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.)