The Big City is no Longer Modern
Frank Lloyd Wright and the American Rural-Urban Divide
With the encouragement of one of my favorite teachers, this essay was the first I ever published in an academic journal. It is about Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City project.
I wrote this heavily footnoted piece almost twenty-five years ago for a seminar with my professor Detlef Mertens at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the spring of 1998. It was published in the December 1998 / January 1999 issue of Daidalos, a German journal then edited by Dutch historian and critic Bart Lootsma.
The issue focused on “the need of research,” a popular subject at the time. An image from my essay on Broadacre City was featured on the cover. Not coincidentally, that same year, I was part of the Harvard Project on the City, a “research program investigating changing urban conditions around the world.”
Research into real environments and their politics became a rallying call for my generation of fin-de-siècle young architects trying to climb out from under 90s post-modern critique.
This drift towards research led many, like me, to abandon what we were taught in the late 1980s (post-modern theory) in favor of real-world data-gathering and projective scenario planning.
Although today I consider myself primarily an architectural practitioner/teacher and less a public activist / architect-researcher or Citizen Architect per Milton Curry, I do still wonder how much architecture can ultimately engage with America’s brutal realpolitik.
Is it even possible to think about cities and hinterlands outside of the binds of our current political stalemate?
Can we ever move away from the idea of elitist and academically gate-kept architecture for coastal enclaves and perhaps what little architecture is left over for so-called fly-over America?
Can we even imagine an authentically American architecture and urbanism that might bridge the Rural-Urban Divide?
That is hard to know just a few days after witnessing what is hopefully the start to the end of a six-year cycle of cultural acrimony, social violence, and political division. However, I am posting the essay with some light edits in the hope that we might dream of a different sort of future again.
Perhaps, through Wright, we might recall a time when it was possible to envision a merger of the city and the countryside— a productive marriage, if you will, of the cosmopolitan and parochial cultures that define our nation to this day.
It is hard to divine what Frank Lloyd Wright would make of America today.
Although the nation seems to have survived the start of a near civil war in 2020 and 2021, and we rejected almost wholesale the politics of division sown by reactionaries just last week, national electoral maps still point to deep cultural, economic, and political divisions between so-called rural red voters and blue state, urban dwelling coastal elites.
Finding any common ground between right and left, city folk and country folk, might still seem impossible, but I think that Wright still offers another way forward.
As a child of both the Great Plains and as Chicago’s second-greatest urban architect (after Sullivan, of course), Wright embraced both the bucolic and the technological in a uniquely American fashion that was neither Modern nor historical.
Looking back to go forward, perhaps Wright’s recipe for a more democratically distributed, hybrid rural-urban, and collaborative America is just what we might need right now.
The Big City is no Longer Modern
On February 12th, 1932, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright spoke to an over-crowded assembly of nearly 300 people at the City Club of Chicago. He lectured ardently about the "rights of the individual and the broad acre city where every family will have at least one acre of land." Wright claimed, "We live in cities of the past. We can not solve our living and transportation problems by burrowing under and climbing over, and why should we? We will spread out and in so doing will transform our human habitation sites into those allowing beauty of design and landscaping, sanitation and fresh air, privacy and playgrounds, and a plot whereon to raise things."
Three years later, in the spring of 1935, Wright officially unveiled the Broadacre City, his utopian proposal for a semi-rural city of approximately 4000 people, at the Industrial Arts Exposition, held in New York's Rockefeller Center under the auspices of the National Alliance of Art and Industry. Presented to the public in the form of a detailed twelve-foot by twelve-foot square model and ten smaller collateral models, Broadacres was Wright's vision of a highly decentralized, technologized, semi-autonomous, and agrarian community spread thin over four square miles.
Heralding a new age of "agrarian urbanism and urban agrarianism," Broadacre City was not located anywhere in particular but envisioned as part of a larger connective fabric that would cover the entire United States (or Usonia in Wright's mind): the City becoming the entire Country, according to the architect.
One year before his death at the age of 91 in 1959, Wright published The Living City, a revised and updated version of his earlier attack on centralized urbanity, The Disappearing City (1932). Despite (or perhaps because of!) his unflagging efforts to promote Broadacre City, the project received little critical or intellectual backing.
Although Broadacres was initially met with enthusiastic support (Mumford, 1935; Moses, Rockefeller, Einstein, et al. 1942
In 1966, Norris Kelly Smith would deliver this damning and almost irrefutable assessment of Broadacre City: "Judged by the pragmatic standards of the workaday world, it is so irrelevant that it has been ignored- for the realization of Broadacre City would require the abrogation of the Constitution of the United States, the elimination of thousands of government bodies from the make-up of the state, the confiscation of all lands by right of eminent domain but without compensation, the demolition of all cities and therewith the obliteration of every evidence of the country's history, the rehousing of the entire population, the retraining of millions of persons so as to enable themselves to be self-sustaining farmers, and other difficulties too numerous to mention."
Yet to consider Broadacre City only based on practicality or political implications is to somehow miss the point of the project altogether. Taken as the culmination of a lifetime's work on and about the problems facing the American city, Wright's proposal can best be seen as "a platform for criticism and a standard against which to measure prevailing conditions."
According to Wright's biographer Robert C. Twombly, Broadacres "was a suggestion, not a solution, and Wright did not anticipate the details, or even the essentials, for that matter, to be adopted. Broadacres identified urban problems and pointed a direction for the future; it was a strategy rather than a program."
Considered alongside similar urban proposals of its time, Broadacres "was farther reaching than the New Deal's Green belt towns," Twombly argues, "which posited the continuation of the central city, of land-tenure systems, of restrictive zoning, and of traditional patterns of social organization. Broadacres assumed a completely new social fabric, a radical reordering of lifestyles and priorities based on a rural-urban synthesis following a massive retreat from the city." For Wright, unlike many of his contemporaries, the answer to America's city planning problems lay not in the rejection of the suburb but in its radical acceptance.
Viewed from the edges of contemporary exurban America, Wright does not look nearly as quixotic as the pre-war planners who predicted Americans would put their cars away and settle for resolutely ordered cooperatives designed along the lines of some idyllic English village or as ridiculous as their latter-day New Urbanist descendants, the neo-traditionalist planners and designers of places like Seaside and Celebration, Florida.
If, as Alex Wall has contended recently, the contemporary American city can best be "represented by an architecture that is primarily process and secondarily fragments, " it was Wright who tried some 85 years ago to represent and form the very mechanical processes and distributive energies that were rapidly fragmenting and dissolving the American city: automotive transportation, human mobility and transience, and telecommunication.
Just as today's urbanists "…find themselves torn between the permanent requirements of organizing and constructing real space- with its land problems, the geometric and geographic constraints of the center and the periphery- and the new requirements of managing the [virtualized] real-time of immediacy and ubiquity,” (Paul Virilio) Wright was also torn between the desire to give architectural form to his era and the world and the need to acknowledge architecture's increasingly extraneous relationship with new technologies and modalities of urban organization.
In trying to fix these technologies, urban systems, and processes (both invisible and visible) within the Broadacres proposal, Wright developed, perhaps paradoxically, a code of distributive architectures and organizational networks that could potentially govern the timing and interactive protocols of a decentralized city.
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The City Disappears
Frank Lloyd Wright was never a great fan of the city.
A Mid-Westerner through and through, Wright decried the (North-Eastern) city as an "Incongruous mantrap of monstrous dimensions! Enormity of devouring manhood, confusing personality by frustration of individuality. Is this not the Anti-Christ? The Moloch that knows no God but more?" It was no wonder that he would happily publicize the city's demise with such vigor.
But, despite his obvious prejudices, Wright was somewhat less dramatic and more systematic when tallying up and accessing the factors leading to the decentralization of the American city.
As he noted in 1935, "The three major inventions already at work building Broadacres whether the powers that over-built the old cities otherwise like it or not are:
(1) The motor car - general mobilization of the human being; (2) Radio, telephone, and telegraph - electrical intercommunication becoming complete; (3) Standardized machine shop production- machine invention plus scientific discovery."
Consider that if in 1961 Lewis Mumford would contend that "The form of the metropolis is its formlessness, even as its aim is its own aimless expansion,” some thirty years prior, Frank Lloyd Wright had already issued this alert: "…the future city will be everywhere and nowhere, and it will be a city so greatly different from the ancient city or the city of today that we will probably fail to recognize its coming as the city at all."
Broadacre City was, in essence, an attempt to strategically and inventively confront the forces of urban decentralization head-on: to deal with change on its own terms and to paradoxically attempt to find a form for the formless dynamism of 2oth century urban transformation.
A Broadacre City
Wright's Broadacre City encompassed four square miles of countryside subdivided into one-acre units to allow for the settlement of 1400 families. Lots were to be configured at about 165 feet by 264 feet - precisely one acre - allowing for a garden or small farm next to every house. Families could be housed in single-family homes, worker's quarters above shops, small apartments, or in larger hillside homes. Scattered throughout Broadacre City would be twelve fifteen-story towers containing 33 apartments each. Housing was to be organized according to the disposition of highways and parks, convenient access, and proximity to work and leisure facilities.
Standard elements in the Broadacre City proposal included: non-polluting factories, farm cooperatives, decentralized schools, hotels, design centers, markets, monorail and aerotor (flying car) stations, an aquarium, motels, clinics, the county seat, orchards, a zoo, an arboretum, a community church, a sanatorium, and an airport.
All of these elements were to be neatly woven together by a grid of wide traffic arteries that would allow for unfettered private vehicular access and egress. These traffic routes would link Broadacre City to a larger super highway, connected presumably to other Broadacre Cities.
Wright, ever the great propagandist and perhaps a proto-Libertarian, exhibited the Broadacres model with two adjacent panels titled A NEW FREEDOM FOR LIVING IN AMERICA that enumerated freedoms such as:
“No private ownership of public needs | No landlord and tenant | No “housing” | No subsistence homesteads | No traffic problem | No back and forth haul |No railroads | No streetcars | No grade crossings | No poles | No wires in sight | No ditches alongside the road | No headlights |No light fixtures | No glaring cement roads or walks | No tall buildings except isolated in parks |No roadside advertising | No slum |No scum | No public ownership of private needs | No Major or minor axis”
Although Wright allowed for some blending of various functions and programs, comparable land uses were assembled together into what amounted to five large consistent bars of urban growth, all running parallel to the super highway and a regional rail system. Broadacre City thus provided for universal ownership of land without rent, free local and regular distribution of goods and services, and little if any governmental interference in daily life since only a small number of county administrators (actual architects, according to Wright!!) provided any semblance of governance and supervision.
Wright insisted on maintaining as small a scale as possible for all the various elements within his city matrix- maintaining, as it were, the charm and attractiveness of a rural arrangement. Little farms were to complement little houses, and little schools were matched with little offices. Wright's "aversion to bigness," as Seymour Stillman put it in 1958, resulted in little versions of everything urban spread far and wide. Indeed, Broadacre City was a vision of "Smallness" on a big scale.
As it was initially presented, Broadacre City was a somewhat sketchy portrait of a low-density and continuous urban area where centralized city functions could be decentralized along linear transportation and communications systems. Therefore Broadacre City recuperated as much as it innovated. Broadacre City's most fundamental supposition was that the automobile made the entire urban decentralization project inevitable because speed had finally annihilated distance and space. As Robert Fishman noted, "When [Ebenezer] Howard fixed the size of the Garden City, he was thinking about pedestrians. The 30,000 inhabitants of the Garden City could walk across the city in fifteen minutes or less. The motorized citizen of Broadacres could make a similar claim: traveling at 60 miles per hour, he could reach any of his 30,000 neighbors in 15 minutes [assuming, of course, that each Broadacre City would border another four Broadacres]."
Just as the elevator had made Chicago's vertical urbanity possible for Sullivan, Wright understood that the automobile could become a type of horizontal elevator, leading to the elaboration of a new type of horizontal urbanity spread out over a national mesh of interstate highways. Wright's secondary, yet crucial, assumption was that any urban settlement pattern based on the automobile would require the total integration of man-made and natural environments through the careful design and orchestration of roadways systems and transportation interchanges.
To smooth the way (literally) for the automobile in his decentralized "rurban" arrangement, Wright went to great lengths to design a system of roadways, interchanges, and crossings that would allow totally fluid traffic flow and control.
Congestion, the mark of life in the centralized (read diseased) city, was inimical to a free life, and Wright often equated the traffic jam in the city with advanced arterial clogging in the human body - a sign of poor health.
To combat this advancing disease, Wright imagined "freeways broadened, [and]spacious well-landscaped highways, grade crossings eliminated by a kind of integrated bypassing, over or under passing all traffic [routes] cultivated or living are made gracious by landscaping, devoid of ugly scaffolding (like telegraph and telephone poles) low sweeping grades, banked turns on surfaced roadbeds. Moving road lines laid down sympathetic to [the] terrain. No main hard road in the new city would have less than four lanes, some of them double-decked. Super highways should have no less than six lanes with over, and underpasses for traffic would be concentrated on lower side lanes, many lanes of speeding traffic above and monorail speed trains at center, continuously running."
Traffic could take off or take on at any given point along Wright's roadways, and the only fixed transport trains kept on the arterial were to be long-distance monorail cars traveling at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour. Following the advent of the Second World War, Wright would even allow himself to suggest that "At proper points along or under [Broadacre's] railways or highways, safe spacious underground refuge should be constructed for various kinds of storage uses in peacetime. These might afford protection under attack from the air, making such attack unprofitable." The road itself was, for Wright, an emblem of human freedom. The automobile "was no mere expedient of planning, nor an attractive symbol of modernity, but rather symbolized the very democracy [it] served."
Wright hoped the typical citizen of Broadacres might come to represent a new type of hybrid being- one whose mechanically-aided, mobilized and supra-horizontal existence presented a return of sorts to the nomadic, romantic wandering existence, an Americanized fantasy-notion of Bedouins or Native Americans. Wright pictured people as being either of two types: the cave dweller or the wanderer. The “cave dweller," Wright contended, "…became the cliff dweller and began to build cities. His swifter, more mobile brother [the wanderer] devised an adaptable and elusive dwelling place, the folding tent."
Therefore, Wright's Broadacre City proposal ostensibly allowed for the re-emergence of the mobile wanderer and the transformation of the cave-dweller-citizen into a motorized, liberated denizen of the landscape. "Modern mobilization," Wright felt, "is by way of modern means of transport, having its effect upon the nature of the cave dweller - this city brother who submitted obedience to man to be well saved by faith and not by works. But it is only a natural means of realization returning to his brother of the wandering tribes."This nomadic fantasy fits with Wright’s idealized (and colonizing) fixations with Mayan and Japanese architecture.
Within Broadacre City, Wright's new citizen/being would be free to seek out more light, more freedom of movement, and a more general spatial freedom through the virtues of high technology: "when he wants to go places, he will drive over the great hard road systems of the country. Or his plane, resting in the field, will await his bidding, carrying him across the continent in twenty-four hours, bringing him back to that home that enriches communal life by fitting abundance."
If the image of an airplane on every lawn was not enough to convince us of the inevitability of total mobility, Wright also envisioned a self-contained "aerotor" capable of rising straight up and "by reversible rotors" traveling in any direction under radio control at a maximum speed of 200 miles per hour, descending safely into the "hexacomb from which it arose or anywhere else. By a doorstep, if desired."
Mobile hotel units "going places" on wheels, inflatable homes thrown into the back of the car and later blown to size on site, mobile houseboats all going about "from place to place as the nomad once upon a time drifted over the desert with his camel and his tent" completed Wright's vision of a mobilized and presumably liberated American urbanity defined less by the monumental and the fixed and more by a heightened experience of uninterrupted speed and increased awareness of horizontal space and the landscape.
Like Broadacre City itself, the typical citizen of Broadacres presented something of a paradox- both a return to an idealized historical figure, the Nomad, and a foreshadowing of the contemporary, alienated, plugged-in denizen of today, a figure found both here and there, everywhere and nowhere in particular. As Wright astutely put it, "After all is said and done, he - the citizen - is really the city. The city is going where he goes."
Electrical Communication: Signals Invade the City.
"Everywhere now, human voice and vision are annihilating distance- penetrating walls. Wherever the citizen goes (even as he goes), he has information, lodging, and entertainment. He may now be within easy reach of general or immediate distribution of everything he needs or to have or to know." Frank Lloyd Wright, 1935.
At a time when Marshall McLuhan was still in college, and Baudrillard and Virilio had probably not even entered primary school, Frank Lloyd Wright recognized the deep impact modern mass communications would have on urban form. As Wright claimed, "our new machine agencies create new tendencies consciously employed; or deployed and reorganized. The village that became a city scatters far as mobilized communication grows. There is now no advantage in a few blocks apart, over a mile, or over ten. There is a new time scale to take the place of the old foot-and-inch. Human thought itself long since rendered ubiquitous by printing, now by visible speech and movement, all but volatile by telegraph, telephone, radio."
Seventy years before Virilio would write that "the aesthetic of construction is dissimulated in the special effects of the communication machines, engines of transfer and transmission, " Wright realized that "voices and vision penetrate solid walls to entertain and inform" as much as to dissimulate and dissolve the very bounds of architecture and the city itself. "There [was] no room for architecture in the city. The car destroyed it; the telephone, telegraph, television, and radio all destroyed it because they are just as available in the country as in town. There is no advantage in the town anymore for anything. The city is going, going, gone."
As it has been noted elsewhere, many of the images of the dispersed city which we accredit to others - "Lewis Mumford's 'invisible grid,' Marshall McLuhan's 'global village,' Melvin Webber's 'community without propinquity' and even Virilio's 'over-exposed city' - all attempts to capture the a-spatial dimension of urban decentralization - were well-anticipated in Frank Lloyd Wright's principal attempt at urban planning.”
Broadacre City was perhaps the most portentous and prophetic ideal community ever planned for America. As Stephen Grabow has commented, “Broadacre City provided an "accurate vision of the standard package into which the metropolitan periphery would be sub-divided in ideal post-Depression suburbia." And as Reyner Banham argued in 1968, "For all its faults, Broadacre City bore witness, in a necessary time, to an alternative vision of civilization."
Indeed, by devoting himself to confronting the many problems of the urban future, Wright predicted many of the living patterns that have come into existence within the contemporary American landscape. In drawing such close associations between the high technology of his day and the nomadic freedom of a primitive past, Wright also foreshadowed the possibility of a liberated, mobilized existence dependent less on architectural form than on a matrix of open urban networks and operative technologies.
Wright, F. L., Frank Lloyd Wright tells of the Broadacre City. City Club of Chicago Bulletin 26:7, February 27-29, 1932.
Grabow, Stephen, F. L. Wright, and the American City-the Broadacres Debate. American
Institute of Planners Journal 43, April: 2: 118, 1977.
Smith, Norris K., F. L. Wright; a Study in Architectural Content. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall 1966: p. 153.
Twombly, Robert C., F. L. Wright; an Interpretive Biography. New York: Harper & Row 1973, p. 183.
Wall, Alex, ‘The Dispersed City.’ Architectural Design 64, 3-4: 12, 1994.
Virilio, Paul, Open Sky, trans. by Julie Rose. New York: Verso 1997: p.13.
Wright, F. L., ‘Broadacre City: A New Community Plan.’ Architectural Record 77, April: 244, 1935.
Mumford, Lewis, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World 1961:p. 544.
F. L. Wright, Kahn Lectures, Princeton 1932.
Fishman, Robert, Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: MIT Press 1982: p. 127.
Wright, F. L., The Living City. New York: New American Library: 116-132, 1970
Wright, F. L., Ibid: 132.
De Long, David G, F.L. Wright: Designs for an American Landscape. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1996: p. 29.
Wright, F. L., Ibid: 152.
Wright, F. L., 152.
op. cit., Wright, 1970: 68-69.
Wright, F. L., 152.
op. cit., Wright, 1970: 68-69.
Virilio, P., The Aesthetics of Disappearance, trans. Phillip Beitchman. N. Y.: Semiotext(e) 1991: p. 104
F.L. Wright, 1977: 653.
op. cit., Grabow: 115.
Banham, Reyner, The Wilderness Years of Frank Lloyd Wright. RIBA Journal 76, December: 518, 1969.