How Frank Lloyd Wright Could Solve The Urban Design Challenges Of Today
Revisiting his philosophies could inspire fixes for current housing crises, urban design challenges, and future climate changes.
THE GOOD NEWS:
Revisiting architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s solutions-based-design thinking could inspire fixes for the most confounding of current housing crises, urban design challenges, and forthcoming climate change problems.
Clogged freeways, skyrocketing housing costs, vanishing resources — they’re all-too-common problems for today’s urban dwellers. While these challenges are on the minds of contemporary architects and urban planners, perhaps we should look to a designer of the past to chart our future: Frank Lloyd Wright.
These are precisely the design challenges that would’ve intrigued Frank Lloyd Wright and possibly nudged him toward inventive solutions. Who could better imagine where we are headed than the man whose built-in-1923 Hollywood Hills Ennis House doubled as the apartment of Rick Deckard in the 1982 cyber-noir classic “Blade Runner”? Even in 2018 — just a year before the dystopian setting of “Blade Runner” — it stills looks futuristic and visionary.
Wright is one of the world’s most famous architects and was a forward thinker. He lived life with an attitude of insatiable curiosity. 150 years after his birth, he’s still a household name, and his approach is reflected in his staggeringly prolific works around the world, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, and the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
“He was a relentless experimentalist,” says Stuart Graff, president and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, “I think of him as the first sustainable architect.”
Wright was a man of many “firsts.” In 1910, a two-volume book of Wright’s drawings was published in Germany, and almost immediately, Europe went bonkers for him. He was arguably the first American celebrity export — a rock star before rock stars — and he affected scores of young architects who would shape the modern era. He even followed up the book with a “European tour.”
He lived to the extreme: He was a writer, inventor, and teacher, and he even toyed with mysticism. He had three wives (one stolen from a client), fathered seven kids and adopted another, and was plagued by personal tragedies and setbacks, but he still managed to design more than 1,000 structures — over 500 of which were completed. It was a staggering proliferation by any stretch. Ayn Rand’s famously iconoclastic architect protagonist Howard Roark from her 1943 novel “The Fountainhead” is allegedly based on Wright. And Wright’s Fallingwater House in Pennsylvania — made up of a series of cantilevered rooms that stretch out wide, hovering magically over a raging 30-foot tall waterfall — has been deemed “the best all-time work of American architecture.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Our challenges call for inventive, radical minds.[/quote]
His deep roof overhangs, huge expanses of windows, and easy drift of inside-to-outside living characterized the flourishes of mid-20th-century design — but Wright was doing it in the early 1900s. Some of the most famous architects of the 20th century worked for him first. John Lautner, who designed the Sheats-Goldstein House (aka Jackie Treehorn’s house in “The Big Lebowski”), and Richard Neutra, who is considered to be one of the most important modernist architects ever, both apprenticed under Wright.
Wright’s building methods developed out of an exuberant trifecta of exploration, gumption, and risk. In each unique new difficulty he faced, Wright reciprocally solved it with an equally fresh and effective method or means. In channeling this approach – seeing problems as opportunities – Graff and other Wright aficionados believe we might be able to assess how to make cities denser while maintaining livability and open space, park cars where there’s little room to do so, or perhaps identify new construction materials that won’t strain precious resources.
The Ennis House. Photo by Mike Dillon/Wikimedia Commons.
“I think he looked at how nature’s processes worked, and he discovered that nature offers all the solutions we need, and we too can thrive with nature,” Graff explains.
Take Wright’s textile block houses, like the Ennis House, which holds warmth in the winter yet cools the house in summer as the sun’s conductive heat transfers slowly through the block’s mass. The concept — called thermal mass — is an ancient one, but Wright brought it back to the forefront in aesthetically meticulous detail and monolithic handsomeness. Solar orientation was as important in his Arizona houses as it was in his own Wisconsin home, which was built into the landscape. The mass of the surrounding hill insulated the rooms and maintained a moderate temperature all times of the year.
Many of Wright’s house designs included planters inside and out, integrating nature into domestic life. Today “biophilia” is the term coined to suggest that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connection with nature, and it’s been proven to improve mental and physical health in offices, hospitals, and senior housing. Wright’s biophilic ideals were way ahead of the curve. The connection with nature continued into Wright’s adult years and informed most of his work. It is said that Wright was fascinated by the cacti he studied at his co-living compound in Taliesin West, outside of Scottsdale, Arizona. The staghorn cholla cactus, in particular, inspired the structural columns at his Johnson Wax headquarters building in Racine, Wisconsin.
“As the cholla dies, its interior stalks are revealed, and you can see the helical mesh that forms its very supportive structure,” Graff notes.
Arizona-based home builder Vali Homes are similarly learning from nature and applying it to projects in a nod to Wright by looking at cacti forms. “Basic building energy codes are asking us to build more and more efficiently, but the way the building industry is doing that — those buildings are much less healthy to live in. The way the industry is building in energy efficiency today is not very smart,” says Austin Trautman, founder of Vali Homes.
He says his approach to design and building was inspired by Wright. “The saguaro cactus is what we’ve modeled some of our siding on. We talked to horticulturalists and asked them, ‘What plant in our environment in Arizona works, and how does it do that?’ We discovered that the ribs and spines of the saguaro shade itself and create airflow that takes cool air from the ground and vents it at the top. The same way a person sweats, the moisture in a wall needs to not be trapped — that keeps mold from growing and the wall from deteriorating.”
Most new buildings today are built with timber — a finite resource without the benefits of thermal mass and coated with synthetic stucco, which is neither durable nor healthy — but Wright would’ve balked at that banal palette. He constantly tested unconventional materials that could save costs, weather better, be more durable, or contribute to the efficient operation of the building. Wright experimented with materials such as Pyrex glass tubes at the Johnson Wax building, pre-fab housing (the “Ready Cut Homes” concept), and cutting-edge adhesives to fuse corner glass in his Wisconsin house windows.
Wright would’ve shrugged off solar panels or other trending technologies as true solutions. The whole system — the form of the building, the drainage, the views from within and approach from outside — these elements together had to achieve a holistic resolution.
Wright not only ushered in new ways of building, but certain projects reconsidered ways in which people purchase, renovate, and live within homes. His Suntop Homes concept split a typical suburban neighborhood lot into four smaller properties, allowing buyers to purchase a smaller house at a smaller price. The Suntop model is similar to the way today’s growing cities — like Los Angeles, Houston, and Phoenix – are using “small-lot subdivisions” to provide a different scale of home ownership, physically and financially, by way of infill. But today’s small-lot developments usually feature a number of skinny three- or four-story structures with just inches of space between them and set around a common driveway. Developments can be as small as three homes or as large as 50, and they’ve come under fire for being too dense, too blocky, and lacking green space in often already park-poor areas.
Suntop Homes were positioned on the subdivided lot with each having a different 45-degree plan rotation, providing each home with a small yard and unobstructed view out while maintaining privacy from other nearby neighbors. The simple method of turning each home slightly away from the others provided what today’s “small lots” lack — a connection to outdoor space and privacy.
The Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House. Photo by James Steakley/Wikimedia Commons.
The Usonian dream
In the 1950s, to ensure that a client could afford the home he had envisioned, Wright developed a scheme in which his Usonian model house could be added to over a 30-year timespan, concurrent with the client's projected salary raises. The original owner of what would be called the Samara House, John Christian, lived in the home until he passed in 2015. The Peter A. Beachy House in Oak Park, Illinois, was built around another house that came before it, on the same lot, stealthily reusing the building which was already there and therefore reducing construction costs.
Wright’s projects also took on the “problem” of where to park a car. These days, not much careful consideration is given to the automobile’s effects on the final form of a building, much less the condition at the sidewalk and street. Multi-unit housing development often disregards pedestrians and puts driveways and retractable security gates front and center, but parking is totally integrated into the design of Wright's Johnson Wax building, so much that it helps to frame part of the entrance. At the Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House in Wisconsin, the carport area forced the front porch over to the side of the house and inspired Wright to consider each side of the home as a different type of entry. This thoughtful purpose for each façade made Wright’s homes stand apart from other architects’ works at the time, but even now, most new single-family homes have yet to engage the possibilities of numerous portals and entrances – some of which could point to co-housing strategies.
A radical mind
His inventiveness took a playful turn in Automobile Objectives, a series of fanciful, never-built journeys by car — circular, elevated highways, for example — in which the automobile became a portal for a stand-alone experience. In Automobile Objectives, there’s a lightness of spirit, a sense of play and pomp in the scheme.
We can learn that from Wright too, says Graff, but he points out that for each radical designer’s inventive new solution, there must be a client who will support it. “Our challenges call for inventive, radical minds,” he says. “There aren’t any problems we’re facing that the environment doesn’t already solve itself. Wright looked at opportunities in constraints; like the plants he was so fond of studying in the desert that thrive under brutal conditions, he also thrives under constraints.” 150 years on, Graff hopes, we can finally catch up to his mindset.