Frank Lloyd Wright’s most ambitious project was to design his more modest buildings – cheap family dwellings – so that they could be mass-produced on a vast scale, transforming the USA. It offers a vital lesson to us today
Frank Lloyd Wright was not modest.
He saw the architect as a visionary whose moral responsibility was to propose new ways of living – alone, among the family, with each other, and in relation to the natural world – and American architecture as the primary agent in the construction of a democratic culture, in which a wholly new approach to the aesthetics and arrangements of daily life would breed a new citizenry. At the heart of this endeavour he saw a revolution in housing. For Wright invested the home with an almost mystical power both to nurture the individual ‘growth of the soul’ and to bring that individual into harmony with community, with nature, and with the passage of time. He may be most remembered for his radical experiments with the shape and structure of the tower, the museum, community space, the working pavilion, or the great villa – the Larkin Building or Fallingwater, the St Mark’s Towers or the Guggenheim, the Taliesin drafting rooms or the administration building and research tower for Johnson Wax.
But it is his endless, questioning studies for the middle-class home that dominate both his built work and the vast fund of unrealised propositions for a better future that fill his archive and his writings; and – as anyone who has made the pilgrimage to such modest homes as the Stockman, Willey, Zimmerman or Tracy houses can vouch – his virtuosity and purpose is often most apparent where the scope for experiment is most limited. It is in these extraordinary variations on the ordinary that we can best see – and that he most successfully expressed — his mastery of the psychology of space; the unification of detail, materials and structure; and the possibility of rendering in the most functional plan a seamless fluidity of movement, light, and transition — from indoors to out, and from intimate zones to social space.
‘Everything that mattered most to him was wrapped up in this single fundamental problem: how to house the average American family’
From the first popular presentation of his work in 1901, a model middle-class home for a prairie town, until the end of his career, with a trailer park called Paradise on Wheels and late ventures into ‘automatic’ construction systems and prefabrication, everything that mattered most to him was wrapped up in this single fundamental problem: how to house the average American family in an efficient, economical and life-enhancing work of art, and how to seize new technologies and production techniques – the ‘art and craft of the machine’ – to realise that goal. Among all this work, vital not only to comprehending Wright but even more to understanding how architectural thinking can transform the everyday into something both individually expressive and cumulatively harmonious, the American System-Built Houses – now exactly 100 years old — are an essential landmark. The project represents perhaps four years of continuous design work; the largest single corpus of drawings in the Wright archives; perhaps 50 known built examples (and we are still counting); variant house designs numbering in the hundreds; and a range of basic house types, from the tiny working man’s cottage through rental duplexes and apartments to the five-bedroom middle-class home, that ran the gamut of America’s needs for dwelling at the first high point of industrial urbanisation.
The project originated in a conversation with the Milwaukee developer Arthur L Richards (for whom Wright had earlier designed an unbuilt project) in 1915. Wright proposed that the model house types he had been developing for a variety of small-scale rental subdivisions in the Chicago suburbs might at last answer his dreams for a ‘democratic vista’, a consistent landscape made up of markedly individual components, and thus a physical representation of the ideal of individualism within community that he saw as America’s moral goal. Looking for ways to reproduce these model house ideas for a mass market and for many settings, Wright argued against the production of a house in a box, the pre-packaged mail-order homesteads that had begun shipping out to the last frontiers around the country in the first years of the new century and that were to appear regularly in the growing cities of the west in the 1920s. Urging that we should not take the home to the factory, but ‘take the factory to the home’, Wright suggested an alternative, precutting in the same common language and to the same standard sizes all the basic components that would assemble and furnish a home – allowing for enormous variations in plan, scale, and articulation, but still realising a socially and aesthetically unified residential townscape.
‘The effect of a whole’ would be gained not through a complex masterplan but more pragmatically, simply by the accidental juxtaposition of houses of like materials, geometries and character, with elements cut to the same dimensions, and plans, orientations and profiles carefully attuned to what he called ‘their contiguity each to each other’. To this end, variations in how they were planned, oriented to the street, shifted height, or changed depth and width within the lot, though dramatic, followed a standard measure. Most radical, and most radically democratic, is Wright’s adaptation of the system to very different scales and classes, as if blue-collar bungalows and duplexes were to mingle with the substantial middle-class home, each using the same components and talking to each other in a common language. Such an aesthetic and social programme, dependent on wide variety, could only work with a huge range of designs from which the homebuyer or developer could choose.
Richards and his brother were sold on the concept, and the project moved ahead at astonishing speed; a head office was established in Milwaukee, where Wright placed Russell Barr Williamson in charge of design; and the team was already working out construction details for interior fittings by the beginning of April 1916. One of the first mass advertising agencies in Chicago was engaged to promote the carefully named American System-Built Houses. Promotional prints and portfolios of prints for different dwelling types, each patented, each with the system’s distinctive red logo, and each repeating the word ‘American’ in its numbered designation, poured into the market. In Milwaukee, a model apartment court on a working-class street was built for a partner in the Richards firm, Arthur Munkitz, and a demonstration bock of six buildings – four duplexes and two different models of the small bungalow – appeared on Burnham Street, in an immigrant community on the southern edge of the city.
The exact origin of the Burnham Street group has still to be determined, but there seems no doubt that its purpose was to serve as a demonstration that these machine-made houses, though startlingly unfamiliar, offered comfort, variety, economy, convenience – and the promise of beauty. Wright felt such demonstrations essential. He was to say later, of another generation of ideas for the machine-made house: ‘When we have established a few models that are usable, beautiful, and livable, there is no question but that people will like them.’
‘Nothing less than a revolution in housing comparable to that Henry Ford had initiated in transportation with his Model T’
On the Richards’ part, however, the Burnham Street models may have been constructed more with an eye to prospective investors than prospective homebuilders. By the summer of 1917, they were trying to float stock to sustain the scheme at the astronomical level of 1.4 million dollars. Their ambitions for the project had now become vast. A branch office was established in Chicago to handle the entire northern Illinois and Indiana region. Twenty-five sales agents were working the north shore suburbs of metropolitan Chicago, and the company could report that houses were already being assembled not only in Milwaukee and Chicago but in Evanston, Gary, Champaign, Berwyn, and ‘Indiana Harbor’, and that orders were coming in from throughout the Mid-West. A Delaware corporation was formed as the parent organisation. Wright himself reported that at least two full-scale subdivisions exclusively using the American System were in the planning stage (one with JT Shampay in Milwaukee and another with Thomas Hardy in Racine), and seems to have been involved in the masterplans for both. Meanwhile in Milwaukee, the Knickerbocker Mill and Lumber Company was acquired, dramatically expanded, and folded into the Richards’ umbrella, as the principal manufacturer of the System’s parts. With a reach like this, what was emerging in the Richards’ scheme was – as Wright himself pointed out — nothing less than a revolution in housing comparable to that Henry Ford had initiated in transport nine years earlier with his Model T.
The eventual collapse of the scheme must surely be tied to the scale of this ambition. Local building trades were less than excited by the prospect of furnishing only the foundations and the stucco finish – and in the final designs even the stucco was eliminated. The entry of the US into the World War and the subsequent constraints on non-military manufacturing, transport and materials significantly inhibited operations. But it seems even more likely that the scale of operations the company envisaged simply outstripped the realities of marketing, the cost of distribution, the access to supplies, and the pace of manufacture possible at the time. By 1918, the effort was effectively disbanded – though houses continued to appear for some years – and Wright was bringing a suit against Richard for royalties and fees.
‘In re-thinking our exploding suburban environment today, Wright’s American System should stand as a critical model’
Indeed, it was not until some years after the Second World War that – drawing on the experience of war industries in prefabricating and shipping military housing, and on the extraordinary availability of guaranteed government loans – the first effective private systems of making and delivering variable models of the standardised home to a large geographical area and to the broader population were finally developed. While some few of these – the Eichler homes are the best known example — followed Wright’s precedent and worked with progressive architects to obtain a decent level of design, what has unhappily emerged are the double wide, the log house, the A-Frame, and the ‘manufactured home’ of recent times – most of them made and shipped complete as a railway car or an aeroplane. In re-thinking our exploding suburban environment today, Wright’s American System should stand as a critical model – not as structures to be re-created or imitated, but as examples of a vision. That vision, various and democratic, suggests ways in which to reconcile the individuality of the single household with the sense of a unified community; shows how to gain the economies of scale through standardising the same parts rather than duplicating the same whole; and foresees a vision of a mixed community, perhaps even a mixed society, made up not of pockets of people with like means and like minds, but of streetscapes of individual households of all incomes, each expressing its own needs and aspirations, but brought into unity through a common aesthetic syntax and a consistent but varied approach to articulation and siting.
Wright was doubly disappointed in the project’s failure. As an investor, he lost what little money he had ever had to fund his share. As a social reformer, he was dismayed that only the most modest bungalow types of the System’s single house seemed to sell; that the duplex and apartment variants appeared only as demonstrations; and that none among the professional classes chose to build the narrow city-houses or the compact variants on the suburban villa. Above all, as an architect with a compulsive drive for invention, he came to think that – working within the limits of existing models of factory production, the commonplace materials of the local vernacular, and the constraints of a single repertoire of pre-cut components — they lacked a fundamental originality. With that disappointment in mind Wright turned to concrete — first in the abortive Monolith Workingmen’s Homes with which he revived his Racine suburb for Hardy and then in the four textile block houses of Los Angeles where he dreamed up an entirely original system of his own – a method far less suited to such varieties of scale and plan, that held little real promise of fulfilling the dream of a common urban landscape, and that met indeed with even less financial success.
I think Wright could not have been more wrong. For, unlike the eccentric magic of La Miniatura, the Storer House and the Freeman House that followed them, or what CR Ashbee in 1916 regretfully called the ‘freaks’ on Wright’s drawing boards at this time, the American System designs seem more glorious for their confidence in the ordinary. There is a point to the twice used word ‘American’ on the models, for they use the comfortable components of the familiar frame house, in a system that any local builder can follow, and then ring endless changes on them, finding an economy of plan, path-finding means of access to light and air, internal movement, and a joyfully logical geometry of expression that makes – as whenever Wright seems at his best, in such quiet masterworks as the first Jacobs House or the Schwartz – something extraordinary out of the ordinary.