Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Building Utopia: Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier

Building Utopia: Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier

Two visionary architects and pinnacles of the modernist movement of the early twentieth century, both designed ideals cities. Wright designed the rural, ultra decentralised Broadacre city where isolated homesteads were connected by the automobile through a network of superhighways. Le Corbusier took the opposite approach, also rejecting the contemporary city, but in favour of even greater centralisation and height in his Radiant city.


Lloyd Wright

Lloyd Wright was born in ‘The Valley’, a farm bought by his grandfather in rural Wisconsin and an agrarian idyll which doubtless shaped his later thinking. He was born to a strange home environment. His mother showed an extreme affection towards him and held great ambition for her son. Unfortunately she seemed to have no affection left over for her husband who grew increasingly resentful of both her and his son, leading to a deeply unhappy marriage and eventual divorce. This would shape Wright’s views that the family unit should be, central to society, but that it was vulnerable to the fracturous individual.

Wright received no formal architectural training, like Le Corbusier below –which Fisher suggests was key to their initiation into urban society and social theory as it meant “No on ever told them they could not know everything.”- but despite lack of formal training went on to produce immensely influential work and become one of the defining figures of twentieth century architecture.

He began his architectural work at the firm Adler and Sullivan after moving to Chicago, a city which completed contrasted with the rural setting of his childhood. As a sprawling urban metropolis, it was a place of both great grandeur and great social problems with its growing slums and unemployment. It exercised significant influence on him: he reacted against it, as most explicitly manifested in his Radiant City.

At Adler and Sullivan he met his mentor, Louis Sullivan, who originally recruited him as a talented draftsman and helped to unite the intellectual and architectural worlds for Wright, as Sullivan was fascinated with the role of architecture and society. Leaving the firm, Wright went on to considerable success as a regional architect designing luxurious private homes in the suburb of Oak Wood. Despite this success, he went through a period of depression, finding it all a bit too much.

When he returned to work he founded of a practice in LA. From this point it was onwards and upwards: his international stature grew and grew. Recognised as a pinnacle figure in modernist architecture due to his designs and contributions to architectural criticism, he was concerned with a variety of civic projects up until his death. Of these the most remembered, and best realization of Wright’s artistic vision and urban critique, is the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier wasn’t born Le Corbusier- Le Corbusier means ‘the bat’ - but rather Charles-Eduoard Jeanneret, in a watch-making community in Switzerland. However, when he resettled in Paris in 1916 he reinvented himself as ‘Le Corbusier’, as the Parisian leader of the revolution of modern architecture. Soon after arrival he achieved great prominence amongst the avant-garde with his painting, then brilliant architectural criticism and most profoundly with his own contributions to architecture.

Like other ‘men from the provinces’ Le Corbusier identified himself with the capital and its values. He had great faith in central organisation. He shared his dislike for the city with Howard and Wright, but had quite the opposite reaction: he believed great cities should be far more dense. For example he loved Manhattan, but commented on a visit there that he thought the sky scrapers were just too small. He believed the great city should not be avoided – indeed that it was unavoidable – but rather that it must be mastered, that its potential for beauty and freedom be exploited by intensifying the elements of central organisation.

Overview of the ideal cities:

Broadacre (Wright)

  • Created at a time of his complete alienation from American society. Despite international acclaim he lost all popularity in America in the 1920s and went rapidly through a few divorce and affairs, even being briefly arrested for adultery. At the time of writing Broadacre he was unable to practice architecture, without a home, an income, his personal reputation destroyed and pursued by the law. Which he later bounced back from completley.
  • Decentralized beyond the small community of Howard to the individual family home. So massive rural decentralisation.
  • Most people work part-time on their farms and part-time in small factories, offices, or shops that are nestled among the farms. Inherited the Morris idea that people should enjoy their work, as opposed to it being a necessary evil.
  • As each isolated home was a family home, the family was central to the stability of the whole community. As his unhappy childhood made him very intimate with the forces that tear families apart, he had little faith in this institution and this perhaps undermines the stability of his community. But he believed this offered the best chance for stability.
  • Joined by a network of superhighways – which is what could so radically revolutionise the organisation of space.
  • Everyone entitled to as much land as they could use, with a minimum of an acre per person. Against rent and for redistribution of land on this basis.
  • “Wright believed that individuality must be founded on individual ownership. Decentralization would make it possible for everyone to live his chosen life on his own land,
Radiant City (Le Corbusier)
  • Level whole tracts of the centre of Paris and other major cities.
  • Geometrically arranged skyscrapers of glass and steel would rise out of parks, gardens and superhighways. Incorporate trees and open spaces within the urban metropolis.
  • Towers=the command posts of the region housing a technocratic elite of planners, engineers and intellectuals (which leads to comparisons with Plato which I’ll mention below).
  • First version of city placed the elite in luxurious apartments in the centre with their subordinates relegated to satellite cities on the outskirts.
  • Later version had everyone living in high rises.

Central themes:

Belief in progress and ‘a solution’

Both Wright and Le Corbusier, despite their very different utopian designs shared a number of similarities. The first was a belief in progress and the idea that a harmonious society between individual and authority was obtainable – that this was industrial society’s natural state. In this sense they were both very much children of the nineteenth century

“What gives our dreams their daring” Le Corbusier proclaimed “is that they can be achieved.”

Repugnance towards existing cities

They believed these cities were unfitting for the imminent new social order and that they were aberrations that needed to be overcome.

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were times of immense urbanisation, which to their inhabitants was a frightening and seemingly unnatural phenomenon, with many associated problems in the form of pollution and sprawling slums.

Chicago, a village in 1840 reached 1.7m by the turn of the century. Paris grew from 500,000 to 2.5 m. London grew from 900,000 to 4.5m inhabitants.

Role of technology

Central to all this and what sets them firmly in the twentieth century is the role of technology. Despite sharing the hopes of the nineteenth century socialists they were not constrained by the traditional architectural vocabulary.

“Their ideal cities thus stand at the intersection of nineteenth-century hopes and twentieth-century technology.” (Fisher)

Wright was fascinated by the automobile, convinced of its potential to revolutionise modern life. For him it had created the possibility of new communities based on a new mastery of time and space. The rural isolation of Wright’s city is only possible through the superhighways that connect its homesteads.

Equally, the towering skyscrapers of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City are only made possible by huge advances in building techniques and materials.

In terms of style, too, they both believed – in fitting with the modernist movement – that a radical new machine age aesthetic needed to be created. Again maximising the use of new materials such as concrete whilst still sticking to ideals of simplicity evoked by Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Attempt to reconcile the individual and authority

One of the most interesting things about the architecture of both Le Corbusier and Lloyd Wright is there attempts to reconcile freedom and individuality with authority.

Lloyd Wright was deeply concerned with preserving creative individuality but “always emphasized that creative individuality must have its roots in a stable community whose values the citizen shares and protects.” He hoped to achieved this by rural decentralisation, with an unquestioning belief in the Jeffersonian rural ideal. He believed that this provided the best environment for freedom and creativity. Yet, of course, “one need not live on top of one’s neighbour to repeat all his ideas” and the socialist Robert Park has conversely argued that the anonymity of the metropolis and its juxtaposition of so many different groups and experiences makes it the natural environment for individualism.

Le Corbusier of course met the problem with a very different approach – believing in intense urban concentration and with a greater faith in the power of organisation combined with a distinct distaste for democracy. Mumford had polemicised him as “an elitist technocrat and authoritarian classicist” but whilst this is true it is overly simplistic. Fisher compares Le Corbusier’s hostility to democracy and love of authority to Plato. To Le Corbusier “The details of social planning and organisation are used to express an idela as old as the Republic: the ideal of a society ruled not by ‘opinion’ but by truth.

Unlike the Republics distrust of the artist, Le Corbusier sees the planner in the role of the philosopher-king. Only he can promote the well being of the whole, guide self-seeking individuals into accord with the larger order and bring “society into accord with the ‘cosmic laws’ of order and create that healthy social equilibrium which Le Corbusier called harmony and Plato called justice.”

Classic utopian ideal: to unite everyone on the basis of universal principles. To reconcile or organisation and individuality, authority and freedom, mechanization and craftsmanship.

The new role of design in politics

“The design itself brings the residents together into a community and directs their relationships into co-operative channels…[The plan]not only symbolizes the harmony of society, it also creates harmony. It is the fundamental level of social organisation.”

To Le Corbusier, “the plan of the city is its real constitution.”

New technology and theory of architecture allowed social space and organisation to be revolutionised by design in a way that wasn’t really possible prior to the twentieth century.

All three recognised that well-intentioned designs alone could not reform society. This is why they included detailed plans for the redistribution of wealth and power. But these were complements to the environment rrather than the entirety of the utopian solution.

“These ideal cities are perhaps the most ambitious and complex statements of the belief that reforming the physical environment can revolutionise the total life of society.”

They are most fascinating for their attempts to reconcile polar opposites: organisation and individuality, authority and freedom , mechanisation and crafts in very different ways.

Utopian influences

Socialism and belief in progress

The belief in progress and the immediacy of its realisation is what distinguishes the nineteenth century from the previous utopian tradition. It is what flowed through the work of Bellamy and Morris. This repugnance towards the existing social order and the immediacy and possibility of its overthrown also flows through the work of both these architects and at once associates them with these writers and distinguishes them from classic utopian works.

Unlike Bellamy they see the state of the urban environment as an integral part of the state of society and believe a new social order must be necessarily housed within a new environment. To them the two cannot be detached.


Wright and Le Corbusier rejected the traditional aesthetic but desired to create a machine-aged aesthetic based on Morris’ ideals of simplicity and respect for natural materials. Wright’s ideal city is very reminiscent of the reorganisation of space evoked by Morris in News from Nowhere.

Morris would have despised both designs and you can’t imagine anything he would hate more than the ultra modern, ultra centralised city of Le Corbusier. But in terms of the repugnance towards existing cities and the need to reorganise social space and reshape aesthetics as a necessary part of bringing about a new social order these designs are very much children of Morris’ ideas.

“like all reactions, they were deeply marked by the ideas that provoked them.”


Wright and Le Corbusier believed that whilst social change was integral to any better society, the environment was not just its neutral vehicle but a necessary component. Their radical ideas for the reoranisation of space and a new machine age aethetic were only made possible by technological advance and set them at a meeting point between nineteenth-century hopes and twentieth-century technological innovation.

Frank Lloyd Wright, The Disappearing City (1932) (First lays out his ideas for Broadacre)

Frank Lloyd Wright, The living city (1945)

Frank Lloyd Wright, The natural house (1963)

Le Corbusier [1887-1965], Towards a new architecture (1946)

Robert Fishman, Urban utopias in the twentieth century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier (1982). This is the best overview I found and has a great introduction.

George R. Collins, ‘Visionary Drawings of Architecture and Planning: 20th century through the 1960s’ in Art Journal (1979)

The powerpoint with pics of the ideal cities can be downloaded from:


1 comment:

Sarah Rees Jones said...

set them at a meeting point between nineteenth-century hopes and twentieth-century technological innovation

I love that last sentence (as I did the last sentence of Sam H's presentation too).

Just the point to bear in mind when we think about the utopian potential of digital technologies. Do they offer us the same radical utopian potential that the railway did to Howard and the aeroplane to FLW? (or the carousel and discovery of the southern cross did to TM). Do new technologies transform utopian possibilities or just translate old ideas and problems into new media?