In this pregnant moment, the second and third order consequences of the current pandemic are mere probabilities, but many of these consequences are probabilities that have been growing more probable for nearly a century. To whit, let’s take a few choice quotes from the great Frank Lloyd Wright in his 1932 opus, “The Disappearing City“i :
Given electrification, distances are all but annihilated so far as communication goes. Given the automatons of machinery, and human labor, relatively, disappears. Given mechanical mobilizations, the steamship, airship, automobile, and mechanical human sphere of movement immeasurably widens by way of comparative flight. Given modern architecture, and man is a noble feature of the ground as the trees and streams are such features. An architecture fo the individual becomes reasonable and possible. The individual comes into his own.
The “rugged individualism” that now captains our enterprises and becomes the “capitalist” is entirely foreign to this ideal of individuality. The actual difference between such “ism” and true individuality is the difference between selfishness and selfhood; the difference between sentiment and sentimentality; the difference between liberty and license. And such individual “ism,” literally “every man for himself and the devil for the hindmost,” aggravated by the misuse of vicarious power has got native individuality into bad repute.
We are concerned here in the consideration of the future city as a future for individuality in this organic sense: individuality being a fine integrity of the human race. Without such integrity there can be no real culture whatever what we call civilization may be. We are going to call this city for the individual the Broadacre City because it is based upon a minimum of an acre to the family.ii
To date our capitalism as individualism, our eclecticism as personality has, by way of taste, got in the way of integrity as individuality in the popular understanding, and on account of that fundamental misunderstanding we, the prey of our culture-monger, stand in danger of losing our chance at this free life our charter of liberty originally held out to us. I see that free life in the Broadacre City.
Voluntary self-sacrifice may be constructive. But to be condemned to the servile sacrifice of a voluntary life-long use of petty expedients to get by to, eventually, nowhere, is quite another matter. The human soul grows by what it gives as well as by what it feeds on. But the soul does not grow by what is exacted from it. Urban life having served its term is become a life-sentence of vicarious acts and the petty exaction of the expedient. A life out-moded. The big city is no longer modern.
The overgrown city of the United States stands, thus, enforced upon our undergrown social life as a false economy. Like some tumor malignant, the city, like some cancerous growth, is become a menace to the future of humanity. Not only is the city already grown so far our of human scale by way of commercial exploitation of the herd instinct that the human being as a unit is utterly lost, but the soul, properly citified, is so far gone as to mistake exaggeration for greatness, mistake a vicarious power for his own power, finding in the uproar and verticality of the great city a proof of his own great quality. The properly citified citizen, reduced to a pleasing inferiority in the roar of congestion and terrific collision of forces, sees in this whirling exaggeration, his own greatness. He is satisfied to have greatness, too, vicarious.
The active physical forces that are now trained inevitably against the city are now on the side of this space loving primitive because modern force, by way of electrical, mechanical, and chemical invention are volatilizing voice, vision and movement-in-distance in all its human forms until spaciousness is scientific. So the city is already become unscientific in its congested verticality and to the space love human being, intolerable. The unnatural stricture of verticality can not stand against natural horizontality.iii
European cities have resisted skyscraper exploitation and are, still, much nearer human scale. But now, owing to organic change, assuming malignant character, our skyscraper cities must continue to grow as symptoms of disease that is relieved by fever and discharging matter. Or death. But to take a less abhorrent view, cities were the centralization needed by the unorganized life of the country and on terms of concentration necessary then, they served and, resisting exploitation, survived. But our American cities accepting such exaggeration with pride, have sucked the substance and the spirit of the very life they “centralized.” The country once needed the city just as the city needed the country because of the physical inabilities of overcoming distance owing to the necessities of such primitive communications as were then as work. But more and more as those primitive limitations disappeared by way of developed invention, the new discoveries of science and the increasing use of labor-saving devices upon super-materials, these new devices and resources perverted the city, and enabled the city to absorb more and more from the country life what the city could never repay.
Centralization, by way of the Usonian city, has had a big day but not a relatively long day. As a matter of course it is not dead yet. But it is easy, now, to see that it is no longer either a necessity or a luxury. Universal mobilization of the human animal, volatilization of his thought, voice and vision are making the city as troublesome interference to human life as “static” is troublesome to radio.
It is now modern no longer to build or consent to live in the prettified cavern or take pleasure in the glorified cave. Such vainglory is not only antique, but worse, it is now false. Improved conditions of life make it not merely an expedient but an impediment. So it is modern to believe in, to see as new, and to seek for organic simplicity and see it as the fine countenance of this machine age in which we live.
The offices of the “professional” man should develop for his especial work in connection with his own home-grounds as a shop, either a studio, a clinic, a hospital, or a gallery suited to his purpose: “show-off” place, if he is like that. Such individualized units added to homes would enrich the architectural aspect of the whole, save human wear and tear in the “back and forth haul” and be more available under such condition of modern transport as are fast approaching than they are under the present attempts to reach them in the positive traffic hindrances that do violence to the time and patience of the professional and his client, alike, in the present form of centralization. The professional man needs more time for service and study in a better atmosphere. Less of his energy consumed in the vain scramble in and scramble out would give it to him.
Extended lightness, spacious openness, a firm cleanliness of line make satisfying appeal to his awakened imagination. And in the quality of surface, breadth of plane and length of line, he may see the simplicity of the flower. In all his home will be a feeling of free space to be lived in and enjoyed, even as the field, the hill slopes, or the ravines and forests themselves. At home, he is lord of free spacious interior life. Elemental spaciousness a reasonable possession. As a new significance physical and spiritual, this is in itself tremendous.
Sounds peachy, doesn’t it ?
Mr. Wright, in betwixt and between these selected quotes, does degrade into an old man’s ramblings about the farmer being the true backbone of society, much like I imagine my dearly departed Gido would’ve done, but we needn’t repeat such dreamy lamentations here. Suffice to say, and all things considered, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba – making up the vast Canadian Prairies – are subconsciously enacting more-or-less the Broadacre City plan today. The concept is perhaps nowhere more alive than here, and it’s not all bad.iv Its certainly only “inefficient”v and “sprawling” until everyone telecommutes because of a “black swan” pandemic,vi which is pretty well what Wright envisioned 88 years ago.
So there we have it – at last – clearer roads and clearer minds.
What’s not to look forward to ?
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- “The Disappearing City” was ultimately revised and retitled by FLW, but was only republished post-humously in 1969 as “The Industrial Revolution Runs Away.” You can find the 1932 original here. You can find the 1969 version on AbeBooks.
MP’s 2012 piece “Anonimity, or the urban versus rural dispute.” is also relevant to this discussion, but these pages have have seen more than enough quotes from that single source. Balance, balance, balance! ↩
- It’s at this point that I realised that I only have 1/6th of an acre for my little family. But that’s okay, because our next house will have a minimum of three acres to make up for it. #PlansFor2027 ↩
- Or why I find Manhattan to be so horribly soul-crushing and soul-destroying. Give me London over NYC any day. ↩
- Though perhaps American readers can enlighten me on the Midwest ? Or the Old South ? Or elsewhere, in this regard ? ↩
- FTR all the fancy-pants multi-billion-dollar light-rail mass-transit projects are DOA. Ain’t no one investing in GermTubes ™ after this little episode. ↩
- Recall that “black swans” are entirely observer dependent. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were a “black swan” event for people in the Twin Towers, but it was just another day at the office for the hijackers. ↩