Ryan Thewes is a talented architect in Nashville who focuses on the design philosophy of "organic architecture." A native of southern Indiana, Ryan graduated from the Ball State University College of Architecture and Planning in 2000. While in school, Ryan studied the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, which made a strong impression on his development as a designer.
In 2002 Ryan moved to New Mexico to work with Bart Prince who is well known for his "surreal" designs.
Ryan has been calling Nashville home since 2006, and we talked to him about architecture, his work, and making a life in Music City.
How did you get into architecture? Was it something you were always drawn to as a child or did it develop later in life?
Growing up, I was always good at art and really took an interest in it. I also loved to be outdoors. Once it became time for me to go to college, I was trying to figure out what I could do that involved art, and architecture kept coming up. Like a majority of the population, I had no idea what architecture really was. Schools don’t teach anything about architecture.
Come to find out, I had no idea what art really was either. I was lucky that while in college, I became exposed to both art and architecture and developed a fascination with it that still continues today.
You’re influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s concept of organic architecture. What does “organic architecture” mean, exactly?
There is no real true definition of organic architecture. It is a design philosophy that integrates building and site and is a response to client needs and to climate. Natural forms and natural materials are used which transcend current design trends thus resulting in timeless designs.
If you were to build a Frank Lloyd Wright building today, it would still be viewed just as modern and just as progressive as it was 60 years ago. In organic architecture, you are not designing the building as a you would a piece of sculpture, you are designing the space within a building.
The result of what that building looks like on the exterior is directly related to the space inside. Most people look at the odd and unique forms as different just for the sake of being different, but that is not really the case. Buildings are designed from the inside out.
Working for Don Erickson and Robert Green - both former apprentices of Wright - must have been thrilling. How did they influence your concept of organic architecture?
Architecture school really teaches nothing about architecture. It is more of a 5 year introduction to the profession. I was fortunate enough to realize what I didn’t know and sought out someone who was able to teach me.
Much like Frank Lloyd Wright did with Louis Sullivan. Don Erickson took me under his wing and really became a father figure to me. Design is a very personal thing. You can’t really teach it, but a good teacher can nurture it and help it rise to the surface. One thing that Don and I discussed quite frequently was the architecture and creativity of Bart Prince and I don’t think that without Don’s enthusiasm or guidance that I would have sought out Bart and had the opportunity that I did to learn from one of today’s greatest architects. It is interesting that in today’s society, the master/apprentice relationship has all but vanished.
Many buildings in New Mexico are constructed with traditional southwestern architecture principals. Did you notice while working with architect Bart Prince a certain resistance among New Mexicans to organic architecture and innovative design concepts?
Not really. My first impression of Albuquerque was of a kind of traditional place, but actually, there are a lot of progressive people living there. The climate in Albuquerque allows for a much more open and free design. Innovations in technology and glazing are finally allowing people to get away from the dark adobe boxes with minimal windows that was once needed to keep a home cool in the summer and now be able to open their homes up to the beauty of the New Mexican landscape. So I think people really welcome the change and are really eager to connect with nature.
Working for Prince allowed you to expand on your own concept of organic architecture. How does your concept differ from Wright’s concept of organic architecture and how has your concept evolved over the years?
As I mentioned before, design is a very personal thing. What I realized was that I was a creative person, but I didn’t know how to be creative. When I saw the work of Bart Prince, I was intrigued at how somebody’s mind could come up with something so unique and special. Bart was fortunate to have apprenticed with one of the greatest architecture teachers there ever was. Bruce Goff was his mentor and one of the founding fathers of the organic architecture movement.
While Wright’s approach was more rigid and structured, Goff’s architecture was more free and loose. I think that over the years, my concept of organic architecture has become more free and less rigid. I look at every new project with fresh eyes and try to approach it without any preconceptions of how it should look or what it should be. With that, the possibilities of design are limitless. If you look at the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and how it evolved over the years, you can see that he was constantly reinventing himself.
Wright died in 1959. One thing that always interested me in school was wondering what his buildings would look like if he were alive today. I can assure you that they wouldn’t look anything like they did back in the 40’s or 50’s. Towards the end of his career, Wright’s buildings started to become more abstract and free form. I think that my design concepts will always be in a state of flux and reinvention.
What is your current project?
I have some really great houses on the board right now. A small cabin in South Georgia that is based on a triangular plan and a modern take on a Mid-Century Modern house that will be built in East Nashville.
Green building has always been a priority for me as well. We are hoping to start construction this summer on a new house in the Green Hills area of Nashville that will be built using Insulated Concrete Forms and will strive to meet Germany’s Passive House standard of energy efficiency.
As my company grows, I have started taking on a few commercial projects. Right now I am designing a very organic commercial structure in Dickson, TN.
All architects have a dream building in mind - whether to purchase or design. What’s yours?
That is an interesting question. When Frank Loyd Wright was asked what his favorite building was, he would answer, "The next one."
For some reason, I have always loved Fire Stations. I proposed a design for one a long time ago to a guy in Indiana who was trying to develop a subdivision, but nothing ever came of it.
What can we expect to see from you in the next year?
The trend is now becoming that people are seeking me out because they like my style and are looking for a creative building. Before, I was taking on any project I could just to keep going. Hopefully, people will continue to seek interesting designs and more of my buildings will start getting built. It has been a promising start to the year so far