A Positive Prophesy for the Art of Architecture and Community

ARTICLE | Feb 9, 2012

An individual born just two years after the Civil War, now more than a half century after his death is still considered by many as the world’s greatest architect. The environmentalist, David Orr calls him, “Our first ecological architect,” and Paul Goldberger, the New York architectural critic refers to him as, “Our first green architect.”

We all know of this man, Frank Lloyd Wright, whose dramatic structures are now imitated in exaggerated forms by the leading architects of the day. We know of his innovative design for the Imperial Hotel which was one of the only buildings to survive Tokyo’s devastating 1923 Canto earthquake. We know of Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York and his design for “the Mile High Building”, still twice as high as the race to the top skyscrapers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Far less known was his innovative pursuit of the low cost house and his efforts to achieve this by involving both commerce and industry.

Wright always extolled the virtue of the democratic ideal characterized by the individual living with an independent sense of understanding and stewardship for his own plot of ground. And that the essence of community was not one of conformity, but rather individuality, as expressed by the life commitments of strong, freedom-loving people. What distinguished the American ideal was that, in his words, “it is aristocracy innate,” earned by way of individual accomplishments rather than anything simply conferred by birth.

Wright placed great emphasis on the design and dignity of low to moderate cost houses and neighborhoods because this is where most of what he called, “our typical best citizens,” would learn to live in harmony with the land and each other. What higher aspiration could there be for an architecture of democracy than to take seriously the design of this most personal connection between one’s individuality and the greater community.

There is nothing more common for the followers of Frank Lloyd Wright than to wonder what the great architect might be designing if he were alive today. Would it be to produce more innovative and daring structures then those being produced by the other 21st century architects as he did in the 19th and 20th centuries? I think not. His battle to liberate architects and architecture from imitating the past was won long ago. What then? A good way to answer this question is to highlight that part of his crusading work which remains to be accomplished. For this we look to his own words, starting with the individual house and then the overall community.

“The house of moderate cost is not only America’s major architectural problem but the problem most difficult for her major architects. As for me, I would rather solve it with satisfaction to myself, than build anything I can think of at the moment... The American “small house” problem is still a pressing, needy, hungry, confused issued. But where is a better thing to come from... That house must be a pattern for more simplified and, at the same time, more gracious living... It is only super-common-sense that can take us along the road to the better thing in building.”

As for the idea of community, Wright believed that it provided an opportunity for the relatedness and relationships that would make it both possible and more likely to live a richer, fuller life, including the convenience resulting from a designed proximity between home and work. Three innovative examples in this direction include; 1) His 19-story Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, which combined residential and office units on the same floor; 2) His design for the small farm in which the living areas and animal shelters were arranged to occur under a single connecting roof and, most innovative of all; 3) The examples of his own multi-generational, live, work, educational/cultural communities at Taliesin and Taliesin West.

Wright saw the pursuit of community, not only as humanity’s highest and finest achievement, but also its most difficult. It is an achievement made both richly rewarding yet demanding in the extreme, because its ultimate goal is behavioral. Like the vows of marriage and citizenship, community is an act of high commitment. It involves the kind of freedom, not only to be one’s best, but to do so in a way that precludes the freedom to recede into being a non-participant. Exclusivity and privacy have their place, but privacy is only valued if it is privacy from something as significant as the greater community. Privacy from nothing is simply isolation, which is a kind of living death.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s life-long quest was to provide inspiring environments for what he called, “His majesty the American Citizen.” There has never been a more urgent and timely opportunity to expand this quest, starting with this question. How might Wright’s inspirational, designed-based commitment relate to one of the most obviously pressing problems of today? How might we see opportunities where others see only problems? Not opportunities in the form of short-term transactions, but by pursuing a more comprehensive, long-term approach for regenerating our troubled neighborhoods.

A visionary view of the present housing crisis could be seen as a perfect storm of losses from which to launch the creation of value by way of design, including the losses sustained by lenders, homeowners and the community. This has inspired some to pick the low fruit off the tree, simply snapping up devalued property in order to flip it at a profit. While this is an understandable attraction, it also calls to mind the sentiment that, “we will never get rid of our crime problem because it’s too close to our value system.” This occurs whenever we take the easier road of obvious transactions for short-term gain rather than mastering the challenges for creating long-term value. The problem is that actions designed to extract profits in the short term tend to compromise or altogether preclude opportunities for regenerating these neighborhoods of the past into vibrant settings for the future. In addition to the economic meltdown, many of the affected areas include 50-year-old houses that require renovation. Add to this that they generally occur in large blocks of the same size lots and houses, many with commercial parcels that are underutilized or have been abandoned in favor of big box retailing and centralized office complexes.

Restoring these areas requires more than applying a gloss of nostalgia. We may remember with some fondness that quaint street of mom and pop shops but we frequent the big-box outlets to take advantage of their greater inventories and lower prices. Both of these achievements are driven by the commercial imperatives of high volume production and sales taking precedent over the more decentralized needs and provisions of the local community. Another key dynamic that ruptures the pre-WWII idea of community is that the once stable “Leave it to Beaver” family structure, complete with stay-at-home moms no longer exists. The more predictable sameness of a middle ground is being replaced with a declining marriage rate on one hand with an immigration of Hispanics and others with differing family needs on the other. Add to this that the digital revolution has eliminated many centralized production jobs while increasing the opportunity for self-employment out of, or in close proximity, to one’s own home.

All this is to say that the opportunity staring us in the face is not only to renovate the aging housing stock but to reconfigure and expand a network of 21st Century, community-wide provisions for our new patterns of life and work. The opportunity is nothing less than making available, at the very modest end of the markets the greater the variety of choices that are becoming increasingly normal at the high end. Some single family homes can be made smaller, while becoming both more efficient and attractive. Others may be connected with both interior and exterior treatments to make the kind of compounds that are better suited to a variety of multi-generational and extended family needs. Unused commercial structures and groups of houses can be combined to accommodate innovative schools and other forums for multi-purpose community gatherings.

If there is any single activity that has been shown to bring citizens in social contact with each other it is not the much-heralded return to the front porch, but rather the simple, energizing act of walking and engaging one’s neighbors in both informal and caring conversations. This can be especially true when walking a dog. Three obvious and prevalent short-comings discourage walking; 1) the absence of connecting (looped) pathways; 2) there being nothing of interest to walk to, and; 3) the walkways are neither beautiful by day, nor adequately lit by night. As long as there is an opportunity to coordinate the future benefit of the overall neighborhood, all three of these problems are one’s that are easily addressed by physical design.

The power of being able to consider the transformation of entire districts is that it permits the weaving together of shared open space, including a variety of community gardens, along with the connecting paths and trails that extend a sense of ownership and belonging far beyond the confines of one’s own house. The amount of paving and the cost of its related maintenance can be reduced as well as the cost and number of garages by virtue of a shared system of shared vehicles, on call, always serviced, cleaned, and made available for a fraction of the cost of individual ownership. Shuttle services can be used to increase the convenience and reduce the costs even further.

The resurgence of the once popular community gardens can become both a conversational beauty spot, as well as a feature for connecting individual residents to each other’s interests. And unlike the digital attractions that keep us indoors, the community garden is a living center not only for the production of healthful food, but one that serves to alert both old and young to nature’s creative mysteries. There are few things as inspirational as being reminded about the miracles of photosynthesis, plant germination, the difference between one season and another, nature’s seamless connection between form and purpose, and the amazing process and variety of growth. As for being inspired to live in ways that are smart, green and sustainable, we are waking up to the realization that no classroom setting could ever deliver the impact of that ideal like the simple act of being immersed in the magic of a garden.

A more difficult to learn message, especially in a culture so invested in technology, is that 75 percent of living more in tune with nature is behavioral. It requires a personal and shared commitment, not only to conserving resources, but also to reducing both our downtime and healthcare costs by way of exercise and proper nutrition. It is by way of an encouraging community spirit that what we all find difficult to achieve on our own can become a more healthful and inspiring way of life.

In summary, any positive prophecy for regenerating neighborhoods that have been hit by the economic collapse requires a strategic repositioning of the triple loss suffered by homeowners, financial institutions and community into a winning arrangement for all involved that goes well beyond what the individual players could achieve on their own. It is only by being able to treat large connected areas with the kind of overall coordination that it becomes possible to; 1) reduce the amount of paving in favor of connecting pathways, community gardens and other landscaped open space; 2) to reconfigure some of the lots in order to create the needed variety of housing provisions, and; 3) to plan for the adaptive reuse of no-longer viable strip commercial areas. It is the current dilemma faced by individuals, financial institutions and the overall community, that now creates opportunities for reconfiguring the pieces to the benefit of the whole. The behavioral objective is to connect neighbors to each other by first connecting them to the self-conscious beauty of their environment. The more aware we become of nature, each other and all that we share, the greater will be our sense of sustainable stewardship.

This objective, I submit, not any imagined array of show-off buildings, is a profound example as to what the heart and soul of architecture is all about. And it is by way of this process that we will one day achieve that very special goal that eluded even the world’s greatest architect. This most exciting achievement, which is now ours for the asking, is nothing less than combining the nobility of the caring community with a wide variety of low to moderate cost houses, suitable for “his and her majesties,” our typical best citizens in pursuit of the American Dream. §

Editor’s Side Bar

While no one can speak for Frank Lloyd Wright, Vernon D. Swaback’s experience involved uncommon exposure to Wright’s life and work. For the period between January, 1957 and the master architect’s death on April 9, 1959, he served as Wright’s youngest apprentice, living and working at Taliesin in Wisconsin in the summers and Arizona’s Taliesin West for the winters. This pattern of life and work continued for a total of 21 years, during which Swaback directed two Taliesin seminars, “The Art and Philosophy of Frank Lloyd Wright” and “Housing and Large Scale Land Use Planning.” In 1970, commissioned by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, he wrote Production Dwellings, An Opportunity for Excellence. This Frank Lloyd Wright-based publication focused on both the products and community relationships of manufactured housing, resulting in national interest and prototyping. Swaback later served on the Board of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, and in 2005 became its Chairman. For more on his work and philosophy see www.swabackpartners.com, www.studiovinteriors.com, www.thearizonachallenge.org and www.twoworldsfoundation.org.

Mr. Swaback was introduced to us by Arizona MultiBankCommunity Development Corporation (www.multibank.org), a nonprofit Community Development Financial Institution that provides financing and technical support in the areas of affordable housing, small businesses, nonprofit organizations and economic development throughout Arizona.

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