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Usonian architecture

by LiveModern Webmaster last modified Mar 04, 2012 01:04 AM
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by bubba of the bubbles ( last modified Mar 03, 2012



In1927, in an article written for Architectural Record, Frank Lloyd Wrightintroduced the word “Usonia”  into thearchitectural lexicon, Usonia meaning the United States because “Canada andBrazil are America too” (James Duff Law is credited by some with creating theterm in 1903 [Wright credited the novelist Samuel Butler]). Wright dedicatedhis career to creating an architecture for the United States, one divorced fromEuropean influence. Starting in 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression, and until his death in 1959, hedesigned 308 homes he called “Usonian”, 140 of them built.

Wright cut Usonianhomes from the same cloth as his Prairie School houses, but with asharper pair of scissors and into much smaller pieces. Modernized to the timesand much cozier than his previous houses, Wright aimed to design homes for themiddle class.

Usonianhomes were typically characterized by single stories; a horizontal demeanor (ofthe land, not on it); cantilevered carports (Wright coined the term “carport”with these houses); native/natural materials; flat roofs (no attics); largeoverhangs; depth of massing; radiant heating (something he called “gravityheating”); open living areas with the kitchen combined with the dining area;natural lighting (clerestory windows); typically L-shaped (to create a private courtyard); slab on grade (no basements);a strong connection between indoors and outdoors; built-in components; wallsextending from the interior to the exterior; large windows; and littleornamentation. Bedrooms in his Usonian homes were often small to promote thecongregation of the family in the open living spaces. Wright didn't provide garages or much storage space to promote a more spartan, less materialistic lifestyle.

Wright’s Usonian homes were green before green was cool, at least for their time. Largeoverhangs controlled thermal loading, windows were arranged for crossventilation, local and natural materials were used instead of manufacturedmaterials or “dishonest” materials (manufactured materials posing as naturalmaterials). Some greenie grumps point out that his homes weren’t really green(single pane windows, little to no insulation, concrete), but that's unfairlyevaluating his work in the context of modern mores and technology (ain’t noHVACs back in 1936!).

In the1950s Wright introduced a special category of Usonian homes called “UsonianAutomatic”. An affordable version of his earlier textile block homes built inCalifornia, these homes were made of inexpensive three-inch thick modularconcrete blocks designed to be assembled by homeowners (Legos for adults!).However, these homes proved complicated to assemble and partakers often hiredprofessionals to put their homes together.

I’m writingabout Usonian architecture because we included one of Wright’s Usonian homes onour list of precedents (still need to post those: sorry...) and expressed astrong preference for horizontality (we got the horizontals bad!). We showed itbecause we love the horizontality and the fact they were progressive yet“affordable”. We also appreciate “touchstones” toward history, a curtsey tothose that came before us.

Whilewe like many of the tenets of Usonian homes and Wrightism, we don’t like them all. We leantowards the ethereal whiteness of houses from the golden age of Modernarchitecture. Many of Frank’s houses seem dingy and dusty to us because of theEarthy tones. Brighter and lighter strike us as more uplifting. Along thoselines, Rudolph Schindler is perhaps our true touchstone: A fusion of what’sWright with architecture with the Loos morals (ha!) of Modern.


The Jacobs House (1936-1937), considered to be Wright's first Usonian Home. Its 1,550 square feet was built for $5,500 (~$85,000 in 2010 dollars!):

The Rosenbaum House (1938-1940; one of my faves--love that street presence!):

The Pope-Leighey House (1939-1941):

The Winkler House (1940):

The M M Smith House (1949; that's freakin gorgeous, mo photos here [check out that pendant!])

The Turkel House (1956; a Usonian Automatic):

The McBean House (1957; a prefab version of the Usonian Home):

The Sunday House (1957):

The Gordon House (1957-1963):




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