Fed by nineteenth century romanticism, but inspired by the power of untamed New World landscapes and the promise of a raft of new technologies, Frank Lloyd Wright produced houses that propelled people into these landscapes, not just hovering over waterfalls on the eastern side of the country, but sunk into hillsides, hugging flat prairie plains, hiding in dense forests, mimicking desert hills, or projecting into the vast ocean on the western coast[1].  At their best, his buildings deepen the connection to the surrounding landscape, enriching the sense of being in a unique location by their meticulous placement, form and materials.  These designs carefully frame views, provide a staged transition of spaces between inside and out, with a judicious balancing of openness and withdrawal, and contrive a form reflecting the distinctive character of the users and the location.  Unlike his old world predecessors, history played little part, as each house form was to be the outcome of the internal spaces required, the nature of the site, and of course, the form-making or space-defining skills of the designer.

Wright absorbed the Romantic notion that humans needed to look for guidance in the non-human sphere. Nature operated according to its own laws and was perfect: God was made real on this earth in Nature and so should be followed by mortals.  In particular, we should look to the way that Nature works, how things grow and develop.  Buildings could be conceived like any living organism, developing from its inner needs, with the resultant external form reflecting these demands, and each form will be unique or at least distinctive because of these differences.  Rather than look for some historical form that came close to Nature (and God) at some time in the past when human society was not debased, as Ruskin and others may have done, Wright said to look directly at what is around you now – in Nature.  There is no better guide.  There is no need for second-hand styles.

Ruskin advocated the Gothic partly because the external form was the outgrowth of the desired internal arrangements; unlike the hated Classical system, there was no enslaving fixed order, people having to conform to their buildings, but instead, for example, windows could be located where they were needed, not where external symmetry dictated. The Gothic was a flexible building system that allowed, or encouraged, a diversity of forms.    Wright took this to a whole new level; henceforth in his view, the quest for internal plasticity would create a mind-boggling array of external forms, far beyond what any diversity of historical styles would allow, even with the most inventive architectural minds.  There would be no limit, as his vast range of approaches at different times and in different parts of the country showed: the modern world was about expansion and freedom[2].

And, new technologies would facilitate these new forms. When romanticism jumped the Atlantic, technology did not appear as a threat, but rather a great opportunity.  The contrast could not be larger between Ruskin organising students to build a road by hand (in order to demonstrate the merits of manual labour)[3], and complaining about railways, and Wright advocating superhighways that would destroy  separation and isolation, lacing the country together, allowing greater freedom and movement.   In his annual travels between his homes on the east and west coasts, Wright developed a sense of the vastness of the American country and the need to create a whole out of these disparate parts. Ruskin also covered large distances in annual travel: from southern England to northern Italy, most famously Venice where he analysed the stones of the buildings in excruciating detail, drawing lessons about the complex variety of cultures and time periods in order to better understand those that most closely followed Nature.  Travel taught Ruskin about the richness of the existing built forms not about the need to invent something new.  Of course, despite his desire to preserve this richness, his actions helped whet the appetite of the Victorian English for travel and so produce mass tourism and ultimately the homogenisation that results.

It was also partly a different era. Ruskin’s life spanned the Victorian Age in England, with all the industrial development and global domination that that implies, but he reacted to these shocking developments by looking for something secure and constant.  That meant the past: the idealised medieval past when men were closer to God, and to Nature, that was the expression of God.   In this view, technology was one of the forces threatening to destroy all that was worthwhile.   Wright’s life saw the United States leapfrog the old world in industrial, technological and global power.   He inherited none of the ingrained caution of the old world, and like many of Americans had a natural affinity with new methods or concepts.  In this heroic view, there were few fixed notions; the USA was a place in the process of ‘becoming’, not simply being.  These were self-proclaimed free individuals, beyond any collective constraints, not beholden to any lords or monarch; in a word ‘democratic’.   For Wright, there seems to have been a parallel between the natural house and the natural society.  By allowing people the natural space and growth that was their right (and that would allow them to flourish as individuals), new forms of society and government would result.  There would be no need to cling to outmoded historical forms.

Wright had in mind what could be called an old style democracy; one that we have largely lost; one where governments would only do things that we cannot do ourselves: governments as something small and non-interfering.   In Wright’s mind, large centralised cities are synonymous with large or strong government, something that the monarchs of the old world, or a corrupted government in the new world might create. Inherent in this was a rejection of the collective: the organisation of people into cohesive classes, corporations, trades or anything where their individuality is submerged or subsumed into something larger.

Technology should better allow individual freedom not collective control.   Obviously, technology would benefit people as consumers: more and better roads with improved faster and safer vehicles to go on them, phone and other communications allowing connections not previously possible, advanced equipment and services within houses reducing exhausting labour and allowing more satisfying recreation, and of course, for Wright, better houses themselves, ones more suited to the users’ needs, and even emotions and desires.  But unlike the frightened, backward-looking, or merely cautious Romantics of Europe, Wright also saw technology improving people’s lives as producers or workers as well.   Ruskin and others had agonised over the uncreative and therefore dehumanised work that was the reality for many in Victorian England, exemplified by the satanic mills or factories of the early industrial period, with regimented teams of people, tied to machinery with lives shortened and destroyed by conditions inside.   Despite the presence of equally dehumanising work, and the necessity of large scale industry and organisations in rapidly industrialising USA, Wright asserted that technology facilitated freedom.  The substantial steel beams that his building designs sometimes depended on, and the resultant openness that he celebrated, required steel workers and many others to labour in conditions that were not far removed from the famous satanic mills of Victorian England. For the most part, when he considered industry, Wright may have dreamed of pleasant creative small scale industry in the ample spaces of his scheme for a Broadacre City: workers in touch with Nature.

Rather than celebrate the craftsman, Wright even advocated eliminating or minimising the labour component in building work; and so for example he designed decorative concrete blocks for many of his Californian houses. These removed the need for block-laying and used steel to weave the blocks together instead. Being a designer of consumer products – high-end houses -, his interests clearly lay more on the consumer’s side than that of the producers.

For Wright, suburbs were about self-realisation, freedom and opportunity. His concept of the Broadacre City, developed during in lull in architectural projects through the Great Depression, outlined how the organic houses could work together and the kind of decentralised spaces and live-enhancing connections that would result.   But while Wright’s life paralleled the development of the modern American suburb, from the late 19th century into the mid-20th century, these suburbs were not built to Wright’s edicts.   They did not look to Nature, only to themselves; what everyone else was doing, or had done in the past.   House forms were created when we were in the grip of Romanticism in the 19th century and largely remained looking backwards through to current times.   This was a stale self-referential system, with no refreshment from outside, from Nature or anything else.    Wright must have had some optimism that after the cathartic experience of the second great war, the vast new suburbs then underway would finally shake off the burden of history, and house forms not beholden the past, especially the European past, would develop.   But his own times towards the end of his life, and all the nearly 60 years subsequently, showed this optimism was misplaced.  House forms did evolve, and did incorporate some of the innovations that Wright popularised, such as open plan living spaces, but a thorough rethink never happened, the bloodlines to the past remained so clearly evident.

In Wright’s view, houses needed to have enough land to be self-sustaining and independent, and suburbs, if that is what they were, would be much more decentralised that what developed.   They should not be dominated by large central cities that inevitably would suck the life out of the increasingly subservient suburbs.   One acre of land should ensure independent production, with people connected to the land, and with the certainty or surety that ownership of land would provide.  For Wright, we would only be genuinely free, and able to sustain this freedom, when we had a continuous engagement with, and openness to, Nature.   We would not be looking to neighbours, following mere community or social trends, but looking to a force separated from ourselves, that is Nature.

Perhaps this excessive confidence in the providential Nature, not only for material sustenance but for intellectual or spiritual power, was itself a backward looking notion that Wright inherited unquestioningly from his Romantic forebears on both sides of the Atlantic. Or he may have looked back to his Welsh ancestors, standing up to the domineering English on their small plots of slate-filled land.  Either way, this kind of primitivism, seems inadequate or quaint in the early 21st century.  A decentralising technology that Wright may have applauded, at least initially  – the internet – , has left us less secure and more vulnerable, needing mechanisms, systems, principles or procedures that will restrain mob-rule, individual malice or authoritarian excess.    Something beyond our connection to some ancestral place, or long held plot of land, or simply recently purchased, but legally held, suburban block, seems necessary.

Or perhaps Wright was right. It is the unsettled shifting nature of the contemporary world, that has disconnected people from Nature and has therefore disconnected their house forms, as well as unbalancing minds and creating the social pathologies, that technological platforms merely make worse.  Retreating, retiring or re-engaging with Nature now may not fix these problems, but they may not have happened in the first place, had things developed in the way Wright proposed.

[1] From Kaufmann House, Mill Run, Pennsylvania, 1935, to Clinton Walker House, Carmel California, 1948 (Frank Lloyd Wright: The Houses, Weintraub, A, photographs and Hess, A, text, 2005)

[2] Klinkowitz, J, Frank Lloyd Wright and His Manner of Thought , pp 22 and108.

[3] Building of a road near Oxford in 1874, with students including Oscar Wilde.