Small and Beautiful
Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Usonian Houses to be a “building system, adaptable to each client with whatever modifications he might need regarding space and site conditions.”1 Begun during the depression when he was short of clients and those he did have were equally short of funds.
Although they were designed on tiny budgets the original Usonian houses can still seem lavish in details when compared with conventional construction today – this was made affordable by the low cost of skilled labor during the depression and war years. The critical cost was in the materials which Wright limited in both scale and initial value. With the onset of WWII, and its attendant economic boom, the rising wages of construction workers make the labor intensive Usonian scheme impractical.2
What made a Usonian House?
Typical Usonian features were in-floor heat and built in furniture. Wright replaced garages with car ports because he felt that, unlike the horses which preceded them, automobiles did not really need protection from the elements. The exterior form was simplified with flat roofs and pre-manufactured window elements.
Wright limited his palette to wood, brick, cement, paper and glass.3 He wanted to do away with most traditional interior finishes entirely. He specified no plastering – it was not in the palette – and wanted his wooden walls left unpainted. “Wood best preserves itself.” Trim was therefore extraneous. He also deplored most conventional decorative elements, believing that the house itself could be its own ornament. He complained:
“Furniture, pictures and bric-a-brac [are] unnecessary because walls can be made to include them or be them.”4
The plan of a Usonian house was a simple L-shape with one arm for public spaces and the other for bedrooms. The bathroom and “workspace”, the plumbing core, would be at the junction between the two and provide visual separation in his otherwise open plans.5 Wright designed from the inside, arranging rooms to suit themselves and then working out the elevations to coordinate with them afterward. This allowed him to arrange space more fluidly than in the many-separated-rooms Victorian plans house plans which dominated at the time.6
Design for the Other Half
In Wright’s earlier Prairie School designs the kitchen was largely disregarded (by both architect and client). Since it would be used primarily by the domestic help and not the family, a distinct separation was desirable and its design quality was less important. That had to change when he turned his hand to affordable houses for middle class families; the kitchen was now occupied by one of his primary clients. He re-conceived the kitchen as the “workspace” of the home, a sort of modern domestic laboratory for the housewife, and brought it into the arena of the public space. It was usually connected to living spaces and rendered in the same materials so that it felt a part of familial activities.1 He did still take care in most plans to position it out of view of the dining area so that formal pretensions could be preserved during a dinner party if that was desirable.
Jacobs House, Madison, WI
The house Wright designed for Herbert and Susan Jacobs was the first official Usonian project7 and it set the type with its orientation away from the street, L-shaped plan fronting both living and private spaces onto the garden and carefully limited materials.8 While Usonian houses were simplified and streamlined they were not completely devoid of ornamentation. Every Wright home had a fireplace, “the masonry core,” which provided both physical and psychological warmth to his central spaces. The Jacobs house also had a powerful connection with the outdoors to extend its limited square footage. It was almost entirely glazed along the garden and had twenty five doors to guarantee ready access to nature.9
(All the images in this post are of the Jacobs House in Madison.)
Cost … or Value?
Before he started his design, Wright asked the Jacobs family, “Would you really be interested in a $5000 house? Most people want a $10,000 house for $5000.”10 He had a fair point. The American focus on getting more for less has never, or at least only rarely, included an interest in getting less for less. Even with the Not So Big movement so popular now, there is no discussion of getting less value for less money just of saving on scale to spend on quality.
Next week on Dwelling Places: we’ll discuss exactly that: thinking about an economical little house for an affordable price – the commercial answer to Usonia … Levittown.