Frank Lloyd Wright’s Centrally Planned City

On my last post about Ayn Rand’s views on cities, I received feedback in the comments that obviously she loved cities and on Twitter that obviously she did not. I think I come down on the side that she likely saw cities, and particularly skyscrapers, as embodiment of human achievement. However Frank Lloyd Wright — the likely inspiration for her character Howard Roark in The Fountainhead – strongly opposed population density both for his architectural preference and from a public policy angle.

Wright called his urban development vision Broadacres because he thought that population density should be less than one person per acre. In part this may have stemmed from Wright’s practice of organic architecture. Many of the tenets of organic architecture, such as designing buildings with their users’ needs as the foremost priority, can be practiced as well in dense development as in houses like his most famous Fallingwater. However, Wright seemed to draw particular inspiration from designing buildings in greenfield locations, inspired by the natural landscape.

This is all well and good for those who want to live far from cities. However, Wright went on to argue that density of people and buildings is not merely an issue of preference, but one of democracy. He argued that city life restricted individuals’ freedom of movement, and that skyscrapers limited individualism by increasing congestion and “keeping concentration where it is,” as if working or living in a skyscraper was like being in prison rather than a voluntary activity. Like many who have argued against building density because it increases congestion, Wright downplayed the necessary traffic congestion that occurs when land use restrictions require people to live far from their workplaces.

Wright saw Broadacres as the anthithesis of Corbusian design, but both share a focus on green space and both would rely on heavy-handed planning, making them unlikely to turn out as well in practice as their originators imagined. At the time he promoted it, Broadacres received criticism from liberals who saw his design as anti-communal. While this may be a fair critique of the lifestyle that would result in Broadacres, it’s important to note that it’s also very anti-libertarian. The design relies on a central plan which Wright envisioned repeated over and over in cities across the country. He saw room for individualism in house design, but the land use plan would rely entirely on county-level planners.

In Archiectural Record (1935) he writes that Broadacres represents “a new freedom for America,” but then he goes on:

In the hands of the state, but by way of the county, is all redistribution of land — a minimum of one acre going to the childless family and more to the larger family as effected by the state. The agent of the state in all matters of land allotment or improvement, or in matters affecting the harmony of the whole, is the architect. All building is subject to his sense of the whole as organic architecture.

[...]

In the buildings for Broadacres no distinction exists between much and little, more and less. Quality is in all, for all, alike. The though entering into the first or last estate is of the best. What differs is only individuality and extent.

He sounds not unlike a Randian villain. While Wright professed support of limited government, he advocated authoritarianism in land use. Individual liberty requires the freedom for consumers to choose to live in a setting like Broadacres or in a skyscraper like one of Howard Roark’s, but Wright’s plan would not offer this choice.

(Both video links via The Atlantic Cities.)

  • benjaminhemric

    WAS AYN RAND SEDUCED BY SUPERFICIAL VISUALS? IS THAT WHY SHE CHOSE THE “WRONG” HERO AND THE “WRONG” VILLAIN FOR “THE FOUNTAINHEAD”?

    As previously mentioned, I’m only passingly familiar with Rand’s work so my comments here are VERY tentative.

    Since Wright is the acknowledged model for the hero of “The Fountainhead,” one might wonder if there is a model for the villain of the book also? According to an interesting website which I will link to further down in my comments, Rand did have a model in mind, and it was, of all people, Raymond Hood! For those who don’t know him, Hood was the architect of, among other buildings, the Tribune Building (in Chicago), American
    Radiator Building, the Daily News Building, the McGraw-Hill building —
    and, arguably, the chief/main architect of Rockefeller Center.

    Funny thing for me about this “villain” status for Hood is that Hood long ago replaced Wright as my single favorite architect (if one could say I have a single favorite) and this is due, at least in part, because Hood seemed to me to best exemplify what I think of as the best aspects of the Rand’s philosophy: the virtue of selfishness (where selfishness is defined as enlightened self interest) and freely made contracts. (Plus, if Rand loved cities, Hood’s buildings are the most urbane buildings around.)

    The great thing about Hood’s buildings is that they worked visually (were beautiful, striking and original); worked for the developer (he was a favorite of developers because Hood thought like a businessman and his buildings were money machines for businessman); and worked for end users (they are great buildings to work in and walk by). And although Hood personally lived in the suburbs, his buildings are exemplars of modern day urbanism — these are the kind of skyscrapers that make people happy to live and work in a great city. This is in contrast to, in my opinion, the buildings of Wright which look spectacular on paper but are often “unworkable” in real life, hard to maintain, difficult to use, etc. — and are anti-urban to boot (except in those cases where they work because they are surrounded by urbane buildings like those designed by Hood — in other words, the Wright buildings are the parasites in my opinion.)

    So, in a sense (or at least from the little I know of Ayn Rand’s philosophy) it seems to me that Rand has her models “reversed”! And it occurs to me that, if this is true, it’s largely because Wright’s buildings are, admittedly, even more striking than Hood’s (although Hood’s buildings actually have a truer more long lasting beauty to them in real life, in my opinion). So, it seems to me that Rand may have been so besotted by Wright’s surface visuals that she overlooked the tenets of her own philosophy (at least those tenets that I think of as most valuable). (In other words, as brilliant as Rand may have been, it appears that she had a number of emotional blind spots that produced strange applications of her philosophy, and this may be one instance of such a blind spot.)

    By the way the article I will link to says that although Rand criticized much of Hood’s work, she praised his last famous building — the McGraw-Hill Building — which happens to be the one that I like least! (So in terms of skyscraper aesthetics, we seem to be on a different page.)

    Here’s the link to the September 7, 2009 online article by Frank Heynick, entitled “Peter Keating Designed Rockefeller Center?”:

    http://tinyurl.com/8etmuqo

    If the link doesn’t work, the article can be found by typing the following words in a search engine: Ayn Rand Raymond Hood.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Sun., September 2, 2012, 7:40 pm

  • EDG reppin’ LBC

    Thank you for the link. Very interesting theory. I’m pretty familiar with Wright’s work, but not familiar with Hood’s work at all (save Rockefeller Center). I’ll have to research more of Hood’s buildings. And maybe it is time to go back and re-read “The Fountainhead”? It’s been 20 years, after all.

  • Emily Washington

    Benjamin, I’ll add another thanks for the link. That’s a very interesting article. While it makes sense that Rand would dramatize her characters, it seems that Frank Heynick makes a good point that she formed her opinions of Wright and Hood based on her fictionalized versions of them.

    I don’t know much about how Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings work for their users, but I would agree with you that they are anti-urbane for the most part. Personally I think The Guggenheim, as one of his most urban sites, works very well as a museum space (although people who know much more about displaying art might disagree), but as you point out it’s not the type of building that would work for a developer on a for-profit project.

  • http://twitter.com/michaelcaution Michael Caution

    Here’s a FAQ link about the connection between Ayn Rand and Frank Lloyd Wright http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=faq_index#write_q6

    Or check out the essay “Howard Roark and Frank Lloyd Wright,” a chapter by Michael S. Berliner in Essays on Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”

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