Frank Lloyd Wright & Broadacre City (2007)

Excerpt from Mark Pimlott’s book, Without and within: Essays on territory and the interior (Episode Publishers: Rotterdam).

Mark Pimlott
artdesigncafé - design | 21 October 2011

Frank Lloyd Wright & Broadacre City

Launched in the midst of New Deal programmes, Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1958) exposed his approach to the problems of the American city and territory. His hypothetical project for Broadacre City (1935-1950s), offered a vision of a territory-wide, middle-class commuter suburb, with elements distributed across a territorial grid, that symbolic domain of the homestead and American independence mythically hewn from nature and hostile otherness that had held for seventy years. Wright’s vision, staged like a pronouncement, ran against the grain of the ideology of the New Deal programmes. It must be considered therefore as both a criticism of regionalism as imagined by Roosevelt’s administration and an argument for individualism as the basis for all organisation. The frontier mythology had been central to both Wright’s personality and his spatial concepts, embodied in his designs for houses in which the masonry hearth, like those characteristic of houses of the colonial period, occupied the centre of the plan and its structure. Space in Wright’s houses, particularly those of his Prairie period, were typically oriented, Janus-like, in opposite directions: inward, toward the centre, the domestic locus; and outward, not toward a view, but the horizon. [1]

It was the territory extending to the horizon that the occupant was projected upon and identified with, which was not a social space, but an antagonistic one. In Wright’s scheme for Broadacre City, public space was positively Jeffersonian in its meagre presence. Wright’s project is consistent with Jefferson’s idea of America, an idea eclipsed by the emergence of the metropolis, which Wright loathed. Freedom for both men was a matter of individual realisation. In Wright’s project, it was represented by the homesteads— categorised by the number of automobiles belonging to each— and the technology-enabled mobility (in helicopter-like aerotors) of the individual yeoman. Broadacre City was, as in Jefferson’s offering, a condition shared by all. [2] Public space, in the manner that it had been experienced in European cities, projected by the City Beautiful movement, and implied by the Regional Planning Association of America, was absent in Wright’s scheme. Instead, "palaces" of shopping, entertainment and culture were to be clustered in enormous buildings adjacent to motorways as regional amenities, [3] not unlike the shopping malls which appeared across the United States from the late 1950s.

"The three major inventions already at work building Broadacres are: 1. The motor car: general mobilization of the human being; 2. Radio, telephone and telegraph: electrical communication becoming complete; 3. Standardized machine-shop production: machine invention plus scientific discovery."

"The three inherent rights of any man are: 1. His social right to a direct medium of exchange in place of gold as a commodity: some form of social credit; 2. His social right to his place on the ground as he has had it in the sun and the air: land to be held only by use and improvements; 3. His social right to the ideas by which and for which he lives: public ownership of invention and scientific discoveries that concern the life of the people."

"The only assumption made by Broadacres as ideal is that these rights will be the citizens’. So I have called it a new freedom for living in America."

"In Broadacres, by elimination of cities and towns, the present curse of petty and minor officialdom, government, has been reduced to one minor government for each county..."

Beyond the Whitman-esque tenor of his pronouncements, Frank Lloyd Wright appeared to share superficially some of the tenets of New Deal ideology: the right to sharing the inventions of man, and the aversion to the city. He called his ideas "a new freedom for living in America". [4] However, Wright’s aversion to the city was not— as it was for the RPAA— because of its overcrowding; for him, the city as a manifestation of American society was wrong. He spoke of its populations as "mobs", its processes of decision-making and action as "mobocracy". Wright’s means of delivering the American Utopia were therefore utterly opposed to those of Roosevelt’s administration: where it wished to control the mechanisms that regulated the various components of the regions and their economies to distribute wealth, Wright wanted to leave these mechanisms as "natural phenomena" [5] in the hands of private interests, to create a common wealth whose benefits would naturally trickle down. His was a self-interest, low-government to no-government solution, the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and a position familiar to students of present-day Republican ideologues. [6] The administration of the avuncular Roosevelt was, for good reason, interventionist and paternalistic. It wished to shield the citizen from the brutalities of a failed capitalism, and wrest the mechanism of the economy (which included territorial development) from its control. Wright’s scheme harkened back to a golden age of state-sponsored principles, providing minimal, legislative means for establishing independent life; Roosevelt’s New Deal idealised the friendly cooperation between neighbours that supposely characterised the American nature, [7] and institutionalised it.

These antagonistic positions hovered over the same object, the decentralised city / urbanised territory: neither town nor country but both at once. Neither Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City nor Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives realised their outlook for America. Instead, private interest invaded the ideological terrains of both and prevailed. The regional settlement connected to road infrastructure (the freeway) idealised by both became the commuter suburb, effectively acting as a dormitory for urban workers with very limited civic resources of its own. This kind of suburb did, however, retain aspects of Wrightian and New Deal visions. Broadacre City evoked the Jeffersonian legacy wherein myths of self-determination, independence and freedom were signified by the plot of land, the homestead. The homestead in turn, refracted through the suburban prism, became an isolated home on an individual lot; the street patterns laid out winding paths served as indexes of nature; home ownership and out-of-town shopping were rendered equivalent to independence and self-sufficiency. The technological infrastructure that had been fired by New Deal programmes supported regional retail economies and established connections from all parts of those regions— like a network of umbilical cords— to urban centres, which housed business and the urban poor. The New Deal rhetoric of a technology-led, Utopian future was taken up by developers in their conceptualisation, mass-production and delivery of homes as consumer products; [8] it also served as inspiration for the production of mass-produced consumer goods that filled those homes.

The New Deal launched a range of initiatives at local and regional levels, and a series of financing programmes in the form of loans and mortgages. All were designed to encourage consumption and thereby eliminate unemployment. Through its mandate to repair the country’s broken economy, the Roosevelt administration assumed control of its mechanisms and attempted to take control of its cycles. Its ambition was to oversee or control planning, the distribution of industries and populations, and the supply and release of capital. The state therefore assumed a paternalistic role, and to extend its programmes, relied on publicity and what amounted to propaganda, [9] broadcasted via popular mass media, to sell an American future built on promises of a technology-delivered Utopian future. If progress could be planned (and the state was the only entity that could plan), then the future could be delivered and its benefits could be potentially infinite.

Frank Lloyd Wright & Broadacre City: 1 | References: 2