Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 14, 2018
Neil Levine The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. 464 pp.; 84 color ills.; 336 b/w ills. Hardcover $39.00 (9780691167534)

Consider some iconic Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. Many of them are set in rural environments. Fallingwater is embedded in a dense forest in the secluded southwest corner of Pennsylvania. Taliesin (East) overlooks a lush green landscape fed by tributaries of the Wisconsin River. Taliesin West sits on the dusty foothills of the Tonto National Forest outside Scottsdale, Arizona. Moreover, the design of these buildings seems to reflect and harmonize with their natural environment. They are consciously rural—almost anti-urban—styles. And this sentiment, suggested by Wright himself, has guided Frank Lloyd Wright scholarship since he was alive.

Upon his death in 1959, the Frank Lloyd Wright archives were locked away in storage at Taliesin and Taliesin West until 2012, when Columbia University’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library and the Museum of Modern Art jointly acquired the Wright archives, and moved the materials permanently to New York. Some 23,000 architectural drawings and 44,000 historical photographs, presentations, models, manuscripts, and correspondence were now accessible to more scholars than ever before (Robin Pogrebin, “A Vast Frank Lloyd Wright Archive is Moving to New York,” New York Times, September 3, 2012). This move has triggered a new wave of scholarship that reconsiders Wright’s ideas particularly in relation to cities. Neil Levine’s The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright represents the cutting edge of this reevaluation.

Levine reads traditional sources in ways that yield fresh insights. Drawing from the Wright archives, Levine pinpoints the Roberts Block Plan (1896) as the earliest known instance in which Wright used gridded paper. This fact might seem innocuous, but to Levine it is indicative of Wright beginning to think in rectilinear gridded plots, which are characteristic of cities. This grid pattern in turn influenced the form of his buildings. Wright’s unrealized plan for a cultural center and opera house in Baghdad (1957–58) is another example. The architect began conceptualizing this project by sketching over aerial-survey photographs of the city. He drew outlines for a bridge, opera house, and connected garden, among other structures. To Levine these seemingly incoherent scribbles suggest a new scale that Wright imparted to his “urban invention” (368). This same process was used in his model of the unrealized Point Park Civic Center in Pittsburgh. In all, Levine’s innovative interpretation serves as an example by which future scholars might learn to read this rich set of sources.   

The book is broken into three parts, and organized chronologically, with Wright’s Broadacre City proposal (1929–32) at the center. Wright’s urban ideas evolved from the Roberts Block Plan (1896) to the unbuilt Crystal City complex (1940), all the while underscoring the evolution of twentieth-century urbanism. From this angle, Levine concludes that Wright’s thinking was less eccentric and less idiosyncratic than previously believed. The architect was, indeed, a product of his time in regard to thinking about cities and society. He, like other artists and intellectuals (most notably Lewis Mumford), was responding to current urban issues. Their perceived anti-urbanism arose from a deep concern for cities, and in an effort to save them from what seemed like a path of sure destruction.

The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright is comprised of a series of case studies. Levine, for instance, embeds Wright’s Broadacre City proposal in the devastating social repercussions of the Great Depression. As a response, Wright proposed an owner-built housing plan that entailed prefabricated, customizable units. Central to each was a garden that would not only provide food for the family but would also provide extra income from selling surplus crops at nearby markets. In this way, Levine presents Wright’s ideas as part of a broad intellectual response to urban change. This proposal served the same purpose as the mammoth public housing projects that would emerge in American cities throughout the mid-twentieth century.

The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright must strike many as an oxymoron,” Levine concedes at the outset of his book (x). Wright is perhaps the single architect in history most closely associated with the Prairie School of architecture, which emerged in in the American Midwest during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century and embraced organic materials, simple designs, and handicraft techniques. These architects celebrated the rural environment in their designs; they understood the natural world (as opposed to the inorganic, or urban) as a source of enduring power and vitality. Over the course of his career, Wright reimagined city space along these lines. Wright’s famous Broadacre City plan called for a decentralized network of low-density rural communities, consisting of predominantly single-family houses, each dependent on an automobile. In this unique vision, Wright may well have prefigured a version of the postwar suburban housing boom. But Broadacre City was hardly “urban,” even by today’s standards. This is why it might seem strange for Levine to spotlight the urbanism of Wright’s work. In some ways, we have come to think of Wright’s work as anti-urban.

Levine counteracts this assumption. He makes a persuasive case that urbanism was, in fact, at the heart of many of Wright’s designs. Wright’s emphasis on the urban grid is critical to Levine’s thesis, as gridded concepts run throughout the architect’s plans and ideology. In contrast to the self-contained Garden City designs and City Beautiful–inspired plans prevalent during Wright’s early years, the architect began his career with open-ended, decentered, and non-hierarchical plans that foregrounded his use of grids. Borrowing from Enlightenment models of urban planning, particularly the Jeffersonian concept of rural networks, Wright saw the grid as a basis for a powerful continuity between city center and suburban-rural periphery. Levine argues that Wright engaged in a “recuperation of the Enlightenment grid” as a planning tool (13, 47). More importantly, according to this analysis, Wright was drawn to the urban grid’s “utopian meaning of democratic egalitarianism,” as conceived by Enlightenment thinkers (47). Levine suggests that Wright’s emulation of this aesthetic can be seen as an extension of its original politics and ethics, perhaps as part of the Progressive-era ethos in which Wright emerged (but Levine leaves this connection for future scholars).

In addition to the Roberts Block Plan, the unrealized Quadruple Block Plan (1900–1903) exemplifies Wright’s veneration of the Enlightenment grid. That plan calls for a complex of twenty-four houses in Oak Park, Illinois. While Wright flirted with gridded concepts in the Roberts Block, he fully acknowledged gridded rectilinearity in the Quadruple Block. Designed at an urban scale, the plan entails a series of four squared buildings that enclosed four central gardens, with the development bounded by street curbs on four sides. This is, according to Levine, a quintessentially urban layout in which the street becomes “as much a defining edge of the residential block as it was in the buildings then going up in the Loop” (47). The Quadruple Block not only replicates contemporary urban design, but also adheres to the continuity of the metropolitan grid that emanates from Chicago’s city center, as can be seen throughout many of Chicago’s western suburbs today. “By working with and through the Chicago grid, rather than against it,” Levine argues, Wright envisioned a “dynamic, interactive, indeed urban sense of community” (115).  

Working with this square grid and the subdivisional techniques in the Quadruple Block Plan, Wright developed his concept of the Prairie House, his signature style (44). As most of Wright’s concepts thereafter emerged from the Prairie House, and since the Prairie style itself is a product of Wright’s urbanism, we can see the centrality of urban design running throughout the architect’s career. This is a bold and powerful claim with which future scholars will have to contend. The Prairie style, which architectural historians have previously attributed to Wright’s anti-urban impulse, was, in fact, a product of his urbanism.

Levine contextualizes Wright’s work within a broad field of American cultural and intellectual history. Such an approach attempts to include Wright in a larger narrative of twentieth-century urbanism, while previous scholarship has excluded him from that story. This includes architectural and cultural histories of Frank Lloyd Wright such as Robert C. Twombly’s classic Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and His Architecture (1979), as well as more recent studies such as Robert McCarter’s Frank Lloyd Wright (2006) and Steven Conn’s Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century (2014). Rather than reducing Wright’s work to an “exceptional vision for a utopian agrarian world of rural-like existence,” according to Levine, The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright centers Wright’s work and thought on the transformation of cities during the first half of the twentieth century (385).

The year 2017 marked the sesquicentennial of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth on June 8, 1867, and for most of this time, we have understood Wright’s work as consciously rural—if not anti-urban—with good cause. The historical record reflects his distaste for urbanism; as he once noted, “to look at the plan of a great city is to look at something like a cross-section of a fibrous tumor” (quoted in Morgan Meis, “Frank Lloyd Wright Tried to Solve the City,” The New Yorker, May 22, 2014). But over the past decade scholars have reinterpreted Wright’s oeuvre, and have centered the city as a driving concern in his work. Levine’s The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright will remain a foundational text in this regard. Yet in addition to setting the tone for a new understanding of Frank Lloyd Wright, Levine perhaps prompts readers to consider architectural solutions to contemporary urban problems, as Wright did in his time. 

Ryan Donovan Purcell
PhD candidate, Department of History, Cornell University