The Guggenheim Museum, Fallingwater, Marin Country Civic Center, Taliesin, The Larkin building and Usonia. The list goes on. In a career spanning over 60 years, Wright changed the face of American architecture for good. But the one I want to focus on is Usonia.
There are only a few architects that have a CV as impressive as Frank Lloyd Wright. He reached a level of fame that was unprecedented for an architect even today. Wright wasn’t shy about his ability either with more than a few people labelling him as arrogant; which seems more than fair for a man who claimed himself to be the greatest architect in the world, once proclaiming, “You see, early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and see no occasion to change now”.
By the end of his career, Wright had achieved a level of celebrity usually reserved for actors and rock stars. His was a household name, and he was recognizable by his distinctive hat, cape, and cane. He weighed in publicly on society, politics and religion, and he unabashedly claimed to be the greatest architect in the world. “You see,” he said in an interview, “early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and see no occasion to change now.”
But arrogance and more than a few scandals aside, wright changed the face of American architecture forever, but not only through the impressive houses, the museums and stunning structures. Through the simple American home.
Frank Lloyd Wright went through a number of scandals in his lifetime. He was the subject of lawsuits and property seizures, and constantly in debt or getting divorced. He was often criticized for his lack of professional conduct and general rudeness. He was largely characterized as arrogant and self-obsessed.
But this bombastic character ultimately changed the field of architecture, and not just through his big, famous buildings. Before designing many of his most well-known works, Wright created a small and inexpensive yet beautiful house. This modest home would go on to shape the way working- and middle-class Americans live to this day.
At home in Usonia 1
When Katherine and Herbert Jacobs moved to Milwaukee, they were excited for the next step in their lives. Although when they arrived they found the house prices too high for a journalists income.
At the suggestion of Katherines Cousin, they set up a meeting with the great, private, and expensive architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The Jacobs’ challenged Wright to build them a house for $5,000 ($85,000) which at that time was not an easy task. Luckily for them though Wright had been waiting for this moment.
For Wright, it was a challenge that he couldn’t pass up. Previously, wright had only designed large homes for wealthy clientele. This was his opportunity to create a modest home for the working man.
To do it however, he was going to have to change his work practices. A lot of his previous clients had let Wright work untethered to budget, material or design.
The Jacobs were on the way to owning the first Usonia house. Wright imagined an architectural movement that would sweep the nation. Beautiful, well-made and most importantly affordable housing for the working and lower-middle classes.
Usonia wasn’t just about architecture, it was providing people with a house that would help improve other areas of their life. From better health to diet and even to dress better and be better people. Improving people’s lives through architecture.
Wright was imagining an American suburbia where people could live independently. Independently in homes that were mass-produced but “mass-customised”. It was the true ideals of the American dream, living in white picket fenced suburbia, immersed in nature, tucked away fro the big cities. After Usonia 1 was completed Wright was so confident in his idea and how it would succeed that he proclaimed that “the city, of course, is a thing of the past”.
Walking up from the street to Usonia 1 (or Jacobs 1 as its often called) the first thing you see is its weatherboard and brick structure tucked away by the encroaching trees. Interestingly the approaching wall you see is the back of the property, intentionally done of course, to hide the road from the users, and to open up the back garden to the front of the house. The large glass windows on at the front let in light and welcomes nature in. The house was for the user, not for the neighbours or passers-by.
Although small the space inside Usonia 1 is open and surprisingly spacious. The open plan design is one of many examples of cost-saving measures employed by Wright. The lighting is considered to be one of the first examples of track lighting, which bare wires running through a steel channel. Built-in furniture, bare walls and even underfloor heating to save on heating costs. The outdoor ‘carport’ a term coined by wright, is essentially a roof for your car, saving costs but also changing the way people lived. With no walls to hide what’s inside people were forced to limit how much they owned and kept.
Although lots of these measures did cut costs, there was some pretty dubious cost-cutting solutions on Wrights part. At one point he advised his team to steal bricks from another building site nearby. Although one of his own sites, the bricks were from part of a curved wall that was being constructed, making a wave pattern inside the home. He also reduced his fee considerably, which although generous, was not a long term solution.
But at the end of it all. We ended up with Usonia 1, which by most peoples account would still be considered a success. The Jacobs ended up moving out 6 years later after having more children but asked Wright to design their second home too. Albeit for a higher budget this time.
A Vision of Usonia the Beautiful
While Wright continued to work on Usonian homes within his lifetime, he would never find time to fully realize his vision. In the end, it was a group of his apprentices that would carry on his ideals by building an entire community of Usonian houses right outside of New York City.
Hidden away in upstate New York sits the Usonia community. A collection of 48 homes all in the Jacobs 1 style, using the ideals of Frank Lloyd Wright. Each home is different, with three designed by Wright himself and each having unique characteristics.
The main force behind the project was a man called David Henken, a notable architect in his own right, he had studied at Wrights architectural school, Taliesin. Henken sought out similarly minded men and woman to embrace the ideals and to involve themselves in the projects, and to live in the community.
The people Henken managed to bring into the project were loyal and dedicated to the idea of Usonia living. Even when costs spiralled slightly, most stayed by their homes, and in the first 40 years of them being built, only 12 of the 48 that were built changed hands, with 6 of those being handed down within the same family.
The community appeal and the way that the owners were there from the beginning meant that they could design their homes more around the user that normal. Each house designed specifically to the families wants and needs. More bedrooms, a bigger kitchen, larger garages. To this day, many of the houses are still in their original state, although minor adjustments can be made with the approval of the community, who state that you all the changes match the original architecture and use classic Frank Lloyd Wright techniques and styles.
I couldn’t actually find a figure for how many Usonian homes exist today as an estimated range from only a handful to hundreds across the united states. This is largely due to the fact that no one can really make up their minds on how to define a Usonian home. Is it only homes that Wright had a hand in designing himself, can you include his disciples and apprentices work? What about others that followed in his footsteps. Or is it just a style, and therefore there are thousands out there, affordable custom homes are being constructed across the country every week.
Even with the small community in New York, Wrights idea of Usonian living, its ideals and the influence it would have to society, never quite came to fruition. However, it did have a major influence on other architects ideas of affordable housing with suburban homes becoming more affordable, and even being offered in catalogues form departments stored from the 40s onwards.
With the way that affordable homes are not constructed, with each house on an estate in almost he same layout with only minor tweaks, Wright may have felt like the community had lost a sense of its custom, for the family, approach. However, if his dream was to truly make housing more affordable, then maybe this has come slightly true.
Outside of Usonia, Frank Lloyd Wrights influences can be seen today in buildings across the globe, from the small features in track lighting, the use of natural and local resources, flat roofs and buildings that blend seamlessly into nature. Whether Usonia was a success or not, Frank Lloyd Wrights achievements live on.
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