This, and the other Usonian houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright are more like older cousins of the ranch – not in the direct line but still strongly connected from both a design and lifestyle philosophy point of view.
Wright started to design Usonian or USA-onian houses during the depression when he was short of clients and those he did have were equally short of funds. They were more than cheap knockoffs, however. 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)”
The house Wright designed for Herbert and Susan Jacobs was the first official Usonian project, and it happens to be right in my neighborhood on a regular dog-walk route of mine. The Jacobs house 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.
Wright asked the Jacobs family, “Would you really be interested in a $5000 house? Most people want a $10,000 house for $5000(2).” 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 never any discussion of getting less value for less money.
Although they were designed on tiny budgets the original Usonian houses can still seem lavish in details to a modern eye. 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.
Wright limited his palette to wood, brick, cement, paper and glass. He wanted to do away with most traditional interior finishes. He specified no plastering – it was not in the palette – and wanted his wooden walls left unpainted. “Wood best preserves itself(3).” Trim was therefore extraneous.
The plan of a Usonian house was a simple L-shape with one arm for public spaces and the other for bedrooms (image and plan above via Maddox). The bathroom and “workspace”, the plumbing core, would be at the junction between the two and provide visual separation in his otherwise open plans. 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 Victorian plans(4).
In Wright’s earlier Prairie School designs the kitchen was largely disregarded (by both architect and client). It would be used primarily by the domestic help and not the family so that a distinct separation was desirable. When he turned his hand to affordable houses for middle class families the kitchen was 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 connected to living spaces and rendered in the same materials so that it felt a part of familial activities(5).
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. The image above (via Maddox) shows how open to its yard the back of the house is.
Direct quotes cited below. For more on Wright and Usonian houses, generally check out the following:
- Pfeiffer, Frank Lloyd Wright: Usonian Houses, 22.
- Maddex, Wright-Sized Houses, 103
- Wright, An Autobiography, 517
- Maddex, Wright-Sized Houses,52.
- Maddex, Wright-Sized Houses, 74
Maddex, Diane. 2003. Wright-Sized Houses: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solutions for Making Small Houses Feel Big. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Pfeiffer, Bruce Brooks. 2002. Frank Lloyd Wright: Usonian Houses. Tokyo: A.D.A. EDITA.
Reisley, Roland, and John Timpane. 2001. Usonia, New York: Building a Community with Frank Lloyd Wright. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
Rosenbaum, Alvin. 1993. Usonia: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Design for America. Washington D.C.: The Preservation Press.
Wright, Frank Lloyd. Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings. Edited by Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer. New York: Rizzoli.