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The Disappearing City: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacres

The Museum of Modern Art, New York City. February 22, 2014

Frank Lloyd Wright may be best remembered for his Prairie Style houses, but the scale of his most ambitious dreams, conceived as America’s cities evolved during the 20th century, was grander. This winter the Museum of Modern Art unveiled Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal, devoted to Wright’s designs for commercial and apartment buildings, as well as a utopian landscape he called Broadacre City.

Broadacre City Project,
by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Model in four sections: painted wood, cardboard, and paper. Courtesy MoMA.

At the first of several informal lectures devoted to the exhibition, Jennifer Gray, a MoMA educator and architectural historian at Columbia University, walked a capacity crowd through the gallery, ending with a contemplation of a 12-by-12-foot model of Broadacres. Beginning with the San Francisco Call Building, designed in 1912 but, like a number of his commercial projects, never built, Gray showed how Wright’s thinking about the American city developed in sometimes contradictory directions. For example, he repurposed his design for St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie Towers (1927–31), a Manhattan apartment complex, into a tower-in-the-park concept simply by superimposing trees on the buildings he had originally drawn around the structure.

At the same time that he was designing skyscrapers, Wright proposed Broadacres, a comprehensive plan of the American landscape that he conceived of in the 1930s and elaborated on during the course of his life. It allotted each household at least an acre of land, and Wright envisioned inhabitants zooming around via helicopter. “He could be so futuristic and far-thinking,” Gray said, “but also anachronistic and hokey.”The establishment of Broadacres would have required a radical redistribution of property, though the resulting homesteads would have been private. Amid the current debates about socioeconomic inequality, it’s impossible to gaze on the model of Broadacres without imagining alternatives for reordering the American landscape, no matter how fanciful Wright’s conception may seem.