What Broadacre City Can Teach Us

Frank Lloyd Wright’s agrarian fairytale offers some lessons, and plenty of warnings, to contemporary architects and planners.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s highly active urban imagination could be interestingly wrong, or just plain wrong. Samuel Medina’s recent review of Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal at the Museum of Modern Art covers both aspects of Wright’s thinking, but especially the latter. The ensuing dialogue in the wake of the MoMA exhibit begs important questions about the value of Wright’s Broadacre City concept. If Wright was wrong, does he leave us with anything interesting? In my view there is plenty to learn by looking at Wright’s scheme in a contemporary context.

In case you missed it, the MoMA displayed Wright’s Broadacre City model as the centerpiece of its recent exhibit, a kind of prairie metropolis that silos various civic, transportation, and recreational functions across a town that lacks any center. Medina’s review reminds us that implementing Broadacre City or anything like it would have been a disaster.

Let’s start with Wright’s obvious mistakes. His utopia generates virtually no spontaneous pedestrian life. In a city reliant on automobiles, the model should be blanketed with grey asphalt parking lots. For example, 60 percent of greater Los Angeles is paved over to accommodate vehicles. Though Wright’s plan was never more than a modeled hypothesis, today’s car dependent suburban sprawl offers enough proxy evidence for a negative verdict.

The social dynamics of Broadacre City are also problematic. Wright envisioned democratically oriented civic institutions, but these are diffused across the city so power would not overly concentrate in any one place. Broadacre citizens would be “bowling alone,” to steal a phrase from Robert Putnam, politically atomized by a built environment designed to create separation. Most of the acreage in Broadacre City would be privatized, obviating the need for non-excludable urban common spaces. This would be a society couched behind keep-out signs.

Le Corbusier was at least more intellectually honest, always championing the all-powerful planner archetype needed to raze the city.

Meanwhile the city’s virtuous points get tossed out with the bathwater, including urbanity’s willingness to accommodate people on society’s margins. Remember the old German proverb that “urban air makes you free.” Could a country without cities have managed to form Chinatowns or LGBT districts in any sizeable way? Moreover, urban densities are simply more efficient. They concentrate services, make better use of infrastructure, and keep open land from being devoured.

For these reasons we might wonder why Wright was spared the hatchet in Jane Jacobs’s revisionist 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which sardonically confronted the conventional wisdoms of purported anti-urbanists including Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier. Then again, both Wright and Jacobs were individualists, rejecting top-down central control. Their mutual antipathy toward extreme forms of social engineering helps explain the strident anti-war stances both Wright and Jacobs voiced during their lives.

In Wright’s mind, Broadacre City promised its denizens maximum autonomy and self-reliance. In an age of official data mining, drone patrols, and the corporatization of everything, the decentralization of daily life has its appeals. The contradiction is that Wright never recognized that his plan to effectively destroy cities would have required the unprecedented public authority he warned against. Le Corbusier was at least more intellectually honest in this regard, always championing the all-powerful planner archetype needed to raze the city.

Far from a Jeffersonian society without cities, this is a terrible time for the yeomanry in the face of globalizing agribusiness.

But perhaps Wright had problematic answers to some good questions. It’s impossible to dismiss the problem of inhuman population density that Wright tried to confront. As Density vs. Dispersal points out, Wright increasingly abhorred “congested” Chicago and New York. In fact both cities did have areas that were cruelly overcrowded during their slum eras, with attendant environmental and public health nightmares. Today’s urban archipelago produces such dystopian landscapes on an even larger scale, as slums continue to expand. Take Mumbai, where there is about a meter’s worth of open space per person.

With its acquisition of a trove of Wright artifacts, the MoMA can scrutinize the relationship between the city and countryside, revisiting the relevant ironies of Wright’s anti-urbanism. Far from a Jeffersonian society without cities, this is a terrible time for the yeomanry in the face of globalizing agribusiness. Rural employment bottomed out domestically a long time ago. Farmer suicides in developing countries are commonplace, as writer Raj Patel discusses in his book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System (Melville House, 2012). A humane society would allow some middle ground in which small farmers could thrive during the modernization process. What would a proper balance look like?

Hopefully, per Medina’s prodding, the MoMA’s next Wright retrospective will say more about an urban system that remains hopelessly out of whack. Broadacre City’s idealizations unquestionably prefigured darker, possibly irreversible chapters of urban sprawl. However Wright’s schematic visions cannot be blamed for the profit-driven insanity underlying today’s built environments. Concepts, after all, are what we make of them.

Joshua K. Leon is an assistant professor of Political Science and International Studies at Iona College. He writes on poverty, development, global health, and urbanization, and lives in Manhattan.

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