Frank Lloyd Wright's dispersed utopia
This is my final submitted draft of an article that appeared in the December 1999 issue of Planning magazine under the title, “Wright Had It Right.” The published version conformed to the AP style book used by Planning, which meant it didn’t conform to my ideas of how a magazine piece ought to read. Readers interested in such things can compare this original version to the edited one, which I reproduce under the published title elsewhere in this section.
Yet a third version of the piece appeared as “Return to Broadacre City” in the April 2000 issue of Illinois Issues and is reproduced under that title elsewhere in this section.
Broadacre City wasn’t a prediction of the future suburb exactly—more of a prescription for one. Yet Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1935 proposal for a model urban form turned out to be very prescient indeed. Wright not only recognized but embraced the forces at work on city-making in the U.S. His version will still hold true because it was based on Wright’s deep understanding of the fundamental cultural forces that were then reshaping the suburban landscape. Those forces had been shaping the way land had been developed since the days of the pioneers—unfettered mobility, the urge to homestead on a private plot of land, and a profound ambivalence about cities. His multi-centered, low-density auto-oriented countryside built on the sacrosanct private lot was, in rough, the new suburban America of the ‘90s, save that our modern homesteaders grow petunias instead of potatoes.
Broadacre City was the model urban form for his model democracy, Usonia. This scheme for a decongested city was what John Sergeant calls the chief work of Wright’s mature life. He introduced it in 1932 in The Disappearing City, and revised and expanded the concept until his death.
Most musings on the future give way to fantasy. Broadacre City was not so much imagined as reported. Very few of its features were not already evident when he began work on it in the 1930s. Wright ordered built a model of Broadacre City that depicted a representative four-square miles of the ideal city. A network of superhighways were linked to a regular grid of arterial roads whose interstices were devoted to single-family homes on large lots of one to five acres each. Schools and houses would be segregated from highways and commerce; at highway crossings he located large markets—proto-malls—and clustered about them churches and other accouterments of civic and cultural life. About the latter, no two would be alike, in part because each family would be free to build its own—but they, like all structures, would be “integral, natural to their sites, materials, construction method, and purpose.”
Broadacre City certainly would have lived up its name. Population densities would be a very low five people per acre. The automobile (for which Wright made extravagant accommodation) and “aeromotors” (private helicopters, the only fancifully futuristic element in the scheme) provided the means by which these expanses would be navigated. Each family would have production, distribution, and recreation facilities within 10 to 20 miles—small farms, light industry, orchards, recreation areas, and other urban facilities, interspersed with parks and public forests that made for a setting of “communal beauty.”
In Broadacre City, writes historian Peter Hall, Wright wove together virtually every strand in American anti-urbanist thinking. “Everywhere and nowhere” was how Wright described how the new form would fill the landscape, and the phrase aptly describes the worst of today’s decongested metropoli. To see Broadacre City as a recipe for sprawl, however, is to misunderstand Wright’s premise. He deplored the suburban expansion already underway as a process by which the city appropriated the country. He meant via Broadacre City to offer a countrified alternative to cities—not segregation from the city but the decentralization of it. Put another way, Wright had designed not a city set in the country, a la Ebenezer Howard, but the country converted into a city. Broadacre City offered a means by which ordinary Americans might live in what Lewis Mumford called “romantic isolation and reunion with the soil” while enjoying urban economic opportunities and recreations at home. Broadacre City was his White City, certainly, but one that owed as much to Dan’l Boone as to Dan’l Burnham.
Broadacre City was not a radical departure in planning terms. He did not look to the future for inspiration, only as far as 1920s Los Angeles and the Arizona desert around Phoenix. Wright acknowledged with uncharacteristic modesty that he had proposed nothing very new in Broadacre City. Between 1913 and 1930 the car and the telephone changed the way people experience distance, the first phase of a revolution that computers and satellites have merely extended. The snaring of the countryside by the electric power grid meant that work could be moved to where people were rather than the other way around. Decentralization was so far from an alien idea that bureaucrats embraced it in the 1930s as a cure for rural poverty and urban congestion. In broad terms what he envisioned was going to happen anyway, if in less comely form.
In social and political terms, however, it offered real departures. Broadacre City was a plan for a reformed American society, not merely a reformed suburbia. (Wright thus gave way to an impulse whose results are familiar to us in more recent forms, such as New Urbanism.) The physical layout was pure Wright, but the rationale he concocted for it came out of the tradition of 19th century utopianism. His program for economic reform was a hash of Veblen, Henry George, John Ruskin, Kropotkin, Emerson, Edward Bellamy, and now-forgotten cranks like C. H. Douglas and Silvio Gesell. Sergeant writes of Wright, ”He attempted to give architectural form to what he believed to be the most humane and progressive thought of his generation.” (Several generations, actually; if Thomas Jefferson had done a subdivision plat it would have looked very like Broadacre City.)
Wright argued with special urgency for a revolution in the way land is owned and controlled. In his Usonia, families would be freed from the yoke of the banker and the landlord. Land would be municipally owned, and granted to families for as long as they used it productively. This was a key feature of Wright’s anti-Marxist socialism, in which the means of production—sentimentally and mistakenly assumed by Wright to reside in the land—would not belong to the people in common but would be dispersed to them individually.
Broadacre was hardly a blueprint for a social revolution, however. Wright gave no thought about how to achieve the reforms that would make his city possible. His program consisted solely of that famous 12-foot x 12-foot model. Skeptics were happy to point out that the Broadacre City model, painstakingly assembled by Wright’s apprentices at Taliesin, was a perfect sales presentation prop for what amounted to a real estate speculation, with him as chief architect.
Even admirers suspected that Broadacre City was less a plan to rescue the city than a plan to rescue architecture, a scheme to restore his profession to a central role in articulating civic order usurped by planners and developers. What he envisioned, writes Muschamp, was a “government not of laws but of aesthetics, of architecture, and of Wright.” Houses were to be designed as well as built by their owners as they wished—so long as they were “harmonious with nature.” That judgment would be made by a what amounted to a County Architect.
When it was unveiled, most critics argued that it couldn’t work or that it shouldn’t work. Muschamp is among those who saw that the principled emphasis on individual sovereignty precluded the very order that the plan promised to provide; had it ever been built, Broadacre City probably would have worked as most utopias work, meaning that the central administration would have quashed popular sovereignty over design until popular dissatisfaction quashed the central administration. Witold Rybczynski summed up the general view that Broadacres was an “embarrassing foible of an aging master.” Lewis Mumford was initially positive (“On the whole, Wright’s philosophy of life and his mode of planning have never shown to better advantage,” he wrote in 1935) but he quickly changed his mind. Thirty years later he condemned its “sprawling, open, individualistic structure, almost anti-social in its dispersal and its random pattern.” Its social assumptions found little favor either. Usonia was based not on cooperation but fierce individualism—an offense to planners and other sentimental communitarians. Wright’s more receptive audience consisted of developers and small town chambers of commerce and other Main Street capitalists. Muschamp concludes that the plan was “too real to be Utopian and too dreamlike to be of practical importance.”
The passage of 65 years has hardly enhanced Broadacre's reputation. Ebenezer Howard used nature as a setting for settlement, but Wright appropriated it for use as a part of settlement. (As one rival noted, he was the first architect in history to design a whole continent.) Paolo Soleri, who apprenticed with Wright at Taliesin West in the late 1940's, was referring in part to Broadacre City when he denounced "the layout of urban and suburban systems so extensive as to cover in time a high percentage of the usable lands of the earth.” Soleri called it “a map of despair” and likened it to a cancer.
Tellingly, Broadacre City had virtually no impact on the way cities were built. Our edge cities lack Broadacre’s efficient road system, its artfulness, its variety of housing types, among other ills. Still, Broadacre City looks more prescient with each new decade. In a 1957 interview with John Peter, Wright stated that "you can't make suburbia anything very desirable . . . . They haven't yet thought it out." The newer postwar suburbs he referred to were still largely dormitories, sustained by wealth created in central cities. What they needed to make them passable places to live, wrote Mumford in 1958, was “partial self-sufficiency, with a more varied population and business and industry to support them.”
Which is what has happened in the 40 years since then, more or less. However loony his social ideas, Wright was still a master designer, and one furthermore with a keen nose for technological trends. He was prescient too in seeing (as Greg Hise and others have noted) that city and suburb would merge into a complex, hard-to-describe entity managed by technocrats. Many of the commonplaces of today’s suburbia—underground power lines, superhighways, grade separation using overpasses, and motels—were anticipated in Broadacre City. In providing for markets that would also appeal as “pleasure places,” even Wright, whose ideas took shape in an economic depression, foresaw that Americans would be so rich that spending money would be their principal recreation.
Mumford was one of the first to complain that Broadacre City’s configuration would reduce the number of neighbors and thus the opportunities for social contacts. Wright, however, foresaw that in an environment so physically attenuated, social life would have to be proceed on new terms. Telecommunications and transportation would be the means by which communities of place would be replaced by communities of interest.
Broadacre City is predicated on the universal use of the private automobile. (More accurately, it is predicated on personal mobility.) Like most Americans, he saw the car as a liberating technology. The car would resurrect the Jeffersonian ideal of the independent yeomanry working their own pieces of land by simultaneously make huge swaths of land accessible for development and make it possible to live on it without foregoing social connection. Mumford’s complaint that the layout “demands motor transportation for even the most casual or ephemeral meetings” has since been echoed many times, but for most suburbanites this dependence poses certain annoying practical problems but is not a conceptual flaw.
A lot of what Wright got right, he got right for the wrong reasons. He correctly assumed that the only way to make an urban home relevant economically was for it to become a site of production as well as consumption, specifically of handicrafts and food. In the past 65 years the economy has shifted gears, from making things to selling them (including services and ideas). The result has been the beginnings of Wright’s a new yeoman class. The hundreds of thousands of architects, accountants, real estate agents, and other artisans of the knowledge economy who are leasing the live-above-the-shop flats in towns centers are the descendants of Wright himself, whose own home and studio in Oak Park and Taliesin workshops were the original at-home office.
Wright erred too in assuming that free land was essential to people’s ability to support themselves humanely. He did not anticipate the degree to which affluence has made it possible for millions (no, not yet all) to buy their own land, rendering moot the need for a new system of land ownership. The suburban homestead would not be the site of wealth production but the source of it. The profits from house sales pay for college for the kids or a nest egg of retirement; preserving its value—mastering the skills needed to maintain it, improve it and its grounds—is as close as the typical American family ever gets to the husbandry Wright envisioned.
As the suburban hinterland evolves, it looks more and more like Broadacre City. Increasingly independent economically, it offers not just places to live but places to making a living—in short, an alternative to, not just an appendage of the central city.
Certainly nothing has changed in the underlying dynamic of city-building from Wright’s day. The really important question facing planners today is the same one that Wright took up in Broadacre City: not how to end sprawl but how to structure it, decorate it, make it more efficient. The difference is that it is no longer only planners who are asking it. A suburban public fed up with banal buildings, commercial eyesores, corrupted vistas, and traffic jams have given reform political force.
Take every suburbanite’s bugbear, traffic congestion. Wright’s relentless grid of arterial roads offends the aesthete in its indifference to land forms. Even in a more landscape-friendly form, however, it would allow for an efficiency of traffic movement that present layouts often do not. This is an inescapable conclusion, and engineers and planners who’ve never heard of Broadacre City are adding new connecting streets to postwar plats and demanding more connections in new ones.
One can probably also expect to see further elaborations of Wright’s sometimes fanciful technocratic solutions, even if they take forms he couldn’t have predicted 65 years ago. No aeromotors, in short, but improved multimodal transport systems that preserve the freedom of the personal car while adding the efficiencies, where feasible, of mass transit. Moshe Safdie for instance would add moving sidewalks to commercial strips to facilitate movement within those crowded, bazaar-like precincts. Such technologies would smooth the internal circulation of other high-density modes such as airports, malls, and convention centers where the car is too clumsy a presence. In doing so they preserve the essence of Broadacre City—mobility—even if they opt for means that Wright did not envision.
Suburbia will never match Broadacre's low densities, and the trend is toward more density rather than less, especially at the transport nodes where offices, plants, and other ‘higher-order central place functions” are accreting. Wright’s low densities were a result of his assumption that families would need productive grounds measured in acres. His anti-urbanism blinded him to a fact now acknowledged, which is that the city of the future will depart from the simplistic models of reformers on both sides of the sprawl debate. As Rybczynski put it in City Life, “We need both dispersal and concentration in cities—places to get away from each other, and places to gather—and it’s time to stop assuming that one necessarily precludes the other.” The likely result he describes as “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City meets Jane Jacobs’ Greenwich Village.”
Peter Hall notes that in postwar suburban sprawl Americans got the shell of Broadacre City without the substance. Presumably he meant the form of Broadacre City without the reform that Wright assumed was essential to its shape. In fact the substance of Broadacre City is aesthetic. Broadacre City was not a conventional city plan, rather a work of architecture applied to a particular city form. Wright once said the countryside would not be destroyed by having city built all over it because “quality of building comes into the picture.” Well, it did in Broadacre City, although the risks in leaving the job in lesser hands are painfully obvious.
In our distinctly un-utopian suburbs, aesthetics (except in upscale suburbs) are left to the market. Developers, not Wright’s master architect/planner, decide the look of the landscape. Here too the trend is toward Broadacre City. Citizens, acting as both customers and voters, are beginning to insist that aesthetics at both the landscape scale and the house scale are matters of public interest as well as private taste. Local government diktats regarding design are more and more common, from building design (Portland, Oregon just banned “snout houses”) to viewshed protection and bans on look-alike houses. Matching (in principle if not detail) Broadacre City would be an aesthetic agenda ambitious enough to keep any planner busy for decades. For example, Peter Rowe has identified six design principles in Broadacre that would at least make today's suburbs more visually appealing.
Reconciling the need for central planning authority with Americans’ famous distaste for strong local government has frustrated reformers more patient than Wright. His architect-czar may never materialize in that form, but the grounds on which local agencies are employed to assert a public interest in building decisions grows longer each year. Wright’s expectation that houses be “harmonious with nature” was meant aesthetically, not ecologically, but regulations governing watershed protection, erosion control, tree preservation, and the like are becoming common in the more enlightened districts and will, like most such regulation eventually become standard everywhere. In fact, aesthetics too might yet become a political program in its own right rather than merely an approvable aspect of individual building projects. Here Wright’s county architect—elected, and thus entitled politically to act on the public's behalf—might find a role after all.
The world is still catching up to Wright. The next few decades should see suburbia become even more like Broadacre City. If that happens, Wright’s model still has predictive force. In it we can see the future we are going to have, if it is not necessarily the one we want. ●