Frank Lloyd Wright and Broadacre City
By Claire Robertson
The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) created some of America’s most magnificent buildings, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, and Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. During a time when he was not getting many commissions, and therefore had more time to reflect and innovate, Wright created the concept of Broadacre City. He described this idea in his book, The Disappearing City (1932). Wright disliked dense, industrial cities, and wanted to create low-density neighbourhoods that consisted of generous plots of land. He believed that the architect had the power to bring positive social change, and that 20th-century technology had rendered the dense city obsolete.
Wright shared his model for Broadacre City at the Rockefeller Center in New York, and wrote an article that explained that the motorcar, telephone, and standardised machine-shop production would allow Americans the freedom to work easily outside of an urban centre. Broadacre City is often mentioned in discussions of present-day sprawl in the United States. These metropolitan areas surrounding cities require automobile dependence. Wright believed strongly in the car, and said that there should be “a new standard of space measurement – the man seated in his automobile.” The writer Katherine Don states “Even in the 1930s, urban planners were disgusted by Broadacre. Its philosophy was deeply individualistic; its layout was conspicuously wasteful.” Wright envisioned several Broadacre City-style areas as being connected to a huge highway. Whilst Wright saw the car as an instrument of freedom, and envisioned Broadacre City as a tool for positive social change, having to use a car limits the freedom of those who rely on others for transport. Moreover, it arguably inhibits a sense of community within a town, as homes, shops, and places of work and leisure are too spread out from each other. Wright believed that Broadacre City would give its inhabitants plenty of room and independence, and that these qualities were essential for personal development. However, even though this sounds beneficial, high density arguably leads to a sense of collective spirit within a community. Furthermore, surely greater freedom comes from being able to walk or use public transport, instead of relying on the automobile.
Nature was also central to Wright’s vision. He believed that houses should all come with their own plots of land, and that this would help families to grow and eat their own food. Moreover, he felt that air and light were important. This is another reason for the houses being so spread out. Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City appealed to Wright, an idea that aimed to bring people closer to nature through zoning and greenbelt areas. Wright developed this idea with his idea of spreading houses throughout the landscape. He created the word ‘Usonian’ to describe Broadacre City’s houses. This word refers to his utopian vision for the new landscape of the United States. His new architecture was centred on local building materials, utilising natural light, and using solar energy. Whilst Wright believed in the importance of nature and sustainability, sprawl arguably counteracted any benefits. For example, as mentioned previously, automobile dependence is inefficient. Moreover, sprawl environments are arguably not suitable for buses, because everything is too spread out. Furthermore, large highways are unsuitable and dangerous for cyclists to use.
Wright’s idyllic childhood arguably influenced the development of the Broadacre City idea. He lived in ‘the Valley’ in Wisconsin and described it as lying between two hills, and that different parts of the landscape were naturally distinct from each other. Small houses in the Valley were surrounded by trees and grown produce. The architect’s aim to transpose this landscape into Broadacre City was ambitious, but certainly flawed, due to the reasons mentioned above. Sprawl areas in the tradition of Broadacre City are characterised as being not quite the city, but also not quite the countryside. This peculiar limbo means that while citizens have plenty of space and can be surrounded by nature, they lack the benefits that being within a dense area offers (such as a greater sense of community, and ease of travel).
Wright’s Broadacre City was envisioned with the hope of liberating the individual, and connecting citizens to nature. The architect and planner believed in the possibilities of the automobile – that people had the power to choose where they wanted to go, whenever suited them – but his plan does not cater for the type of freedom found in being able to walk, cycle, or use public transport. Furthermore, whilst Wright had a utopian vision that promised subsistence from the land, and having space to grow, he disregarded the benefits of the city. There are, however, positive aspects of Broadacre City, such as Wright’s concern for environmentally-friendly architecture, which utilised solar power and local materials.
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