"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Architects May Come, Architects May Go

This morning's talk of car free cities put me in mind of Frank Lloyd Wright, a man whose genius is widely but not universally appreciated. His greatest works, I think, happened early in his career (the Dana House in Springfield justifies a day trip from Chicago, assuming you have already seen the Robie House). Irene and I were married in Wright's First Unitarian Meetinghouse in Madison, which has its delights but is not remotely comparable.

But Wright remained a very interesting man, and one not much constrained by conventional wisdom. One of his obsessions was a pattern of settlement neither urban nor suburban. Oddly, it's in some ways reminiscent of the large scale patterns of the deep south, with settlement strung endlessly along four lane highways without ever managing to be rural or urban. Of course, it would look better if Mr. Wright were on the zoning commission, or, well, if there were a zoning commission at all.

The idea goes further than the linear sprawl, though. In fact, people would have long narrow lots strung out behind their dwellings on these linear structures. At the places where the lines crossed, immense skyscrapers would rise, containing most industrial and commercial activity. Great swaths of wilderness would be preserved between these linear structures. The benefits of city, suburb, farm and wilderness all interact in a unified whole. To be sure, Wright envisioned automobiles and even personal helicopters, but the design is very suitable for almost total conversion to externally powered train traffic (and without meeting any area-density requirement at all). 

I have always regretted the loss of optimism about the future. Even the people who think they are being optimistic these are promoting something far shabbier and sadder than what is well within, at least, our technical capabilities. 

I can't resist another picture: this one has been reproduced as a poster and a copy of it is over my desk at the U of T:

This poster has been following me around for decades now. I've had my ups and downs with DOE in general and Rick Stevens in particular, but the moment I liked Rick the most was when he saw the drawing, took it in within a second or two, and said "why can't the real world be like that?"

Yes, Rick, that is exactly the question. As far as I'm concerned, you can have all my tax dollars for your superdupercomputers if you can answer that one.

Images via the Hochschulle Darmstadt

1 comment:

John Mashey said...

FLW is indeed and "interesting" character. I'm not sure about his urban-planning ideas, but I would observe that, for his time:

a) He often designed good setups for daylighting.

b) Many houses had overhanging eves (to block summer light), with South-facing big glass to gather heat, and heavy walls as heat masses. I.e., resembles Amory Lovins, but with much earlier technology. His radiant heating schemes were effective, although the early ones had exciting maintenance issues.

c) His houses, especially the modest Usonians, were pretty space-efficient, albeit not much like the spectacular /Fallingwater in PA.
Nearby is the less-spectacular, but interesting Kentuck Knob (which along with the Hanna House @ Stanford) is a rare hexagonal design that avoided right angles almost entirely.

Note: in Palo Alto, I had an Eichler, kind of a tract version of a FLW Usonion. You either love them or hate them.

Here in P.V. we have a several- times-expanded Usonian done by one of FLW's students.