Is the world ready for Frank Lloyd Wright’s suburban utopia?
Inside the architect’s overlooked plan for Broadacre CityBy James Nevius Jan 4, 2017, 10:00am EST
If you read enough about Frank Lloyd Wright, a standard narrative begins to emerge: There’s early Wright, where the brash young architect breaks from his Chicago School mentors to create the Prairie style and design such early icons as the Robie House in Chicago and Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel. Then there’s late Wright, the mature genius who brought us Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum. In between, there’s a fallow period of personal scandal, a slowdown in commissions, and oddball musings, such as his 1932 plan for a utopian, libertarian community he called Broadacre City.
Though Wright remains America’s most famous architect, his Broadacre theories are often relegated to a footnote of his career; indeed, many biographies don’t mention them at all. But what if the Broadacre plan—a sweeping, individualized American “anti-city” that fused Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian ideals into a seamless, Wright-designed, suburban landscape—was, in fact, the architect’s most enduring idea?
Had Wright followed in the footsteps of an architect like his rival, Le Corbusier, who both theorized about master-planned cities and got a chance to design one in Chandigarh, India, the Broadacre concept might today be seen as more central to his career.
Even though Wright didn’t get the chance to bring a Broadacre City to fruition, many of his Broadacre ideas have become central to the American landscape. With today’s telecommuting and technological breakthroughs—like the promise of self-driving cars just around the corner—will there finally be a full-fledged version of Wright’s Broadacre vision?
Wright first proposed the Broadacre concept in 1932 in a book called The Disappearing City, but the public didn’t take notice until he unveiled a model of a Broadacre City in 1935 at an industrial design fair held at Rockefeller Center.
The irony of that location was certainly not lost on the architect, who thought that New York’s newest skyscraper complex represented “the entrails of final enormity.” Rockefeller Center—and by extension, any dense urban agglomeration—was the exact opposite of what his Broadacre concept entailed.
Displayed in a huge scale model that was 12 feet square and eight inches high, Wright’s first Broadacre rendering showed what a low-density modern city could look like—if you removed nearly everything from it that was remotely urban. Most of the model was taken up by neatly gridded plots for what Wright would later term “minimum houses.” Areas were set aside for recreation and Wright envisioned a skyscraper or two for recovering city dwellers who couldn’t bear the thought of too much open space. Today, looking down at the Broadacre model from above, it resembles just about any American suburb; at first glance, it doesn’t seem radical at all.
American architect Frank Lloyd Wright at the Rockefeller Center, New York, with a model of his ‘Broadacre City’ concept for suburban development, April 15, 1935. Photo by Keystone View Company/FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Soon after the model went on view, Guy Hickok in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle praised the “charm” of this “City of the Future”:
A good way to get the full thrill is to stand by the big relief model and imagine yourself motoring, coming upon it by surprise …. It would dawn upon you gradually that the landscape had taken a turn for the better, that for once … the works of man, taken collectively, were lovely, that the usual urban scar or scab was in this case a garden …. Before you left you would almost certainly ask how to become a resident. It is a city of pre-fabricated houses, built under zoning regulations plotted in advance to keep everything under control from the very start.
That same year, Wright summed up his vision in a piece for Architectural Record titled “Broadacre City: A New Community Plan.” The architect distilled The Disappearing City into five pages, outlining the central tenets of the Broadacre concept, in particular the “freedom to decentralize,” and the idea that every citizen has “his social right to his place on the ground as he has it in the sun and air.”
What if the Broadacre plan—a sweeping, individualized American “anti-city” that fused both Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian ideals into a seamless, Wright-designed suburban landscape—was, in fact, the architect’s most enduring idea?
Wright’s use of the term “Broadacre” reflected this. At a minimum, each “childless family” would be guaranteed one acre of land in a Broadacre City, though larger families would require more. As Wright’s plan was refined over the next two decades, he ultimately envisioned a population density of about 2.5 people per acre (or roughly the current population density of the state of Arkansas).
To put that in perspective, in the 2000 census, Manhattan had about 104 people per acre (down from a peak earlier in the 20th century). Another way to think of it is that a typical New York City block is about five and a half acres—in Wright’s thinking, only enough room for about 13.75 people.
It was apparent from the start that while Wright was using the term “city” to describe Broadacre, he was actually creating, in the words of architecture critic Lewis Mumford, an “anti-city.” To critics like Mumford, a place like Broadacre City would destroy all that was good about urbanity.
Wright probably would not have disagreed.
In “Broadacre City: A New Community Plan,” he wrote that one of the problems of the modern city is that it cheats citizens “of their democratic values.” He goes on to note:
The landlord is no happier than the tenant …. The present success-ideal, placing, as it does, premiums upon the wolf, the fox and the rat in human affairs and above all, upon the parasite, is growing more evident every day as a falsity just as injurious to the “successful” as to the victims of such success. Well—sociologically, Broadacres is a release from all that fatal “success” which is, after all, only excess. So I have called it a new freedom for living in America.
Wright’s concepts of success and freedom come not just from getting people out of overcrowded, non-democratic cities, but also from three key technological advances that make a Broadacre City possible:
1. The motor car: general mobilization of the human being.
2. Radio, telephone, and telegraph: electrical inter-communication becoming complete.
3. Standardized machine-shop production: machine invention plus scientific discovery.
For Wright, the car was key (he had a mild obsession with them). Older cities like New York had been built to emphasize the pedestrian, but that was the model of the past. As Wright wrote in The Disappearing City, “grid-iron congestion is crucifixion now.”
The rapid spread of the automobile—by 1930, there were over 25 million cars on the road—meant that cities would continue to get overcrowded and highways were the new key to American living. Wright envisioned phasing out railroads and putting the right of way once occupied by train tracks “into general service as the great arterial”: lower decks for slower moving truck traffic, upper lanes for “speed traffic,” and in between a “continuously running” monorail. As designed by Wright—or by his surrogates—such highways would, of course, “become great architecture.”
Today, someone coming to Wright’s Broadacre plan with the author’s name stripped from the title page would be forgiven for thinking it was the musings of another urban planner from the 1930s: Robert Moses. As the mastermind behind such projects as the Triborough Bridge, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Cross Bronx Expressway, and the ultimately doomed LOMEX superhighway, Moses sought to transform New York in a similar fashion. As he once remarked, “cities are created by and for traffic. A city without traffic is a ghost town.”
Moses’s 1920s highway projects on Long Island—like the Southern State and Wantagh State Parkways, which improved access to Jones Beach—prefigured Wright’s ideas that roads could efficiently usher a decentralized population to and from recreational (and other) “hubs” as desired.
Ellen Moody/Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art
These hubs included gas stations, which Wright predicted would become the “advance agent of decentralization.” And, as Neil Levine writes in his book, The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright, Wright “correctly predicted [the gas station] would ‘naturally grow into a neighborhood distribution center, meeting place, restaurant, rest room or whatever else is needed.’” In essence, Wright’s highways would be dotted not just with gas stations, but with shopping malls and, due to efficiencies in production and shipping, what today we’d call big box stores.
Wright’s second rationale for abandoning an urban core was the improvement in “electrical inter-communication.” Here, too, he was peering into the future, imagining a world where abundant electricity—allowing a radio, telephone, and television in every home—would render downtown office districts moot. And that’s without envisioning computers or the internet. As he wrote (somewhat convolutedly) in The Disappearing City:
Financial, official, professional, distributive, administrative: offices may now all go where they belong to function as units of whatever industry they represent and be found there where actual production is taking place.
He again pictured decentralized hubs along the arterial roads, where police, fire, and the judicial system would congregate, housed in utilitarian structures and “not in the braggadocio buildings now customary.”
For those not employed in public service or retail, Wright sees the success of a Broadacre City coming from the desire to work at home, whether you are an artist, doctor, or other “professional.” Not only does this dovetail with his emphasis on the rights of the individual, it would also cut down on what he calls the “human wear and tear in the ‘back and forth haul’” and the “vain scramble in and scramble out” of commuting.
But more than just envisioning the telecommuter, Wright was looking at each individual “broad acre” as a spot for every person to self-actualize. There’d be room for every type of activity, just on a personalized, manageable scale:
little farms, little homes for industry, little factories, little schools, a little university going to the people mostly by way of their interest in the ground, little laboratories on their own ground for professional men. And the farm itself, notwithstanding the animals, becomes the most attractive unit of the city.
Wright’s final point about “standardized machine-shop production” is mostly about raising the collective standard of living. In The Disappearing City, Wright noted that “mass production … [can] now make expensive utilities and accommodation cheap for all concerned instead of questionable luxuries for the few.”
This last point was perhaps the most important, since Wright was, above all, an architect of actual buildings, not just an urban thinker. For much of the remainder of his career, he would embrace a new style of architecture—mostly domestic, but sometimes in civic buildings—that he called “Usonian.”
Wright was looking at each individual “broad acre” as a spot for every person to self-actualize. There’d be room for every type of activity, just on a personalized, manageable scale.
That word, which he first used in conjunction with Broadacre City, was a neologism that he popularized to describe the uniqueness of the United States. (Wright rejected “America” because it might refer to either North or South America.)
The early hallmark of his Usonian house plan—which was in many regards an update of his earlier Prairie style—was that it would be within easy reach of the average citizen, who would prosper in it. For example, “to build Broadacres as conceived,” Wright wrote in Architectural Record, “would automatically end unemployment and all its evils forever.”
In his book Frank Lloyd Wright: Essential Texts, Robert C. Twombly neatly summarizes the characteristics of Usonian homes:
radiant floor heating, a single story with flat floor and widely cantilevered eaves, floor-to-ceiling windows and doors opening to a garden with patio, a kitchen-bathroom unit slightly elevated above roof line, a bedroom zone, a kitchen-dining-living zone semi-divided by function, partially prefabricated walls that could be assembled on site (or potentially in a factory) and raised into place, street-facing clerestory windows and, next to the entry, a roofed but open-ended carport, a term Wright coined.
Wright’s first Usonian home, built in 1936 in Madison, Wisconsin, cost just $5,500 (including Wright’s fee). Today, that would be approximately $94,000, certainly a bargain for a home built by the country’s premiere architect.
By the 1950s, Wright had designed prefabricated Usonian homes to be sold by builder Marshall Erdman, but only 11 of these less expensive units were ever constructed (including Staten Island’s Crimson Beech house). Most Usonian homes went to wealthier clients, and costs skyrocketed. For example, the Hagans, who built a Usonian called Kentuck Knob in Pennsylvania in 1956, spent $96,000 (about $850,000 today) for a custom-built design that in some ways had more in common with its famous neighbor, Fallingwater, than with the Erdman prefab homes.
Even as suburbs developed following World War II—aided and abetted by the car, just as Wright had hoped—Wright couldn’t get a Broadacre concept off the ground. While many manufacturing jobs left large cities, the urban centers remained. Business districts weren’t replaced with a generation of homesteaders and at-home entrepreneurs. In fact, as people moved farther away from urban centers, Wright’s highways merely became conduits to move them in and out of cities each day—the “vain scramble in and scramble out” that Broadacre was supposed to solve.
Wright died in 1959 at age 91, and his Broadacre concept pretty much died with him. Just two years later, urban thinker Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which stood as a rebuke to people like Wright and their auto-centric visions of suburbia.
Jacobs’s work not only began a trend toward revitalizing cities, but also had a profound effect on New Urbanist thinkers, whose modern suburbs reject the diffused Broadacre vision in favor of miniature, walkable, Jacobs-inspired exurbs.
The closest Wright ever got to seeing a Broadacre City was in 1947, when one of his former students, David Henken, enlisted a group interested in creating a master-planned, cooperative community. (An earlier, similar project near Detroit was abandoned when many of its potential residents were conscripted into World War II service.)
Henken’s group purchased 95 acres near Pleasantville, New York. With Wright’s help, Henken and fellow architect Aaron Resnick began drawing up plans for a town, which they called Usonia in the architect’s honor. Wright designed three Usonian homes (out of a total of nearly 50), along with the town’s road system. In keeping with the Broadacre concept, house lots were each one acre. At the beginning, all the land in Usonia was cooperatively owned—though that hadn’t been one of Broadacre’s guiding principles—but eventually trouble with mortgages meant the community had to convert to a more traditional ownership scheme.
Another development influenced by the Broadacre concept was Levittown. Principal Alfred Levitt had been inspired in part by talking to Frank Lloyd Wright when Wright was building a home in Great Neck in 1936. It was the embrace of mass production, as Wright advocated in the plans for Broadacre City, that allowed the Levitts to create their homes quickly and affordably, both on Long Island and in suburban Philadelphia.
Aerial view of the vast spread of Levittown, Long Island, New York, the nation’s first suburban housing development complex, circa 1955. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
None of these communities were utopias. Nor did they fulfill Wright’s other dreams for a Broadacre City. They weren’t filled with little farms, factories, or laboratories. In fact, other than its innovative, Wright-inspired architecture, Usonia was like any other exurban town, a mix of commuters and those employed nearby in Westchester County. Moreover, while the people in both Usonia and Levittown felt they were a part of a community, they were communities that strove to keep other people out. In Usonia, a somewhat oddball application form was designed to ensure compatibility for residents; in Levittown, black people were barred from ownership. The spirit of true democracy that Wright saw as underpinning Broadacre City never flourished.
Could it today?
In 1932, a planned community of telecommuters probably seemed like science fiction. Today, why not build a Broadacre City where high-speed internet allows everyone who wants to to work at home? In addition, the rise of urban farming and a growing interest in sustainable communities means that Wright’s “little” backyard farms are already a reality in many places. Why not in a Broadacre City?
In his original plans, Wright envisioned cars and monorails whisking people to their gas station/shopping hubs. Soon, gas stations may be a thing of the past, but mercantile hubs make sense. (After all, you need your Starbucks and Pilates studio somewhere.) Why not reach them via light rail—already a viable solution in many communities—and build a town with “great arterials” that are designed to embrace the driverless car? Autonomous cars save both time and land (since so much acreage today is given over to parking lots), so they could be an important step in making a Broadacre City work.
Lastly, there’s the architecture. We will never have a city filled with Wright-designed Usonian homes. But the rise of the tiny house movement has seen a concurrent revitalization of prefab buildings. While Broadacre homes wouldn’t need to be tiny to comply with Wright’s writings, the ethos of the tiny house movement works well within the Broadacre vision. In fact, Wright’s love of little schools, factories, and more has been embraced by a generation that’s in favor of a smaller-scale, more DIY approach.
In the 1940s, the members of the collective that built Usonia each chipped in $10 a week for a few years until they had enough money to buy the 100-acre parcel to create their town. Today, a hundred investors chipping in $100 a week for three years would raise $1.56 million—before interest. Surely that’s enough to secure the land for a future Broadacre City.