10 Takeaways from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Utopian Community

One of America’s most successful planned communities was designed by America’s best-known architect. What can be learned from Usonia?

AJ Artemel AJ Artemel

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One of America’s most successful, if little-known, planned communities was designed by America’s best-known architect. The project anticipated the need for sustainable development, for a community in tune with its landscape and with nature, whose individually crafted houses all carry vast aesthetic interest while remaining affordable for young middle-class families.

Frank Lloyd Wright planned and partly designed Usonia, New York, and it was developed with inspiration from his Broadacre City and Usonia I models. Now fully surrounded by subdivisions in northern New York’s Westchester County, the project started as a utopian effort by approximately 50 New York City families to live collectively in the countryside.

Usonia plan, 1947.

Reisley House, Image via Flickr

Usonia was initially established in 1947, and the project’s original families have played a remarkably consistent role in the ongoing development of the community, with only 12 of the 50 houses changing hands during the first 40 years — six of those to younger family members. Its residents have reported an unusual degree of connectedness amongst neighbors, with doors left unlocked, children roaming from house to house, and former residents keeping in touch almost 70 years after their initial meeting.

Ronald Reisley, image via Flickr

In a talk at the offices of HMA2 organized by the firm and the editorial consultancy Superscript, unofficial Usonia historian Roland Reisley, one of the original residents, introduced the community to a small group of architects, designers, and urbanists. Reisley discussed the project in a dialogue with Superscript’s Kimberlie Birks and HMA2 partner Henry Myerberg, who now lives in Usonia.

As Reisley’s talk (and his new book) make clear, Usonia was a pioneering experiment in community design, one that holds lessons for future suburban developments and for retrofitting existing ones; the community’s history has particular relevance for how neighborhoods can develop sustainability and nurture a feeling of social connectedness. These are the 10 most illuminating lessons to be learned from Usonia’s legacy:

1. Share ownership for shared success

Usonia was started as a co-op, meaning that rather than owning a subdivided parcel of land, residents held a percentage of the total project based on their investment. Though Usonia’s ownership model later moved away from this, still 40 percent of its land is held jointly by all residents. This provides strong incentives for neighbors to help each other succeed, and for the entire community to make decisions together.

In the beginning, banks took some convincing to lend to Usonia, and so members took things into their own hands, helping each other finance and build their houses. Eventually it all came together.

Lerner House. Image via Flickr

2. Keep roads narrow

Usonia’s intentionally narrow roads privilege the human over the automobile, forcing cars to drive at slower speeds, and encouraging residents to walk through the woods to get to neighbors’ homes. Smaller roads also leave a lot more room for the scenery, leaving more flora for absorbing water runoff, and making even a quick spin into a scenic drive. Though the number of cars in the community has been increasing (and it has always been a commuter community), Usonia is fighting to keep its roads small and winding.

Resnick House bedroom. Image via Flickr

3. Keep bedrooms small

This design choice forces inhabitants to congregate in the main areas of the house — living room, dining room, and terraces. Frank Lloyd Wright liked to anchor these main spaces with hearths, further focusing their role for gathering residents, while he often designed bedrooms just large enough for a bed and a desk.

4. Diminish boundaries

Wright designed the site plan as a series of circles, each with an area of approximately an acre, with a home in the middle. The effect of this was to leave plenty of land undeveloped (even if all the circles had been tangent to each other, pockets would have emerged), and to give all stakeholders equal amounts of land.

Community bylaws ban the construction of fences, shrubs, or any other markers of territory, melding lawn seamlessly with forest, and allowing neighbors the ability to walk fluidly across the entire development.

Friedman House. Image via Flickr

5. Landscape at least half the project

Wright is, of course, renowned for his efforts at joining interior and exterior, bringing the landscape into the building. Usonia was no different, in that topography played a big role in the design. In his design of the Reisley House, for instance, Wright insisted that it be built on the side of the hill, rather than on top, so that its residents would experience the full benefit of living on a hill. Similarly, the roads wind around the contours, while every house is designed with the view of the landscape as a primary concern.

David Henken at Usonia building site. Image via savewright.org

6. Build it yourself

In the early stages of the project, funding for professional builders had not come through, and residents were so eager to get started that they began carrying stones one at a time up Usonia’s hill to build their pump house. Two of the Usonians, David Henken and Aaron Resnick, were disciples of Wright, and designed many of the houses in the development; the other residents often joined in to help out with construction. This sharing of labor again enhances the feeling of community, while also expanding the satisfaction at having, at least in part, built one’s own home.

Reisley House plan and exterior.

7. Plan for project phasing

Most of the homes were designed to be expanded over time as residents got access to more resources and as their families grew. In some instances, cheaper materials were used in early construction, with the Wright team offering the caveat that they were to be replaced once the resident came into more funds.

Reisley House interior. Image via Flickr

8. Make the home a workplace

At the time, the suburban home was a lot more of a gendered space, but Wright thought that the work of the home was equally as valuable as the work outside the home. He renamed the Usonian kitchens as “workspaces” and often provided ample room for other domestic activities.

9. Keep doors unlocked

Once you get to know your neighbors, keep your doors unlocked. A posture of openness toward your surroundings increases the quality of life. The home is a shelter, not a fortress.

Reisley House. Image via Flickr

10. Enlist an architect with vision

Wright had previously rehearsed Usonia in his theoretical plan for Broadacre City and in his quasi-fulfilled Usonia I in Michigan; early members of the Usonia Cooperative got the idea from the 1940 showing of Wright’s work at MoMA. Wright’s vision allowed for a reconciliation between the Jeffersonian ideal of individual homesteaders, and the more European and urban ideal of collective living. This, along with Wright’s tremendous design skills based in the Arts and Crafts movement — and his integration of building with landscape — allowed for an affordable, sustainable, and well-designed community. A community that is still thriving today.

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