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THE CULTURAL BACKLASH OF THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION:  WHAT THREE ARCHITECTS DID TO CHANGE THE IDEA OF THE CITY
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By Jessica Bispels, Associate Planner

(Some of the most influential architects of the post-industrial revolution world were Frank Lloyd Write, Le Corbusier, and Ebenezer Howard. The following is an analysis of the utopian cities they designed to try and make sense of what they felt cities were doing wrong, and what they should look like in the future.)

To both Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, the industrial city was not adequate for the needs of the people. To Wright, a big city like Chicago was “a monstrous aberration built by greed, destructive both to efficient production and to human values.” After Corbusier’s move to Paris, he noticed that “the cramped and noisy business center made efficiency impossible; antiquated building codes forbade modern methods of construction; housing was inadequate for all classes….” Wright and Corbusier sought to do more than change the layout of the city; they wanted to reinvent the way in which they’re designed. Both architects wanted to ensure individualism in the average urbanite’s life, while creating a comfortable aesthetic where the built environment is integrated into the vast expanse of nature. It is in their specific methods that the differences arise. Wright’s Broadacre City places responsibility on the individual to create his or her ideal life within his or her own plot of land. Corbusier’s idea of individualism is to create a community in which the mundane tasks of survival are taken care of, and the individual is free to do as he or she pleases. Both Wright and Corbusier’s utopian cities attempt to free the individual, but their contrasting ideas of what the individual wants create differing results.

In Wright’s plan for Broadacre City, he wanted to create an alternative society. His ideal city enabled him to show the workings of government, education, religion, the economy, and the home as integral parts of the total environment. As he witnessed the stock-market crash of 1929, he strengthened his theory that the United States needed a radical physical and economic change. Wright called for a decentralization of urban areas, as he felt that the heavily concentrated city was obsolete. Broadacre City was to be comprised of decentralized units strewn across the rural countryside. He wanted a “marriage of town and country.” By taking away the walking city, Wright relied on technological advancements in transportation to make his city work.

Sketches for the Broadacre City project by Frank Lloyd Wright

Photo By: Kjell Olsen – originally posted to Flickr as Wright Sketches for Broadacre City 2, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12036508

Wright also witnessed the development of the automobile, and like so many other Americans of his time, he was fascinated by the automobile, convinced of its potential to revolutionize modern life and blind to its limitations. The assumption that every American will own or have access to a car was essential to Broadacre City. Within the city, all families would have at least one acre of land, and have an absolute right to that area. Neither shape nor scale appear recognizably urban: one ‘city’ might sprawl over 100 square miles without any recognizable center. The automobile was needed for this to be effective. As the houses, the factories, the stores, the office buildings, and the cultural centers are all in the midst of farmland, the average American needed to travel by car.

One of Wright’s ideas in his city was to shrink the economic center to the home and use the family as the basic economic unit. This was to ensure that the proletarian could “never be unemployed or a slave to anyone.” He hoped that this would strengthen the family. As a base for production, education, and culture, the family would recapture the centrality which it had surrendered to urban institutions. Broadacre city would be agrarian based, as all individuals would be part-time farmers. This placed a large importance on the individual members of Broadacre city. Wright hoped this responsibility would secure the family’s strength, while ensuring that the individuality which Wright had been preaching would have its base in the very structure of the country.

It’s important to note that the individualism of Wright’s city lies in the individual’s right to run his or her own economic center. The individual can and must do with his or her land what he or she thinks is needed. The freedom comes in the ownership of property. Wright’s concept of freedom and individuality is not interpreted in the same way by all, as is seen in Le Corbusier’s Radiant City.

Le Corbusier was also a witness to the Great Depression. As the Great Depression strengthened Wright’s conviction, it changed Corbusier’s idea of administration in his utopian city. In his first city, The Contemporary City, there was no single power to regulate all the separate private corporations which accomplished the essential work of society. But Corbusier’s faith in the invisible hand of free competition was diminished after the Great Depression. He now held that organization must extend beyond the large corporations. Total administration would replace the marketplace in the Radiant City, and it would be up to experts to “match society’s needs to its productive capacities.” This differs from Wright’s belief that once the utopian city is designed, the individuals would be free to do as they please, in an organic order. Corbusier called for extensive planning and administration the entire way through, and this planned hierarchy of administration would replace the state. To Corbusier, the beauty of the organization was the product of the perfect cooperation of everyone in the hierarchy. It was the expression of human solidarity in creating a civilization in the midst of the hostile forces of nature. The natural hierarchy was one means of attaining the sublime.

Design of Brasilia – based upon the principles of The Radiant City

Photo By: Limongi – originally uploaded to :en at en:File:Monumental axis.jpg, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5921507

In contrast with Wright’s decentralized Broadacre City, the Radiant City contained centralized towers of residential space in its very core. These towers called “Unités, each contained a neighborhood with 2,700 residents. The apartments are assigned in accordance with the size of the worker’s family and their needs. The individualism of the worker can be expressed in his or her residential space. The citizen in Le Corbusier’s syndicalist society thus experiences both organization and freedom as part of his daily life. His workspace is heavily organized so that he can have freedom outside the workplace.

Corbusier places importance on the family unit as Wright does, but doesn’t give them economic responsibility. Wright hoped that the responsibility he places on the family unit would strengthen the family, but Corbusier wanted to free the family of any economic function. In the Radiant City, the family no longer has an economic function to perform. It exists as an end in itself. There is a strong distinction between work and play in The Radiant City, and the family belongs to the realm of play.

In Corbusier’s free society, men and women would work as full-time individuals. He assumed that there would be an end to the familial economic unit, and women would be free from domestic services like cooking, cleaning, and child raising. All of these tasks are provided by the society. This would therefore free the family to reassemble in the afternoon (after work and school), perhaps around the pool or at the gym, and when the family members return to their apartment they find it already cleaned, the laundry done and returned, the food ordered in the morning already and prepared for serving. This strong distinction of work and leisure is important in the Radiant City, as the individual now has the freedom to enjoy his leisure time as he pleases, instead of his work time like in Wright’s Broadacre City.

Howard’s Garden City

If Ebenezer Howard was able to have a conversation with Wright and Corbusier about their design, he would notice that the basic principles of his “Garden City” comply with those of the other cities. Howard’s Garden city plan was a community “in which social order and individual initiative would be properly balanced.” He also wanted to give individual liberties to the inhabitants of his city. His ideas differed from Wright and Corbusier’s, which would cause him to critique their work.

Howard would not agree with Wright’s agrarian based society. As a failed farmer himself, he thought that not even a small community could successfully manage all its farms. He thought the community should be a balance of a privately and collectively owned enterprise. Wright’s economic system is too bold for Howard, as he would argue that Wright puts too much responsibility on the people. On the other hand, Corbusier’s system doesn’t give the individual enough responsibility, relative to Howard. Because the administrators would determine even the urbanite’s living space, Howard would see this as an attack on individual liberties.

Howard wouldn’t like the layout of either Wright or Corbusier’s cities. Like Wright, Howard wanted to marry town and country, but not in the same way that Wright proposed. Wright’s Broadacre city would be too decentralized for Howard, as Howard wanted to maintain a centric city model. Howard’s marriage of urban and rural is gradual, as each outward ring is a different type of space. Wright’s complete decentralization, Howard would argue, prevents any kind of community feeling. Corbusier’s model with the skyscraper neighborhoods would be too congested for Howard. Howard’s Garden City had a gradual flow between different spaces (residential, commercial), but Corbusier’s extremely centralized residential space would be taking it too far for Howard.

Garden City Concept by Ebenezer Howard

Photo By: Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Howard’s desire to revolutionize society through a city plan was not unlike Wright and Corbusier. They all saw what the industrial age did to the city and wanted to draw away from that as much as they saw fit. The Garden City, Broadacre City, and The Radiant City were all planned because of a cultural backlash from the industrial revolution. Howard, Wright, and Corbusier saw the problems that arose in their current cities, and all attempted to solve these problems in their revolutionary utopian societies.

(Much of the analysis of these architects’ city plans and differentials can be found in Robert Fishman’s “Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier.” I read it in college and believe it to be a great analysis of 20th century architects trying to make sense of how to plan for cities.)

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