as a design term, organic is both cumbersome and lacking in clarity. It continues to be strongly associated with Frank Lloyd Wright, who founded Taliesin West in 1932 as a winter campus for his eponymous school of design; in 2020, the institution changed its name and moved to Arcosanti, a utopian colony established in 1970 north of Phoenix by Wright sidekick Paolo Soleri. The connotations of organic are many and varied. The index of the three volumes Frank Lloyd Wright: Complete Works is a hilarious indication of this, listing around 35 specific classifications of its use.
organic addressed this ambiguity by emphasizing the part-to-whole relationships that characterize today’s information-rich, materially conscious global society. Putting aside Wright’s formal ideas, the exhibition brought together ten pieces by North American designers, ranging from a delicate silver necklace infused with ceiba seeds to a rigorous architectural model. The vagueness but also the parsimony indicated by this use of organic (the term) make organic (the show) feel particularly relevant to contemporary aesthetics.
The objects were installed inside and outside Arcosanti’s Craft III building. After descending a staircase, visitors encountered two works: Petrichorroughly cut paper pulp containers produced by the experimental studio ArandaLasch, and To breathea scaled-down version of a housing prototype that Brooklyn office SO–IL originally installed at Salone del Mobile 2017. Next, the sleek Tawaw Architecture Collective Three sisters, a slowly spinning mobile that was framed by a circular opening cut into a concrete wall (a distinctive feature of Arcosanti’s design). The remaining items were moored on a stretch of gravel in a covered area under the building. Most were small and of similar size. This scalar relationship did a few clever things, like underline the formal differences and thematic resonances, between the objects, while drawing attention to the texture of the surrounding surfaces. Frequent gusts of wind made visitors notice the fragile stature of the objects and, given their tactile qualities, one felt compelled to touch them. six bells by Arcosanti Ceramic Studio rang, and Ja Architecture Studio’s Organic balance shaken by the breeze. The latter expresses an idea of how organic has long been a subject of dispute in Wright’s history. The piece verifies the name of an 1887 drawing of a house Wright made during a job interview with Louis Sullivan. In the margins, the two clashed over conflicting uses of the organic in design: Wright reduced the term to an understanding of planar geometry, while Sullivan used it to describe architectural ornament.
Other pieces, like those of PRŠIĆ & PRŠIĆ Scrap Item, took a cheeky take on the organic that imagined ceramics as a recyclable resource. Fixed with goop globs and looking messy yet intriguing, To abandon was an amazing contrast to Terrol Dew Johnson Form rather than function, another fascinating assemblage that acrobatically coiled around itself to form a flexible U-shaped basket. Made from materials (wood, bear grass, sinew) sourced from the Tohono O’odham Nation, Form expresses the pre-Wright Aboriginal impulse that “form and function should be one.” T+E+A+M Cones conveyed an idea about organically producing materials from post-consumer construction debris found on vacant sites in Detroit. Overall, the show was wonderfully shy, subtle, experimental, and communal.
He also charted a path forward for TSOA. Lin, who joined the school in 2020, noted that the exhibition gave the TSOA the opportunity “to step back and re-examine the biological term to identify new opportunities and its relevance and with a new set of participants in the conversation”. She added that the school’s move to Arcosanti “tapped our ability to explore alternative and future forms of pedagogy, experimental design, community and connection to our environments and landscapes.”
organic, ultimately, was about process: the conversion of raw material into a finished product was at the heart of every artifact. The TSOA’s reassessment of the term comes at a time when society has become politically anxious and the planet continues to run out of resources. What does promoting “organic” mean in our current moment of crisis? Time is explicit in organic processes, which evolve, unfold and develop in various ways. Design is similar in that it takes a lot of time and resources to turn an initial thought into a constructed form. The ten works in organic are a gentle reminder of the precariousness of humanity’s relationship to the environment, but also of the potential of design to address new and complex challenges through integrated approaches.
Nick Shekerjian is an architect at Exhibau USA and founder of ONS, a design studio in Phoenix that studies massive spatial scales, representation, and nature.