Back down to earth

Will Wiles makes a plea for more practical speculations

It might be resolutely low-rise, but Broadacre City casts a long shadow. Frank Lloyd Wright first proposed his decentralised, dispersed, ruralised vision of the American city in 1929, and spent the next 30 years refining, revising and publicising the idea. Broadacre looked at American frontier individualism through the lens of a new technology, the motor car. Widely spread single-family homes and farmsteads would be connected by freeways; civic buildings would stand like monuments in borderless parkland. It was an alternative to both the insanitary congestion of the 20th-century city and the collectivism of Le Corbusier’s grids of towers. 

And it was a fantasy. Had it come to pass, it seemed to offer alienation and car dependence rather than Jeffersonian union with the landscape; but it was never a practical proposition, more a canvas for Wright’s ideas. But it lives on: his beguiling drawings of one-man helicopters tootling over market gardens continue to circulate on social media, and it serves as Exhibit A in the architect’s reputation as a hater of cities. It’s this latter legacy that Neil Levine works to counter in a new book, The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright.

In an essay in Apollo magazine about Levine’s book and the various other hoopla about Wright’s 150th anniversary, I suggested that one of the most serious problems with Broadacre was its failure to grasp the corrosive influence of the automobile, and that architects were now making the same mistakes with the self-driving car. Wright can be forgiven for his failure to foresee the harm inherent in car-centred urbanism. Anyone dicing with new urban typologies based on autonomous vehicles has less excuse.

The autonomous car does not demand a new urban form; the housing crisis does not necessitate a new domestic template

It’s the same with the housing crisis – enough with floating houses and shipping containers. Architectural speculation has its limits. The autonomous car does not demand a new urban form; the housing crisis does not necessitate a new domestic template. 

But in other areas, more architectural speculation might be very welcome. The recent general election showed what an important issue social care is becoming. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 1975 14% of the population was over 65; by 2045 that will have risen to 25%. And  fewer working-age taxpayers will be supporting those retirees. This demographic crunch is a fundamental part of much of our politics, from the funding the NHS to immigration policy.

The election brought into focus the debate over how we will pay to look after an ever-increasing population of people who are less able to look after themselves. Here, architects can make a vital contribution. Modern housebuilding has contributed to the demographic ghettoisation of our cities. But older people might be able to live more independent lives for longer if more effort was made to mix housing developments by age. A simple sharing of space would mean that younger people could keep a passive eye on their elderly neighbours – simultaneously it might do something to alleviate the fear-filled bunker mentality that appears to afflict older people. It might even do something to ease the housing crisis, by enticing older people to downsize from large family homes to somewhere more congenial than a care home.

This kind of thinking is still rare in the UK and architects might be the people to promote it. At its most involved, intergenerational living can involve older and younger people living under the same roof, rather than simply the same building: the young get subsidised housing, the old a reprieve from the care home. This is increasingly popular in Germany, which faces a similar demographic crisis – might it have a future here? •

Will Wiles is a journalist and author. Read him here every other month and at ribaj.com


QUESTIONABLE MODEL

Any architectural solution to the problem of social care is bound to be better than the nightmarish nursing home described in Adam Biles’ recent novel Feeding Time (which I had the pleasure of ‘blurbing’). This pitch-black comic novel also includes one of the best (only?) descriptions of a maquette in literature, an architectural model of the home commissioned by its manager, the wretched Mr Cornish, as a kind of talisman against the decay of the real building and its unfortunate inmates: ‘… nothing spoke more about the success of an institution, nothing showed more panache, than a model of its building in the lobby. It seemed unimportant that most similar models would have been constructed before the buildings themselves …’