Frank Lloyd Wright's "Usonianism" Will Be Explored in Talk Sponsored by UB Art History Department

Influential American architectural style evolved from Wright's dislike of cities

Release Date: April 5, 2002 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- "Usonianism," an architectural style that articulated Frank Lloyd Wright's social and economic principles of "usonian democracy," is well-known to Wright aficionados but far less familiar to the general public.

The small, pleasant and unique community of "Usonia," designed by Wright and constructed more than 50 years ago in Westchester County, is likewise not well-known, but demonstrates Wright's profound influence on middle-class residential architecture and architectural thought over the past 70 years.

One of the founders of Usonia is physicist Roland Reisley, the author of a recent book, "Usonia, New York: Building a Community with Frank Lloyd" (Princeton Architectural Press. 2001) and a founding secretary and director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy.

In it he tells the story of a cooperative of idealistic young couples which, following World War II, enlisted Wright to plan "Usonia," an organically designed utopian community near the Westchester town of Pleasantville.

The Department of Art History in the University at Buffalo's College of Arts and Sciences will present a lecture by Reisley on April 16 at 7:30 p.m. in the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, 25 Nottingham Road. The talk will be free and open to the public.

Usonia has 47 homes, three of which were designed by Wright. He approved the plans for the other 44, however, so that all reflect the close association of naturalism and functionalism common to Wright's work.

The community represents the strong anti-urban attitudes espoused by Wright throughout most of his life.

"Wright claimed to hate cities and said they should be abandoned," explains Wright scholar and author Jack Quinan, UB professor of art history.

"He proposed that rampant urbanization be halted through the development of well-designed, low-density, efficient, semi-agrarian communities," Quinan says. "Wright coined the term 'usonian' to describe these communities and proposed they be governed by the social, political, and economic system he referred to as 'usonian democracy.'"

Wright conceptualized "usonianism" about 1930 as "Broadacre City," later referred to as "The Living City."

In 1932 he had the architects at Taliesan West -- his Arizona home, studio and architectural laboratory -- build a model of "Broadacre" as a 1,400-acre community of usonian-style houses for 1,400 families keyed to the new interstate highway system.

"'Broadacre,' itself was an unrealistic idea," Quinan says, "but the ideas behind it continue to be debated by scholars and writers."

"Usonian design principles alone were a boon to Wright's flagging reputation," he says. "They attracted many new clients and launched the most prolific period of his career. The first usonian home was built in Wisconsin in 1936 for newsman Herb Jacobs and a total of 250 usonian-style homes were designed by Wright between 1936 and 1955."

Like those later built in Pleasantville, the early usonian residences were designed to be economically and energy efficient within their individual climate zones. Wright perceived the architectural "problem" posed by each project as one with a "natural" solution derived from the function of the building and nature of the physical site.

The influence of traditional Japanese architecture commonly found in Wright's designs prevails in usonian structures as well, and can be seen in the open floor plans, flowing interiors with movable screen partitions, emphasis on natural light, overhanging eaves and shallow-pitch roofs.

"Most of the residences have one story or maybe a split-level floor plan," Quinan says. "They originally were conceptualized as middle-class houses for middle-class clients, but since Wright was well-known for his cost overruns, some were more expensive than originally planned.

Included among the usonian buildings nationwide are three clusters of houses, Quinan says. Two are in Michigan, one commissioned by a group of academics from Michigan State University and another by clients in Kalamazoo related to the chemical industry. The third cluster is in Pleasantville.

"In all three situations," Quinan says, "Wright designed the homes on circular lots. This ensured that neighbors owned some land in common, which gave them a communal interest. The homes in Pleasantville tend to fit nicely into wooded sites and feature overhangs and other appealing Wright elements."

"As he did in his more elaborate residences, Wright designed the Pleasantville's usonian homes to accommodate individual clients. Reisley, for instance, had an interest in maximizing the home's sound-enhancing qualities," says Quinan, "so Wright integrated that interest into his design. As a result, standing in Reisley's living room is like standing inside a giant woofer."

Although the houses have changed hands over the years, Quinan says Usonia remains a very attractive cooperative community where neighbors have property in common -- a swimming pool and tennis courts, for instance, which seems less unusual today than it did at the time. They also make certain decisions as a community.

In 1951, when Reisley and his wife, Ronnie, decided to spend their wedding money on a hillside home designed by Wright, they took a chance on the latest wave of the radical ideal of cooperative living. It would fade, of course, only to return in new iterations, although never perhaps in such elegant language.

Their decision was well taken. The Reisleys still live in Reisley House, which they helped put on the architectural map along with the social experiment that gave rise to its creation.

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