Broadacre City: Frank Lloyd Wright's Unbuilt Suburban Utopia

Frank Lloyd Wright was arrogant, stubborn, and brilliant. But above all, he was a shrewd businessman who understood the importance of spectacle in keeping his business afloat. Wright put on many shows over the course of his lifetime, but arguably no performance was greater than his utopian plan to create the perfect community: Broadacre City.

Wright's ideal community was a complete rejection of the American cities of the first half of the 20th century. According to him, cities would no longer be centralized; no longer beholden to the pedestrian or the central business district. Broadacre City was a thought experiment as much as it was a serious proposal—one where the automobile would reign supreme. It was a truly prophetic vision of modern America.

Broadacre City: Frank Lloyd Wright's Unbuilt Suburban Utopia

Cutting Away the "Fibrous Tumor"

Wright saw many of humanity's problems reflected in the outmoded cities around him. "To look at the plan of a great City is to look at something like the cross-section of a fibrous tumor," he wrote in 1945. The city was a scourge; an antiquated idea that may have been useful in the past, but was rendered completely obsolete by new technology.

But what he proposed instead—Broadacre City—was largely a romanticized fantasy, dreamt up by a self-serving narcissist. Laid out over a number of different articles and talks as well as three books, The Disappearing City (1932), When Democracy Builds (1945), and The Living City (1958), Wright's utopia was ultimately an extension of the things that made him personally comfortable: open spaces, the automobile, and not surprisingly, the architect as master controller.

Reading the books in chronological order, one sees the progression of American futurism over three decades—from the Great Depression of the 1930s with the spread of household electricity and new communications technologies, to the postwar techno-utopian ideals of the 1950s, complete with streamlined cars and flying machines.

In 1935, Wright wrote an article for the Architectural Record describing the emerging technologies behind his vision for this new utopia. It would be a feat of modern technology, built upon some of America's greatest strengths:

  1. The motor car: general mobilization of the human being.
  2. Radio, telephone and telegraph: electrical inter-communication becoming complete.
  3. Standardized machine-shop production: machine invention plus scientific discovery.

Who needed to rush into the city for work, commerce or entertainment, when the wonders of radio and telephone made things like telecommuting and remote concerts available? At least for the white collar middle class. People could retreat to something that was not quite urban, and not quite rural—a sprawling collection of houses, business and government centers roughly on the scale of a modern American county.

And so Wright and his team of apprentices (who were each paying for the pleasure to work for him) set out to make a model of this Broadacre utopia from their own mini-utopian outpost in Arizona. Below, a photo of Wright's apprentices working on the model.

Broadacre City: Frank Lloyd Wright's Unbuilt Suburban Utopia

Wright and his crew took the model to New York City—that loathsome metropolis that represented everything Wright thought was wrong with America. The model was displayed at Rockefeller Center and was seen by roughly 40,000 visitors, according to an estimate by the New York Times. From there it would then go on tour in different American cities, spreading the Broadacre gospel.

Broadacre City: Frank Lloyd Wright's Unbuilt Suburban Utopia

MOMA in New York currently has a restored version of the Broadacre City model on display. Michael Hession went down there to snap a few pictures, seen throughout this post. The exhibition closes June 1, 2014.

The Balm For What Ails America

According to Wright, technology and planning were tools in the great struggle for social reform. As Dr. Mark Lapping at the University of Southern Maine explained to me over the phone, Frank Lloyd Wright believed that by designing a better city, America's social failures would simply dissolve.

"He imagined himself as someone who could solve a huge number of social issues and social problems through design," Lapping says. "But not all social problems can be solved by design—even very good design."

The key to Wright's utopia, of course, were the tremendous technological advances made at the dawn of the 20th century—perhaps none more important than the car. "I think he, like a lot of people during that era, were really struggling to understand the revolutionary nature of the automobile and how it was going to change American life forever," Lapping told me. "Broadacre City is really a vision of life as gas station."

That description is no exaggeration. In his 1932 book The Disappearing City, Wright explained that the answer to the problem of how the people of this utopian community might buy goods. The gas station would become the most important marketplace of Broadacres:

In the gasoline service station may be seen the beginning of an important advance agent of decentralization by way of distribution and also the beginning of the establishment of the Broadacre City.

Wherever the service station happens to be naturally located, these now crude and seemingly insignificant units will grow and expand into various distributing centers for merchandise of all sorts. They are already doing so in the Southwest to a great extent.

By the 1950s, Wright's drawings for Broadacre looked as though they had been torn from an alt-universe pulp sci-fi comic. The vehicles were sleek and modern—but they were shown floating across pastoral, exurban scenes of wide open spaces and verdant fields.

Broadacre City: Frank Lloyd Wright's Unbuilt Suburban Utopia

Wright was imagining "urban renewal," long before the term became a craze amongst the planners of the 1950s and 60s. But unlike those designers, Wright's vision of urban renewal was to destroy the "urban" part of the city entirely. Starting from scratch, as so many utopians do, provided the most straightforward of blank canvasses.

"It's a very appealing notion to have a raw piece of land," Lapping tells me. "And on that land you can arrange spaces and transportation systems and nodes and networks that you think will add to human happiness. That was also endemic in most of Soviet architecture and planning. There is this sense that 'I know what's best for people.' And it's a very distinctive type of high-modernism."

Broadacre City: Frank Lloyd Wright's Unbuilt Suburban Utopia

Democracy Governed By Architects

Wright's vision was as much political as it was aesthetic—and it reflected the progressive ideals of a 1930s America, crippled by the Great Depression. For some, a radical restructuring of society seemed like the only way out of the massive economic hole engulfing the country.

Wright saw land ownership as a democratizing force, and part of his plan for Broadacres was to give every family an acre of land to call their own.

In his 1977 paper Frank Lloyd Wright and the American City: The Broadacres Debate, Stephen Grabow puts Broadacre City into the political context of the time:

In the political sphere, the Wisconsin Progressive party platform of 1934 favored home and land ownership for every American; public ownership of all utilities, including transportation and communications; free education and health care; agricultural and food cooperatives; and the nationalization of banking and lending institutions. Almost all these proposals appeared in Broadacre City.

But as Lapping points out, Broadacre City wasn't exactly a democratic vision. While it may have imagined abolishing landlords and providing plenty of opportunities for direct democracy, it was the local architects—the "essential interpreters of America's humanity" as Wright called them—who ultimately had the last word on what was permitted in each development. These unelected designers would have a kind of control that seemed to be completely at odds with Wright's populist rhetoric.

Wright's obsession with control was overbearing but not uncommon for men of his ilk. The movie director, the architect; these allegorical characters so often seem to only feel at home when they can control everything in their midsts. Wright wasn't content in simply micromanaging the design of his buildings. He was known to meticulously arrange furniture in some of the private residences he built and demand that nothing be moved once he was gone. There are even stories that Wright would dictate which dress a woman was supposed to wear in her home.

An Unbuilt Vision—That's All Around Us

Sadly, at least for Wright, his version of the architect as ruler would not come to pass. But just about everything else in his plan became an accepted part of the American landscape.

"[Broadacre City] is the reality that is today," Lapping says. "I think to some extent the interstate highways, the rise of massive shopping malls, the cookie-cutter developments in suburbia — they are Broadacre, and Broadacre is them in a lot of ways. Not necessary planned, more in a piecemeal fashion."

Broadacre City: Frank Lloyd Wright's Unbuilt Suburban Utopia

"If you look at Broadacre City piece by piece and drawing by drawing, sure enough almost everything he designed you can find in there," Lapping says. Broadacre was a testing ground for perfection, or at the very least something more civilized than the chaos that seemed to define 20th century life.

Wright foresaw that his model for the perfect community would probably never actually be built to his specifications. He believed that perhaps America was too broken to recover from the degradation of the city; too blind to the possibilities of what he saw as a better way of life.

We got the cars; the sprawl; the gas stations. Cities as diverse as Los Angeles and Houston and Janesville, Wisconsin are in some ways versions of Wright's Broadacre dream. But in the end, for better and for worse, America never saw the rise of that architect king.


Images: Edgar Kaufman Jr, Bill Bernoudy and Frank Lloyd Wright around a model of Broadacre City scanned from the book Communities of Frank Lloyd Wright by Myron A. Marty; Photos of the Broadacre City model at MOMA by Michael Hession; Broadacre City envisioned in the 1950s scanned from the 1958 book The Living City by Frank Lloyd Wright; Apprentices looking at the Broadacre City model scanned from the book Communities of Frank Lloyd Wright by Myron A. Marty; New car design imagined by Wright, scanned from the 1958 book The Living City by Frank Lloyd Wright

Secondary Sources: Frank Lloyd Wright's Community Planning by Donald Leslie Johnson (2004); Frank Lloyd Wright and the American City: The Broadacres Debate by Stephen Grabow (1977); Undoing the City: Frank Lloyd Wright's Planned Communities by Robert C. Twombly (1972); Toward a Social Theory of the Built Environment: Frank Lloyd Wright and Broadacre City by Mark B. Lapping (1979)