Given the universal understanding of Frank Lloyd Wright's ideas on the design of cities as having been definitively embodied in his antiurbanist and pro-ruralist design for Broadacre City of 1929–35, which Wright published as “the disappearing city,” Neil Levine notes in the very first sentence of his introduction that this book's title, The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright, “might strike many as an oxymoron” (xiv). The extent of Levine's new book (matching his 1996 work The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright) and the wide range of designs he examines from across Wright's career are deployed to construct an alternate view of Wright as an architect who, both before and after Broadacre City, was continually engaged in making projects that contribute to the field of urban design.1 Levine has chosen to present a series of Wright's projects, prefacing each with a compact but comprehensive summary of both the preceding and parallel developments in the larger discipline of urban design as well as discussion of the character and history of the physical context.
The first section of the book comprises four chapters on Wright's early urban designs for the streetcar suburbs of Chicago, employing what Wright called his Quadruple Block Plan. Levine indicates how, from the start of Wright's independent career, he endeavored to weave his designs into the square grid that organized the western territories of the United States after 1785, and on which the rapidly expanding western suburbs of Chicago were grounded. Levine notes the generative nature of the square grid and the pinwheel plan in the formation of both Wright's Quadruple Block Plan, where they are used to order the houses on the urban block, and the Prairie House, where they are used to order the rooms within the house. Initially developed in 1896 as a means of constructing a group of houses on a single suburban block as a unified cluster defining a small square at its center, the Quadruple Block concept made its first definitive appearance in Wright's designs for the Prairie House, as published in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1901. “A Home in a Prairie Town,” as Wright titled the design, was presented as an individual house within an urban design, both of which were based on the pinwheel plan, and with the town plan based on clusters of four houses set within a square city block. The houses were oriented so that views were directed away from the other houses, providing each house with an unparalleled degree of both privacy and social connectivity.
Levine emphasizes the fact that, in developing the various versions of the Quadruple Block housing plan from 1901 to 1913, Wright consistently rejected the speculative “real estate” definition of land use and subdivision in the Chicago suburbs, insisting instead on a more idealized vision of urbanism that engaged community and privacy, the individual and the collective. This extends from the Quadruple Block Plan for Charles E. Roberts of 1903–4, which is presented in some of the most beautiful renderings of Wright's career, to the complete neighborhood design of the Chicago City Club Competition of 1912–13, in which Wright employed Quadruple Block house clusters as the foundational unit weaving together the remarkably nuanced and comprehensive urban plan. Levine presents these designs in the context of the city beautiful and garden city movements in urban design, but in this he oversimplifies the history of urban design in the United States. He fails to note that the majority of housing developments of the period were built by many individual architects and builders working within nonformalized yet clearly understood principles of neighborhood construction, and that often-studied projects such as Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux's Riverside, Illinois (1869), were in fact the exception, not the rule.
In the book's second section, Levine turns to Wright's designs for the city center of Chicago, including the National Life Insurance Company Building of 1923–25, which was both Wright's first cantilevered high-rise design and his initial engagement with the then newly emerging urban zoning and setback regulations. Wright addressed the latter directly with his Skyscraper Regulation Project of 1926, a spatially and socially dynamic clustering of towers of various heights that rotated in plan around the edges of their blocks to allow views across the city while also forming lower walls on the narrower streets and higher walls on the wider streets. For reasons that are never clearly stated, Levine chooses not to mention even in passing the urban proposals that are usually considered to be precursors to Wright's Broadacre City design: the Como Orchards Summer Colony project of 1908, the Bitter Root Town and Inn project of 1909, the Lake Tahoe Summer Colony project of 1922, and the theater, cinema, shops, terrace houses, apartments, and three residences designed for Aline Barnsdall on Olive Hill in Los Angeles in 1918–20, among others.
Instead, Levine deploys Wright's first design for clusters of pinwheel housing towers for St. Mark's Church in New York of 1930 as a pivot to Broadacre City. The reason for this surprising segue is that Levine holds that the ruralist Broadacre City was not Wright's response to the onset of the Great Depression, as is usually understood, nor was it a result of the series of urban designs leading up to it; rather, Broadacre City was designed in reaction to Le Corbusier's urban ideas, published in English translations as Towards a New Architecture (1927) and The City of To-morrow and Its Planning (1929).2 Here it can be argued that Levine gives Le Corbusier's published words far too much credit for dramatically influencing Wright's thinking as an architect and maker of spaces, failing to note the development of Wright's urban ideas through his own sequence of designs that led directly to Broadacre City. Rather than an exception within Wright's urban designs, Broadacre City may be understood not only as the conclusion of the series of projects leading up to it but also as the beginning of a ruralist logic that Wright applied to many of his later sub-urban planning proposals. These include, most notably, Florida Southern College in Lakeland of 1938 (ordered, as was the design for Olive Hill, by the grid dimensions of a preexisting grove of trees); the house groupings in Usonia, Okemos, Michigan, of the late 1930s and Pleasantville, New York, of the 1950s; and the “Suntop” quadruple house clusters in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, of the late 1930s, all of which were realized.
In the third and largest section of the book, rather than presenting Broadacre City's ruralist legacy in Wright's later projects, Levine leads us in the opposite direction, away from the antiurbanism of “the disappearing city,” by presenting four unrealized projects for large interventions set within existing cities: the Lake Monona Civic Center in Madison, Wisconsin, of 1938; the Crystal City project in Washington, D.C., of 1940; the Point Park Civic Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, of 1947; and the Cultural Center and City Plan Expansion in Baghdad, Iraq, of 1957. These chapters are in effect miniature monographs on four remarkable yet rarely studied designs. Levine publishes all of Wright's original drawings related to each and presents excellent summaries of the histories of the commissions and their urban contexts. In focusing on these four large-scale, multiple-programmed interventions in existing cities, however, Levine might be said, according to a narrow definition of urban design, to have moved from a study of Wright's urbanism per se to a study of large projects set within urban contexts. Levine acknowledges this transition in definitions of urbanism by noting that CIAM's postwar calls for a “new monumentality” and for designing “the heart of the city” are to some degree realized in these late urban designs by Wright. In the book's last chapters Levine can be said to make the case that, in these late large-scale urban projects, Wright precisely presaged the contemporary urban design concepts of megastructure, megaform, and landform as means to order large, enclave-like, hybrid-programmed building complexes as constructive, experientially grounded interventions within existing city fabrics otherwise often determined by purely economic “planning.”
Levine's book presents Wright as an accomplished and innovative urban designer, and the selected case studies illuminate Wright's application of principles of practice for weaving new communities into the fabric of the city, transforming the city from within through interventions, and replacing the traditional city with a new, exurban mode of collective dwelling. By publishing for the first time the complete sets of drawings for the projects discussed, Levine also confirms that there are still wonders to be found in the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives (which represent the lifework of Bruce Pfeiffer, former director of the archives, to whom the book is dedicated). The fact that Wright's urban designs remained almost entirely unrealized does not diminish their critical importance. As this book clearly reveals, Wright's urban design legacy is embodied in his lifelong propensity to design a comprehensive urban context for each of his individual building designs and to define his larger projects as settlement patterns, city fabrics, and urban places.