In the aftermath of personal scandals and the 1929 market crash, legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright saw a sharp decline in paying clients. With a creative lull, he took the opportunity to begin something new: Broadacre City, a plan he hoped would change the shape of not just architecture, but land use and society across the United States.

Wright outlined the proposal in the 1932 book The Disappearing City and followed it in 1935 with a 12-foot by 12-foot model exhibited at the Rockefeller Center. The core concept is simple, if radical: completely disperse the modern city and give each family at least an acre of land. The details and the defining ideals behind them are considerably more complicated.

“Architectural Values Are Human Values”

In early 20th century’s cities, Wright saw the culmination of the “cave-dweller” instinct. As he describes it, this propensity – in opposition with the wandering tribe – led people to huddle and build fortresses for protection. However, he believed this protection was no longer necessary and created new dangers requiring a return to the wandering tribe. “Centripetal centralization” led to city building for the sake of city building, which in turn separated the city and people in it from what Wright saw as human life’s true value.

The Rockefeller Center in 1933. Wright saw this skyscraper as “the entrails of final enormity.” Ironically, it was here that he first exhibited the Broadacre City model. Credit:
The Rockefeller Center in 1933. Wright saw this skyscraper as “the entrails of final enormity.” Ironically, it was here that he first exhibited the Broadacre City model. Credit:

As factories and machine-driven work grew, Wright asserted, citizens became obsessed with “vicarious power:” “the mistake [is] that everything or anything at all worth any man’s time can be made to happen by outside means or be the result of some external idea of form.” Rent on land, rent on money (interest and debt), and the unearned increment of those who control the machines had become the city’s economic systems and had no intrinsic value. “White collar armies” of salespeople, lawyers, and bankers supported themselves on these extrinsic goods. A bloated, complex government of bureaucracy and corruption propped up the system.

Near the end of The Disappearing City, Wright emphasized three words: democracy, integration, and organic. He believed democracy was more than just a government, and should be integrated into every aspect of American (Wright would say “Usonian”) society. The United States, in his view, was founded as an experimental nation lacking “corresponding revisions of traditional ‘property rights.’” In later years, Wright’s concept of integration became “decentralization integration” – the goal to, in one move, dissolve the patchwork of centralized cities and integrate the new community into one consistent plan. Finally, organic architecture meant that all aspects of the built environment, and therefore society, should flow from the land.

With these values in place, Wright also saw emerging in modern cities forces that would lead to his new design. The most important of these was mechanical mobilization: with the advent of the popular automobile, a city’s scale no longer made sense. In those built for pedestrians or perhaps horse-drawn carts, cars caused only traffic and gridlock. When freed from urban confines, they could collapse distance and remove any requirement for closeness. Electrical power and communication also collapsed distances. Telephones and radio made adjoining offices and industries unnecessary and power transmission across long distances made the soot-spewing city power plant obsolete. These, and many other former luxuries, were now within the common person’s reach, thanks to mass production. “The factory,” Wright asserts, “is already so well organized and built … that it needs less redesigning than any institution.”

The Broadacre City of Tomorrow

As mentioned above, the core of Wright’s proposal was that each family would receive, at a minimum, an acre to call its own. Larger families would have more, and Wright later set the optimal density at approximately 2.5 people per acre. By comparison, Manhattan today has around 103 people per acre. In 1932, Wright figured that “in these United States there is more than 57 acres of land, each, for every man, woman and child within its borders.” Today that number is closer to 7.

How land would have been distributed is unclear, but Wright emphasized that there would be “no landlord but society.” Residents in Broadacres would prove their ownership through stewardship.

Homes – and all other buildings – would be products of modern architecture, built from steel and glass to allow residents to connect to sunlight, air, and land. No two homes could be alike, as each would be built for the landscape it stood on, and landscapes would be chosen for their beauty and uniqueness. Inexpensive, mass-produced house “units” would allow poorer residents to build unique, integrated homes room by room as they established themselves in the new community. Builders might put up a handful of taller buildings, including co-op apartments for those already too “citified” to live in the open.

A 1958 sketch of a piece of Broadacre city, featuring Wright’s predicted “aerator” air travel devices. Credit: kjell on Flickr
A 1958 sketch of a piece of Broadacre city, featuring Wright’s predicted “aerator” air travel devices. Credit: kjell on Flickr

Landscaped highways would form the city’s circulatory system. There would be no billboards or telephone poles; all utility lines would run underground. Electricity would be produced directly at the coalmine or dam and sent to the consumer. The road system would be comprised of super highways (each with no less than six lanes) and their tributary roads (each with no less than three lanes). Arterial highways would have outer lanes for trucks and high-speed monorails running down the center – the only remains of railroads.

Train stations would be replaced by air depots supporting “aerators,” which Wright predicted could take off and land vertically and travel at 200 mph. Roadside service stations, which would resemble upscale truck stops with malls more than modern gas stations, would be scattered along the highways. They would be key meeting places for the car-centric culture, and would include roadside markets selling produce from nearby farms, “fresh every hour.”

Broadacre Model Close up
Close up of the Broadacre City Model. Credit: Andrew Huey on Flickr

Other pieces of the city – factories, farms, schools, etc. – would also be built to a new scale. Wright described each as “little,” operating on simpler designs. Farms would vary their produce and sell through co-ops directly to the consumer to compete with larger operations. Hotels would be rare and cottage-like, but hotels on wheels or water would be common, touring the country in a sort of mass road trip. Hospitals would be smaller, and comprised of scattered, sunlit clinics “where no disabled or sick person need ever see another disabled or sick person unless he so wills.” A Communal Center in each county would house whatever government and administrative functions are necessary, as well as recreation facilities.

A few urban elements would have seen even more radical changes. Churches would become nonsectarian gathering and worship spaces, as Wright believed that “no theology, now, can ever be essential.” Universities – one per state – would have no professors or large groups, and only three “father confessors … One elected by the scientists, one by the artists, and one by the philosophers of each state.” Each would hand-select students to work on research. There would be much larger and more formal industry-sponsored design centers to educate architects and artisans, in the style of Wright’s Taliesin fellowships.

Where is Broadacre City Now?

The Marin County Civic Center, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to function as a Broadacre City Communal Center. Credit: joevare on Flickr
The Marin County Civic Center, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to function as a Broadacre City Communal Center. Credit: joevare on Flickr

Wright foresaw Broadacres stretching across the nation, but he had little success in implementing the idea. A few of his later projects reflected the plan on a small scale, including the Marin County Civic Center in California, a series of Usonian Houses, and the student-led community of Usonia, New York. Wright loosely inspired a few communities, including Rush Creek Village and the extremely influential Levittown (which in turn inspired Lakewood, California). However, none of these achieved the cultural change Wright believed was necessary.

Modern suburbia may contain some pieces of Broadacre, but these similarities are surface-level at best, and probably would have disappointed Wright. Suburbs are rarely well integrated and generally worsen the back-and-forth commute Wright sought to end.

The truth is, Broadacre City was never likely to see the light of day. The ideas proposed are radical, and all of them are based on the narrow worldview of a man who believed modern architecture could solve nearly all of American society’s problems. No one today would suggest that universities would be better off with three teachers apiece, or that urban design could wipe away religious differences. Aside from these limitations, Wright never foresaw the population explosion that makes his plan impossible.

Perhaps we should look at Broadacre City less as a practical plan and more as a challenge. In 1958, Wright saw suburbanization taking hold, and wrote, “America needs no help to Broadacre City. It will haphazard build itself. Why not plan it?”

As we continue to struggle with the balance and design of suburbs and cities, we should ask if we could plan them better than Mr. Wright.

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