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Life After Covid-19: Inspirations from Frank Lloyd Wright on the Future of Cities

The three “master builders” of American architecture – Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright – each influenced the country’s development over the last century in profound ways. But while it is the former two who predominately shaped the high-rise character of American’s commercial downtowns amid the global triumph of capitalism in our culture in the 20th century, we may find the best lessons for the future of a post-COVID-19 American urbanism from Frank Lloyd Wright, the father of the “prairie school” who notoriously shunned the city for more rural inspirations.

Wright’s utility now should be obvious to anyone reading the tea leaves: with a multiplicity of forces damning the future prospects of our cities, at least as we knew them, his more grounded inspirations drawn from the American landscape may be our best guide to shape a grounded future that embraces social distancing without losing our economic momentum.

The End of the Commercial Downtown

In 1958 Wright authored an eloquent epitaph for the modernist downtown.

“The city once was the agent of culture. There was no other way of getting culture. But now it’s in the way. It’s in the way of the dissemination of knowledge, in the way of the enjoyment of what was true and beautiful in the past. Instead of being liberated and by choice, we’ve got somebody standing on our feet with their elbow in our ribs, pushing us around. And there is really no real development of what we declared as the sovereignty of the individual”.

Wright notoriously believed the density of downtowns were unsustainable. Many of his most signature projects – Fallingwater, among them – were the commissions of big city industrialists who even then sought the quickest escape from the risks and follies of big city living. While the city offered prosperity, Wright shunned the notion of the city as our destiny, pining instead for a day when the dissemination of knowledge, culture, and commercialism would not require it. Among other things, Wright predicted only those cities that promoted light, air, and openness would thrive in the long-run. He asserted that Chicago, specifically among cities, would be the last great city left in the world after all the others had crumbled.

Nature as the Solution

“Well you’ve heard of the teenager, the teenager problem. I think it’s distinctly a problem of over-gregarious life. Life not with the green acres, not life where the wind blows, and where a man is free to indulge his instincts according to his better nature, but for everything in him is likely to be developed by suppression, oppression, all these pressures that are exerted upon youth, in the name of education, in the name of parental authority, in the name of anything you like to name, but freedom is not there, and he does not know freedom, and if he did you wouldn’t have the teenager problem”

Wright’s vision for the Broadacre City sought to re-introduce those otherwise dominated by the interests of city living back to nature. Wright believed people could only reach their full potential with access to nature and with nature as their guide. His vision of the Broadacre City, coincidentally, reflects the idea of the ideal community at one family per acre, which, coincidentally, reflects about the density of traditional exurban suburbia in most major American metropolitan areas, including Boston, Cincinnati, and others. Wright believed that without backyards and access to nature as part of the urbanism of the future, man could not thrive.

The Potential of a Work-from-Home Future

“All we’ve done with machinery is to desecrate our nature-hood rather than to develop it, which the machine should enable us to do…We are scientific beyond any capacity to use it”.

Wright believed in the power of technology for both good and bad. On the bad side, he advocated that industrialization and urbanization had caused us to lose touch with nature. But he also saw its potential to help us continue to co-exist with nature while also continuing to grow an interconnected division of labor capitalist economy.

Creating this future, in which we could continue to embrace nature while also enjoying the fruits of the interconnected economy, be believed, was the fundamental role of the architect. As he put it: “Architecture should be fundamental to what we call enlightenment…It’s because we believe the architect is primary, is the real cornerstone of any culture, of any society at any time in the world, that we need him more now than at any time in the history of the world”.

Wright’s advocacy of a nature-infused solution for the future urbanization of the world – one in which the suburbs with access to nature, rather than dense downtowns, were the order of the day, and in which architecture had a noble mandate to create for people the kinds of conditions in which they could access all of the great potential of technology without losing their access to nature – should be a challenge to all architects contemplating the future.

For many, Covid-19 has reintroduced an appreciation for introspection, quiet, family, and harmony with nature. It has also reduced the appeal and the necessity of the big city. Most importantly, it has shown us a glimpse of the freedom of lifestyle and choice that technology now affords us – to live in green pastures while still engaging the rest of the world effortlessly and efficiently. Innovating in advance of the potential of this cause is a worthwhile mandate for the architects of the future.

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