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Beyond the Edge

Wright's Vision of 'Broadacre City' Emerges in Today's Los Angeles

August 31, 1997|Richard Weinstein | Richard Weinstein is a professor of architecture at UCLA

Of all the architects of the last 100 years, Frank Lloyd Wright now seems closest to the newest urban growth of America and its most complete expression: contemporary Los Angeles.

Wright's vision of a decentralized, repeating pattern of development, spreading out from sea to sea, based on the automobile and yet preserving contact with nature, can be discerned under the deceptive surface of our extended city. He called his vision "Broadacre City," and built a scale model of it, the size of a small ballroom, in the 1930s. Though Wright expressed contempt for 20th century American culture, so profound was his genius that he was able to comprehend where development was headed--even when it was shaped by forces hateful to his sensibility.

In designing Broadacre City, Wright, like Thomas Jefferson, saw a society based on farming, where most lived on and with the land (little Monticellos), or in rural villages. Broadacre was designed to be accessible by the motor car--"Everyman's new standard of space-measurement . . . is the man seated in his car." At selected crossroads, glass-covered markets--a clear vision of today's shopping malls--would be located where goods could be bought and sold. Around these markets would be clustered other civic uses and entertainments.

More than any architect of our time, Wright understood the power and potential of the automobile to transform the pattern of human settlement. He loved and bought expensive, glitzy cars and designed some funny-looking ones. But he was interested in using the car to justify an alternative set of values that would have excluded much of what passes for glitz in Los Angeles today.

Wright also shared with Jefferson a belief in the spiritual benefits of continuous contact with nature--a recurring theme in American thought and literature. Both men were deeply suspicious of the urban model of the European city and the social ills that they perceived grew out of its density and the separation from the land. Wright warned of the corruption of American values by the urban mobocracy. His heroes were Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he wanted to reestablish the nuclear family in relation to nature--a building block of Jeffersonian democracy. To recover what is holy and venerable in the agrarian tradition.

However much L.A. may seem unrelated to Broadacre City--and certainly our society differs from the assumptions behind Wright's vision--in many ways it is a version of Wright's dream.

We live in a city where there is more space than buildings--unlike Paris, London or New York, where public spaces, such as streets and parks, are carved out of a mass of buildings. In Los Angeles, buildings are incidental and the urban environment, by contrast, is full of holes. The result is a freedom of motion and destination enhanced by the automobile.

Boundaries and constraints do not shape the form of the city, and the same is true of Broadacre, which is "everywhere or nowhere." Its design favors freedom of mobility over social constraints and their expression in older, European cities, created mostly by undemocratic, even authoritarian, political establishments.

Wright's intention was to promote individual self-fulfillment and the impulse toward privatization embedded in the Constitution. Something very like this pattern of development underlies Los Angeles--and most of the new urban growth of the United States.

Wright also understood the profound romance of the American imagination with the single-family home in a tamed natural landscape--a tradition bound up with the lifestyle of the Founding Fathers, and strengthened by the experience of an abundant, pristine continent. This land was the "fresh, green breast of the new world," as F. Scott Fitzgerald writes in "The Great Gatsby," where "man must have held his breath . . . face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

Modern architecture, with its arguments for dense, urban housing, has offered a puny alternative to the mythological power of the American dream of a single home surrounded by green. This dream is behind the history and shape of Los Angeles as it was central to the concept of Broadacre City.

Wright believed our consumer culture and the environment it produced was contrary to the spirit of American democracy and an insult to nature and the human spirit. And yet the economic forces he held in contempt were also influenced by the same ideological and cultural aspirations he embraced as central to a democratic society--most Americans would still prefer to live in their own homes on a patch of land, however meager. This is both a cultural and real estate fact.

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