Frank Lloyd Wright has simultaneous reputations as perhaps the greatest architect the USA has ever produced and simultaneously its worst ever urban designer. American suburbia is often thought to be built at a density of about eight dwellings per acre. This can increase to about 20 acres per acre if a terraced-house (or row-house) typology is used. Frank Lloyd Wright, in his landmark urban design statement, Broadacre City, proposed that density should actually be set at one dwelling per acre. The disastrous effect this would have on walkable distances, mixture of uses and reduced car dependency can be imagined.
Imagine my surprise, therefore when I came across these buildings in Milwaukee, on my second visit to the USA. A cluster of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings built in close proximity, a street no less.
These buildings were commissioned in 1911 by Arthur Richards, a Milwaukee real estate developer, who developed, with Wright, an approach to housing known as the American System-Built Houses. The idea was to create housing off-site, prefabricated in factories, using timber-frame techniques, working to a two foot module. The house kit-of-parts could be delivered anywhere in the USA via railroad. In reality, for various reasons, only twenty such homes were ever built.
As an urbanist, Frank Lloyd Wright has been much mocked over the years. By way of a corollary, the American academic Neil Levine has pointed out that Wright produced excellent designs for difficult very urban sites in cities as diverse as Pittsburgh, Washington DC, Madison and Baghdad.
Still, who would have thought that Wright was capable of producing an urban design proposal as dense and sustainable as “the Street”?