Heaven and Earth
Festschrift to Honor Karsten Harries

Vol. 12, No. 1
August 2007


__Enku Mulugeta Assefa
__David Seamon
Manhattan, Kansas USA
  Karsten Harries’ Natural Symbols as a Means for Interpreting Architecture:
Inside and Outside in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Alvar Aalto’s Villa Mairea



“[T]o hold that there is nothing that transcends human beings and speaks to them, that reality itself is mute and meaningless, means nihilism. If there is to be an alternative to nihilism, it must be possible to make some sense of and learn to listen to the language of things.”

Karsten Harries (1997, p. 133)


Philosopher Karsten Harries writes that a key task of architecture is “interpreting the world as a meaningful order in which the individual can find his [or her] place in the midst of nature and in the midst of a community” (Harries 1993, p. 51). Harries argues that, too often, buildings do not respond to the needs of human dwelling because they are made arbitrarily in th
at they do not arise from the real-world requirements of particular people, places and landscapes. As an expression and interpretation of human life, a non-arbitrary architecture involves design that both listens to and incorporates nature and culture.

Harries claims that one need in creating a non-arbitrary architecture is understanding what he calls natural symbols – aspects of experience that mark essential human qualities as they relate to nature and society (Harries 1993, p. 53). In this article, we draw on two seminal 20th-century houses – Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Alvar Aalto’s Villa Mairea (figures 1 & 2) – to examine the natural symbol of inside and outside, which for Harries is one important lived dimension of successful architecture and place (Harries 1988, pp. 46-47; 1997, pp. 192-97; Seamon 1993, 2000, 2007; Thiis-Evensen 1987).

We choose these two houses because of their similarities in intention and design. Both houses were conceived and implemented within the same decade – the 1930s.
Wright was sixty-eight years old when he built Fallingwater and had already designed dozens of other remarkable residences when he began the house in 1935. In contrast, when Alvar Aalto began Villa Mairea in 1938, he was still fairly young and had not designed a single large residence.

image01.jpg (352869 Byte)
Figure 1

image02.jpg (33453 Byte)
Figure 2

image03.jpg (15036 Byte)
Figure 3

Aalto’s client, Harry Gullichsen, admired Wright’s Fallingwater, which provided a major inspiration for Aalto’s sketch phase of Villa Mairea – a fact that is demonstrated by one of Aalto’s early drawings for the house (figure 3). Architect Juhani Pallasmaa (1998, p. 78) writes that “resemblances in [the] ambience [of the two houses] are not so clear in the drawings or even the photographs, but the actual experience of the two houses forces one to a comparison.”

Both architects shared a common creative ground in drawing on nature to discover timeless patterns for their architectural designs. Wright professed that he “could draw inspiration from nature herself” (Wright 1954, p. 22), while Aalto claimed that “the profoundest feature of architecture is a variety and growth reminiscent of natural life. I should like to say that in the end this is the only real style in architecture” (Aalto 1998, p. 31).

An Architecture of Re-presentation

Before examining the two houses through the natural symbol of inside and outside, it is important to delineate more fully Harries’ discussion of the role of architecture in human life so that one understands why he gives considerable attention to natural symbols.

In The Ethical Function of Architecture, Harries (1997, p. 291) argues that a central value of good design is that it breaks us free from the everyday and “beckons us toward a better life, a bit closer to the ideal.” He claims that, in bringing us nearer to the better parts of ourselves, the best architecture has a re-presentative function – in other words, it helps us to remember what a particular mode of human being is about.
For example, the successful house sustains and replenishes a sense of at-homeness, just as a well designed church reminds worshippers of their faith and offers, just in being what it is, a physical context where that faith can be continuously renewed. In this sense, the successful building “re-presents itself in such a way that it renders itself more visible in its essence” (ibid., p. 136). Harries explains:

... to deserve to be called a work of architecture a house cannot just be a house... (T)he house must represent a house, and by so doing, re-present itself as a house... create the fiction of a house. The same can be said of a church, a museum, a city hall, an airport. Representing other architecture, the work of architecture re-presents itself in the image of the ideal, creating a fiction about itself. By its choice of what to represent and of the form of representation, it communicates a particular understanding of what is taken to matter in architecture, signifying a particular ideal of building and thus of dwelling (ibid., pp. 119-20).


Harries emphasizes that, practically, architecture's ability to re-present cannot be expressed directly but presupposes a “natural language of space” (ibid., p. 125), which, in turn, is founded in the ways in which we, as human beings, especially as bodily beings, exist in and experience the world – for example, experiences of moving or resting, getting up or lying down, recognizing light or dark, encountering heaviness or lightness, feeling openness or closure, and so forth.

Architecture, says Harries, can articulate and focus this natural language of space through material expression. “Buildings speak to us,” he writes (ibid.) “because our experience of space and therefore of particular spatial configurations cannot but be charged with meaning.
As a re-presentation of buildings, architecture re-presents and lets us attend to that ‘speech’.” From one point of view, a classical Doric column is an ordinary post sustaining weight. At the same time, however, this column re-presents the essence of post in that the thick muscular swelling of its fluted shaft suggests the post’s upward thrust countered by the weight of the entablature bearing down – the two opposing motions brought together and reconciled through the material form of the compact buttonlike capital. Here, the Doric order expresses explicitly in physical form the reconciliation of upward and downward forces that the simple post speaks of only implicitly.

Natural Symbols

In part three of Ethical Function and elsewhere in his writings, Harries (1988, 1993) investigates what he calls a “semantics of the natural language of space” (1997, p. 180). The heart of this semantics is contained in the lived fact already alluded to “that we exist in the world, not as disembodied spirits, nor as beings who just happen to have bodies, but as essentially embodied selves, who by their bodies are inevitably assigned their place in the world – on the earth and beneath the giant hemisphere of the sky” (ibid.).

In developing this semantics of embodied spatiality practically, Harries draws on the idea of natural symbols, by which he means the underlying patterns of experience marking essential qualities of human nature and life – for example, qualities of direction, of weight, of materiality, of temperature, of light, of existence as an individual alone but also as an individual who is part of larger human groups, and so forth.
Harries explains:


By natural symbols, I understand symbols that can be derived simply from an analysis of [human] being in the world. They are not tied to a particular culture or region, although, inevitably, different cultures will appropriate them differently (Harries, 1993, p. 53).


In Ethical Function, Harries explores such natural symbols as vertical and horizontal, light and darkness, up and down, and inside and outside. For example, he considers how the dialectical tension between vertical and horizontal arises from the bodily relationship between the vertical axis of the upright human body and the horizontal plane of the Earth surrounding that body in all directions. There is the lure of open spaces and movement as they exist in tension with the wish to have roots and a home. There is the vertical's skyward movement toward spirituality and inwardness, which counters the horizon's expression of physical expansion and material success. Different cultures and historical periods express the vertical-horizontal tension in different ways but, whatever the particular manifestation, it “presupposes an understanding of the meaning of verticals and horizontals inseparable from our being in the world” (Harries 1988, p. 45).

Harries (1997, pp. 192-97) also gives attention to the natural symbol of inside and outside, which is “bound up with the awareness of our own bodies, with their openings so much like the windows and doors of buildings” (ibid., p. 192).
The creation of an inside automatically shapes an outside, which then relates to inside in a dialectic relationship. On one hand, inside establishes physical and psychological security and safety and thus can facilitate a sense of identity for the person or group (Jacobson et al. 1990; Relph 1976; Thiis-Evensen 1987). On the other hand, inside can also involve “a suffocating darkness that our imagination peoples with images that both fascinate and terrify” (Harries 1997, p. 195).

These oppositional possibilities of inside and outside point toward an important quality of natural symbols: their ambiguous nature – for example, verticality reflects, on one hand, spirituality and religious humility but, on the other hand, symbolizes human pride and assertiveness, as with the Tower of Babel.
In regard to the ambiguity of inside and outside, the example that Harries offers involves windows, which provide a sense of interpenetration and exchange between outside and inside but also shut insiders in or allow the inside to be overrun by the outside (Harries, 1997, pp. 192-98; Thiis-Evensen 1987, pp. 251-82). How to reconcile such seeming oppositions? Harries suggests a lived flexibility between secure enclosure and openness to the outside – “sheltering walls and doors and windows through which light and air [and the world] can enter” (ibid., p. 196).

Inside and Outside

We find such a lived flexibility in Fallingwater and the Villa Mairea.
On one hand, both houses evoke a powerful sense of insideness by opacity, which, in Fallingwater, is expressed in roughly dressed stone masonry and concrete walls; in Villa Mairea, by white-painted, solid walls. On the other hand, the transparency of the houses’ glass windows opens inside to outside and thereby connects the two. In both houses, the architects created a strong sense of insideness yet, at the same time, devised masterly ways to connect inside and outside and thereby create a robust continuity. This inside-outside relationship translates into environmental and architectural experience in four different ways: (1) in-betweeness; (2) interpenetration generated by inside; (3) interpenetration generated by outside; and (4) intermingling. We consider each of these relationships in turn.


In-betweeness involves a place neither inside nor out. It incorporates a threshold whereby a strong dialogue between the inside
and outside occurs with a unique in-between experience as the result. For Wright, in-betweeness was an intentional aim: “We have no longer an outside and an inside as two separate things. Now the outside may come inside and the inside may and does go outside. They are of each other. Form and function thus become one in design and execution if the nature of materials and method and purpose are all in unison” (Wright 1954, p. 50).

Fallingwater’s deep doorway located at the east main entrance is one in-between place as are the projecting terraces that, as extensions of the rooms within, are neither in nor out.
The depth created by the terraces and the overhanging volumes above give the balconies a quality of outdoor rooms. As in-between spaces, they become thresholds mediating the contrasting domains of insideness and outsideness. The trellis-like openings projecting from the guest bedroom to the south and the trellis stretching to relate the house to the north driveway are other important elements transforming inside and outside to an in-between.

For Aalto’s Villa Mairea, in-between places include the deep, projecting main entrance canopy, the covered terraces below the studio, the west side of the flower room, and the terrace that leads to the sauna.
Perhaps the most powerful in-between experience is fostered by the entrance canopy, which works as a threshold to mediate the lived-transition between outside and inside. Exposure gradually decreases from the wide open outside to the entrance canopy and then to a tight passageway that gives an impression of entering a narrow cave.

The wide transparent glass openings used in both houses, particularly in Fallingwater, play a crucial role in facilitating in-betweeness.
Wright often omitted walls and vertical frames from window corners to dematerialize solid walls. The absence of walls and frames opens a new opportunity to see the outside. More importantly, these glass corners bring attention to the fragility of the wall, thus dissolving its presence and merging inside with outside.


image04.jpg (22376 Byte)
Figure 4
  Interpenetration is another way in which the continuity between inside and outside can be expressed and works in two different ways (figure 4), depending on the relative strength of inside or outside (Thiis-Evensen 1987, pp. 19-20). On one hand, the inside can project itself into the outside – for example, the projecting terraces of Fallingwater. Here, we call this situation the interpenetration of the inside. On the other hand, the outside can be brought inside through some sort of enclosure shaped by the building – for example, Villa Mairea’s wrapping around an inner courtyard. We call this situation the interpenetration of the outside.

In both situations, inside and outside are brought together in a more intimate relationship – in the first instance, through an architectural element that becomes a physical link with outside; in the second instance, through a spatial link whereby outside space is cradled and contained.

Interpenetration of the Inside

Fallingwater expresses interpenetration of the inside through physically fusing with the landscape on the house’s north side through a projecting trellis; on the east side, through a projecting stone masonry wall; and on the west side, through a balcony that glides over rock outcropping. On the house’s south side, a plunge pool – part of the building and only separated from the stream, Bear Run, by a low wall – creates interpenetration between the building and water.

As another mode of interpenetration of the inside, the horizontal stone masonry wall at Fallingwater’s east main entrance extends outside to subtly usher visitors toward entry.
In a similar way, Villa Mairea’s unusually curved entrance canopy stretches out to meet visitors and invites them inside. In this sense, by projecting inside out, the entry designs of both houses strongly weave the buildings with their surroundings by leading visitors in.

Another example from Villa Mairea is the way the curved entrance canopy swings toward the direction of the access road and connects with its line of movement. Similarly, a covered terrace leading to the sauna behind the house penetrates into the forest to weave the building tightly with the landscape, a connection that is also accomplished by rustic stone masonry on the east side of the house.

Interpenetration of the Outside

image05.jpg (20121 Byte)
Figure 5

image06.jpg (19779 Byte)
Figure 6

If interpenetration of the inside out involves physical form extending outward, interpenetration of the outside involves surrounding space intermingling with the inside through the enclosure and cradling of physical form.

On its south side facing Bear Run, Fallingwater interpenetrates the outside by projecting balconies reaching into space and endowing that space with a sense of vertical presence.
The projecting balconies, by penetrating into the outside space, allow that space to penetrate back into the building mass (figure 5). As a result, the interpenetration creates defined spaces that belong simultaneously to inside and outside. Because of Fallingwater’s precarious placement on the rock embankment above the stream, the dominant spatial expression of these spaces is vertical – between above and below.

In contrast, Villa Mairea’s interpenetration of the outside much more involves a horizontal expression; as with Fallingwater, the reason relates to topography.
Though Villa Mairea is located at the crest of a gently rising hill, the actual site on which the house stands is relatively flat. Aalto used this generous expanse as a space with which the house could engage spatially. The u-shaped plan cradles the outside by forming a partial courtyard, which belongs to both inside and outside (figure 6). The worlds of house and nature can meet as equals in this space.


In intermingling, architectural and environmental elements are used metaphorically to bring the meaning of outside in, and inside out.
For example, the interior presence of natural elements reminds us of the outside, which we then experience vicariously. By echoing features of the natural site, intermingling enables experiencers to be aware of the outside as they remain inside. In the opposite way, interior elements brought outside invite the safety, comfort, and culture of the inside. Intermingling allows one domain to assert itself in the other, thereby establishing another kind of kinship and relationship between inside and outside.

In Fallingwater, Wright used the rock boulder protruding in front of the living room fireplace as one means to bring nature in.
The association of the boulder with the fireplace powerfully expresses the phenomenon of the ground, which is particularly a feature of the outside. The outcropping evokes a feeling that one is literally living with a primordial force of nature but in a secure, protected way (Thiis-Evensen 1987, pp. 53-55). Similarly, Aalto used roughly cut, natural stones in the Villa Mairea’s living room fireplace, though this use is not as unusual as Wright’s, since these stones do not have the literal earth-sourced connectedness with site as Fallingwater’s boulder does.

Both architects use inside and outside elements in a more metaphorical way.
For example, Fallingwater’s waxed flagstone floor appears as wet ground, thus reminding one of the running water outside. In addition, the waxed flagstone conveys safety and hazard simultaneously – safety, because of the strong attachment and anchorage the stone floor has with the natural ground; hazard, because of the impression the floor gives of water.

Aalto’s effort to simulate a sense of the surrounding forest inside Villa Mairea is another example of intermingling at this more metaphorical level.
The outside forest surrounding the house is echoed in the rhythm of columns and poles in living room, music room, library, entrance hall and staircase. Arranged in irregular groups of one, two, or three, these columns suggest a deliberate intention to minimize any regular geometry and to remind one of the natural world outside. In an opposite way, Villa Mairea’s covered outdoor terrace is an outside space given a quality of the inside by treatments peculiar to inside space. The terrace’s clean, tidy, white-painted posts and beams suggest the inside, as does a rustic fireplace, which speaks to comfort and warmth.

In Fallingwater, Wright intermingles outside elements inside but, other than introducing pieces of sculpture, does little with intermingling inside elements outside.
In contrast, Villa Mairea exhibits as much presence of inside elements in the outside as outside elements inside. One could argue that the intermingling of inside and outside is more balanced in Mairea than Fallingwater.

A Non-Arbitrary, Revitalized Architecture

In claiming that architects today face a crisis in knowing what constitutes successful building, Harries points out that there is no one dominant representational paradigm (like Abbot Suger's vision of the Gothic church, for example) that has been powerful enough to establish a shared architectural language.
In turn, Harries links this lack of representation at least partly to an obliviousness of natural symbols: "What architecture lacks today is what the great styles of the past provide: a developed system of symbols that architects could presuppose and therefore did not have to invent...." (Harries 1997, p. 133).

We to not wish to imply here that Harries's solution to current architectural difficulties is some single grand representational paradigm grounded in natural symbols. Instead, Harries emphasizes that, in this postmodern era of diversity and multivocity, the need is a series of creative efforts and experiments that might establish new representational types – for example, he mentions as possibilities the theater, museum, public plaza, and landscape garden – that have today the equivalent power that, for example, the Christian church had in earlier times in the West (ibid., part IV).

Harries (ibid., pp. 130-32) also emphasizes that natural symbols are only one aspect of an invigorated architecture – one must also take into account conventional symbols (symbols only understood by an awareness of cultural and historical significances – e.g., the cross as a symbol of Christ's crucifixion) and metasymbols (symbols drawn from past traditions in a playful but arbitrary way – e.g., the postmodernist use of Classical motifs). Ultimately, however, natural symbols may be the core of a revitalized architecture because they sustain and reflect “an origin that does not lose its power with the passage of time because it has its foundation in the very nature of human dwelling” (ibid., p. 109).

At the same time, Harries emphasizes that natural symbols can never tell us how to build but, instead, can only help us to think about how our buildings might be made more thoughtfully (Harries 1997, p. 11).
To create a non-arbitrary architecture grounded in human being-in-the-world requires a deep understanding of what human beings and nature are. With this understanding in hand, architects might have a powerful tool to envision architecture enabling people to find their place in the world.

In creating two houses that speak to the natural symbol of inside and outside (as well as to other natural symbols like light-dark, horizontal-vertical, up-down, and center-periphery – see Assefa 2002), Wright and Aalto could be said to demonstrate the kind of revitalized, non-arbitrary architecture that Harries envisions.
In this sense, Fallingwater and Villa Mairea provide invaluable models for current design education by demonstrating an architecture that arises from and speaks to human being-in-the-world.


Aalto, A., 1998 [originally 1939]. Mairea [Project Description]. In J. Pallasmaa, 1998 [see below], p. 31.

Assefa, E. M., 2002. Interpreting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Alvar Aalto’s Villa Mairea Using Karsten Harries’ Natural Symbols and Thomas Thiis-Evensen’s Architectural Archetypes. Master’s thesis, Department of Architecture, Kansas State University, Manhattan.

Harries, K., 1988. Voices of Space, Center, 4, pp. 34-39.

Harries, K., 1997. The Ethical Function of Architecture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Harries, K., 1993 [originally 1983]. Thoughts on a Non-Arbitrary Architecture. In D. Seamon, ed., Dwelling, Seeing and Designing. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, pp. 41-60.

Jacobson, M., Silverstein, M., & Winslow, B., 1990. The Good House: Contrast as a Design Tool. Newtown, CT: Taunton Press.

Pallasmaa, J., 1996. The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. London: Academy Editions.

Pallasmaa, J., ed., 1998. Alvar Aalto: Villa Mairea. Helsinki: Alvar Aalto Foundation.

Relph, E., 1976. Place and Placelessness. London: Pion.

Seamon, D., ed., 1993. Dwelling, Seeing, and Designing: Toward a Phenomenological Ecology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Seamon, D., 2000. A Way of Seeing People and Place: Phenomenology in Environment-Behavior Research. In Wapner, S., Demick, J., Yamamoto, T. et al., eds., Theoretical Perspectives in Environment-Behavior Research, pp. 157-78. New York: Plenum.

Seamon, D., 2007. Interconnections, Relationships, and Environmental Wholes: A Phenomenological Ecology of Natural and Built Worlds, pp. 53-86 in M. Geib, ed. Phenomenology and Ecology. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Thiis-Evensen, T., 1987. Archetypes in Architecture. Oslo: Scandinavian University Press.

Wright, F. L., 1954. The Natural House. New York: Horizon.




[1] The interpretation of inside and outside presented in this article is drawn from the first author’s master’s thesis in Architecture – see Assefa 2002. A shorter version of this article was published in Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter, vol. 14, no. 2 (spring 2003), pp. 11-15. Photographs are from the authors’ collections; all drawings are by Enku Mulugeta Assefa, other than the Aalto sketch, which is from Pallasmaa 1998, p. 78.



Vol. 12, No. 1
August 2007