The average American knows little about the origins of the architecture that surrounds them on a day-to-day basis. Yet one name that most Americans have heard is that of Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the most celebrated architects in American history.
Wright was known for the style of organic architecture, which attempted to find a sense of harmony between human dwellings and the nature that surrounded them. Wright designed the Fallingwater home in Pennsylvania, built atop a waterfall and surrounded by natural growth.
In New York, Wright designed the Guggenheim Museum over a period of sixteen years. This and many other works have solidified Wright as an architect of great repute who built large and illustrious structures. However, Wright had other pursuits that he would devote much of his time to.
Coming out of the Great Depression, there was a need in America for an affordable single-family home. When approached to design such a home in 1936, Wright jumped at the opportunity.
The style of Wright’s houses reflected a vision he held for the future of American neighborhoods, something he would call “Usonian” architecture.
Elements of Usonia
At its core, Usonian architecture was meant to be affordable, mass-produced, and in harmony with its surrounding natural elements. What many of us know to be “mid-century modern” architecture and “ranch” homes are both heavily influenced by Wright’s Usonian vision.
Wright’s designs were of small, single-story homes with a carport. There were no attics and no basements. Homes were designed with little ornamentation and had open floor plans. This openness, combined with large windows and natural lighting, gives Usonian homes a sense of spaciousness that even today’s large suburban homes can’t match.
The Usonian homes themselves were only part of Wright’s grand scheme. Ultimately, Wright’s vision for America (or “Usonia” as he thought it ought to be called), was one of the suburbs. Small, modular homes that coexist with their habitats on plots of land that were crossing into one another, rather than today’s square plots, were what Wright hoped the future would hold.
Late in life, Wright had begun work on such a neighborhood. In New York, just 30 miles north of Manhattan lies the town of Mount Pleasant. The neighborhood became known as Usonian Historic District and to this day is occupied by homes designed by Wright and his apprentices. In all, 43 buildings make up the district.
Wright’s continuing legacy in American home architecture
Though Wright’s vision for America has never been fully realized, much of his ideas are alive and well. The ranch home drew elements from Wright’s style, and ranch houses are now ubiquitous across the country.
With growing land costs and a culture shifting towards minimalism, many people today are opting to live in smaller dwellings. The “tiny house” movement has gained traction in the United States. In some places, neighborhoods of tiny houses are putting down roots and forming small communities centered on having a minimal environmental impact. Frank Lloyd Wright would likely see this as a net gain, though he might have a few pointers for the architects of today’s modular homes.