2.13.2012

Usonian architecture


In 1927, in an article written for Architectural Record, Frank Lloyd Wright introduced the word “Usonia”  into the architectural lexicon, Usonia meaning the United States because “Canada and Brazil are America too” (James Duff Law is credited by some with creating the term in 1903 [Wright credited the novelist Samuel Butler]). Wright dedicated his career to creating an architecture for the United States, one divorced from European influence. Starting in 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression, and until his death in 1959, he designed 308 homes he called “Usonian”, 140 of them built.

Wright cut Usonian homes from the same cloth as his Prairie School houses, but with a sharper pair of scissors and into much smaller pieces. Modernized to the times and much cozier than his previous houses, Wright aimed to design homes for the middle class.

Usonian homes were typically characterized by single stories; a horizontal demeanor (of the land, not on it); cantilevered carports (Wright coined the term “carport” with these houses); native/natural materials; flat roofs (no attics); large overhangs; depth of massing; radiant heating (something he called “gravity heating”); 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; walls extending from the interior to the exterior; large windows; and little ornamentation. Bedrooms in his Usonian homes were often small to promote the congregation 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. Large overhangs controlled thermal loading, windows were arranged for cross ventilation, local and natural materials were used instead of manufactured materials or “dishonest” materials (manufactured materials posing as natural materials). Some greenie grumps point out that his homes weren’t really green (single pane windows, little to no insulation, concrete), but that's unfairly evaluating his work in the context of modern mores and technology (ain’t no HVACs back in 1936!).

In the 1950s Wright introduced a special category of Usonian homes called “Usonian Automatic”. An affordable version of his earlier textile block homes built in California, these homes were made of inexpensive three-inch thick modular concrete blocks designed to be assembled by homeowners (Legos for adults!). However, these homes proved complicated to assemble and partakers often hired professionals to put their homes together.

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

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

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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):




8 comments:

  1. Hello, I found your blog from a Google Alert about Usonian Houses as my wife and I are in sort of the same process you two are...researching, designing and hopefully building a custom minimalistic home. I would say we are having the same issues you and your wife are having. I was most interested in the idea of camping on the lot. We are still currently in the planning stage and the lot is of course the first step but we are being VERY patient (some by choice, else by the banks) on the lot we pick. Anyway, I've read most of your posts and will follow along. If you are interested, my blog is at usoniandreams.info. I've posted a link to your blog if you dont mind.

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  2. Thanks for stopping by our little blog. We will definitely check out your blog! We look forward to reading about your house.

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  3. Hello. I've been a Usonian fan for about thirty-two years - since I was about 17. We had two Usonians in my area when I was a kid and I attended a church designed by Wright's student Alden B. Dow. Now a Dow home is a treat I can tell you. But Wright's Usonians are great. I do have a question though - I've seen prices from $100K to $600K for Usonians. Some Taliesin fellows told me that with fees it would minimally cost $350,000 for a Usonian with land and landscaping. I assumed that was less than 2,000 square feet. I can't seem to find consensus about ranges. Surely since the Usonians were sort of standard there should be a standard price. I did notice that some of the so-called Usonians were concrete - which for me pre-dated the Usonians. I see more of Lloyd Wright's work as concrete - and FLW's 1923 - 1930 era buildings in California as having been made of concrete - and those were expensive to make even then. The 1936 - 1950 era concrete block and wood structures I thought were cheaper than that. Any ideas?

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  4. First thanks for the great blog. I have been enamored with the clean-lines approach of Wright. I grew up in Michigan. I attended a church designed by Taliesan fellow Alden B. Dow, himself a preeminent architect of considerable renown. I've talked with a few folks - including Taliesan fellows (some of whom are dead by now) who attended the fellowship in the 40's - late '50's. What different people have said about the price of building these gems between say 2000 and 2012 has varied - GREATLY - any notion of costs? I've heard $130,000 - $600,000 and up. And I think - well, no, the Rosenbaum House was $36,000 and that would be about $80,000 today - but then they provided some of the labor and they did other things "on the cheap". But I just think that the Toufic Kallil house is way beyond my budget - all that concrete. Plus in Dallas I'm not sure it would hold up. Also the cost of wood here would be outrageous so you might use it inside but not outside. The architect usually gets a fairly nice fee - so say $3,000 out of a $300K project. But then there's the site - say $20K and then simple landscaping - sustainable like the house - and that would probably be another $10 - 15K. But then are the built-ins part of the price or aren't they? I'm just confused about pricing. And can one get regular financing or not? Anybody have any site that would answer my pretty basic questions?

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    1. For whatever reason, it costs a lot more to build these days than back in those days. I know Schindler was shocked at how much more it cost to build after WW II than before it. Our house is somewhat Usonian, and I just made a post about cost (http://austincubed.blogspot.com/2012/08/how-much-does-it-cost-to-build-part-deux.html). Total cost (including land) will depend on where you build, materials, etc. The built-in furniture tended to be part of these houses (the built-ins were required to efficiently use the space). We got financing for our modern house as do many people in Austin, so it's possible. I have a friend that built a Prairie Style Wright up in the Dallas area.

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  5. I created a pinterest board for usonian: http://www.pinterest.com/jbutler12009/frank-lloyd-wright-usonian-homes/

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