The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright by Neil Levine (Princeton University Press, 464 pp., $65)
Neil Levine knows that Frank Lloyd Wright was far from an urbanist. He acknowledges early on that the title of his new book—The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright—“must strike many as an oxymoron.” In fact, the architect was famous for his jeremiads against cities. But Levine has come not to praise such concoctions as Broadacre City, a conceptual project viewed by many as the pinnacle of anti-urban planning, but to reconcile them with the image of Wright as the modern architect even traditionalists can appreciate. Like Broadacre, most of Wright’s urban ideas never moved passed the conceptual stage. Some—such as his proposed Point Park Complex in Pittsburgh and his Baghdad Civic Center designs—achieved modest recognition; others are almost unknown. In Levine’s book, they are collected and examined in a single monograph for the first time.
Levine’s emphasis is on Wright projects with ambitions broader than simply filling an existing city block or plot. Sometimes these schemes overturned conventional ideas of urban organization, but not always. For instance, Wright was fond of the grid system. His first foray into larger-scale urban planning—a 1912 neighborhood plan for the Chicago City Club—stands out for its adherence to the city’s existing street grid. He focused his innovations within the block, planning just four homes on each. They were arranged in a pinwheel to maximize private space. No one would mistake this for density.
A grid is also the most salient feature of Broadacre City. But beyond a basic segregation of industrial districts, the assorted plans for Broadacre City don’t resemble conventional urban organization at all. Occasional superstructures, a shopping center, a concert hall, and an arena are scattered around a fabric of single-family homes punctuated by parks and occasional small public facilities, neighborhood schools, clinics, and hotel cottages. It is a scheme of radical decentralization that imagines everyone going everywhere by car. It is rightly loathed, yet, as Levine capably demonstrates, it is often misunderstood.
Broadacre is most frequently compared with Le Corbusier’s La Ville Radieuse. Even if both architects shared an interest in dismantling the recognizable urban fabric, they had different ideas about what should replace it. The animating spirit of Broadacre, wrote Wright, was “Ruralisme as distinguished from Urbanisme.” The city was not to be rationalized but to be pastoralized. Urban ills were to be diluted by ample helpings of prairie soil. Wright’s urbanism did more than simply break existing paradigms; it imagined new ones. Broadacre has plenty of factories, but no office district—Wright may have invented the idea of telecommuting.
Wright’s opinions were often as flexible as they were scabrous. After years of criticizing skyscrapers as “a threat, a menace to the welfare of human beings,” he designed several in New York and Chicago. Even the plans for Broadacre City sprouted several high-rises. Wright had many welcome opportunities to realize his more modest dreams. His taste for massive structures cropped up on several other occasions.
Wright’s Crystal City plan for Washington, D.C. (to be located along Connecticut Avenue north of Dupont Circle) was a 21-tower megastructure resembling a spaceship. It was a massive project that managed to respect the streetscape of the surrounding neighborhood. The project was ultimately sunk by the city’s strict height limit for buildings, which often serves as a proxy for aesthetic conservatism.
Wright’s proposal for a civic center in Madison, Wisconsin, was the only large urban scheme he designed that was eventually built—albeit in a highly diminished form. It, too, respected its urban and natural setting. It was so respectful, in fact, that it was almost invisible. The civic center was to arise on a lakefront site, at which a civic mall leading from the Wisconsin State Capitol would terminate. Its cantilevered megastructure, containing a convention center, city hall, county building, and auditorium, would have only been visible from the lake. Its gardened roof would have served entirely as a continuation of the civic mall. It was, all in all, a modest proposal.
Modesty is the last descriptor that would ever be applied to Wright’s Pittsburgh Point civic center, a work of flagrant gigantism. Wright proposed a colossus, featuring a sports arena, opera hall, convention center, offices, a restaurant, an aquarium, and an astonishing 92 acres of parking. This immense, terraced orb with highways running through the center was obviously a proposal of megalomaniacal hubris. Its size and cost shocked those associated with the Point redevelopment proposal. It did, however, fit fairly seamlessly into the existing fabric of downtown Pittsburgh. Wright’s proposal would have sat across the street from the existing business district, and offered a more seamless integration between Pittsburgh’s point and its downtown than was eventually realized.
Wright’s last urban plan was perhaps his most unusual. In the mid-1950s, the Iraqi government recruited an international supergroup of architects to help modernize the ancient city. Gropius, Le Corbusier, Aalto, and others were offered a variety of commissions. Wright designed a university and an opera house. The circular arrangement of both structures was an adaptation to the local climate and a nod to the original form of the city of Baghdad. A monument to Harun-al-Rashid, the caliph associated with halcyon Baghdad days, was an unusually figurative touch for Wright. Other elements veered into Orientalism: references to the Garden of Eden and scenes from The Book of the Tale of a Thousand Nights (which revolve around Rashid’s court).
The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright is a tour, in many ways, of the Frank Lloyd Wright you never knew—largely because the projects never got built and so can’t be visited. The portrait of Wright’s urbanism that emerges isn’t exactly reasonable, but it makes more sense than his unrealized plans for Broadacre City do in isolation. It’s probably best that Broadacre City was never built, but Levine devotes exhaustive care to situating Wright’s proposals within the context of historical circumstance. Whether blissful or nightmarish, Wright’s dreams are worth one’s time, and there’s never been a better analysis than this.