On Usonia

I’m doing a book review of Roland Reisley’s Usonia New York; Building a community with Frank Lloyd Wright for my urban landscapes course, but in order to distill it in to a five minute powerpoint, I have to talk through it a little.

The book is quite interesting especially at this point in my life and the lives of my friends. Some are looking at escaping the city to raise a family in the safety of the suburbs, and others are struggling with the concept of community. Most of the book is dedicated to the formation and design aspects and very little on why the community has persisted – something that I’m most interested in. It has certainly turned me off of the idea of cooperative living.

Usonia was and is one of the few successful cooperative communities in the United States, and is unique for a variety of reasons. The community was the the brainchild of David Henken, who wanted to recreate the work and ideas of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre community and Usonia home plans. He and his wife dedicated themselves to Wright’s tutelage and pitched the idea to friends and family, and ultimately created enough interest to start a cooperative development that was under the guidance of Wright.

The co-op struggled to find conventional funding, struggled to come up with materials, struggled to attract enough inhabitants, and struggled to pay bills. But through all these struggles, they formed a unique suburban community with some interesting architecture and a unique identity.

In the context of the Landscape class, what strikes me about Usonia is the scale of the community. Each lot was 1.2ish acres, and every picture of a house in the book was in its own zone of privacy. There were no pictures where you can see a neighbor’s house in the distance.

Additionally, the changes in administration from co-op owned land and homes to individual owned homes turned this from a real cooperative community to a fancy suburb with good block parties and nicer homes.

Wright’s influence in the community was obvious at the onset, but within 5 years of groundbreaking, he was done with it and many of the newer inhabitants were done with him. Many of the author’s quotes regarding the organicism of the community and cooperative spirit excluded Wright’s own ideals of Usonia.

I personally have a love/hate relationship with Wright’s work. The homes at Usonia are quite amazing though – and I’m surprised at the scale of them. Many of the homes were built with tiny bedrooms, tiny kitchens, and expansive living space. The tiniest bit of environmental determinist in me wonders what influence his design had on the activity of Usonians in their community.

I’d post some of my scans from the book but worry about copyright.