Usonia – It’s Great!

October 9, 2007

The Usonian House for Wright was a “building system, adaptable to each client with whatever modifications he might need regarding space and site conditions.â€? They were built on a standardized 2×4 foot or 4×4 foot grid to allow for simpler dimensions (and also to aid the illusive sense of unity). Wright created a “standard detail sheetâ€? to deal with common elements such as the window details, the board-and-batten walls and masonry elements.
Those original Usonian houses seem lavish in their details to contemporary eyes but they were rendered 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 tried to offset this problem with his so-called “Usonian Automatic.� This iteration was structured out of custom made concrete blocks in single or double layers which was mean to significantly simplify construction. The owner would then theoretically be able to participate in the construction of their own home.
Typical Usonian features were in-floor heat, built in furniture. Garages were replaced with car ports because, unlike the horses which preceded them, automobiles did not really need protection from the elements. The exterior form was simplified with flat roves and pre-manufactured window elements. 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.� Trim was therefore extraneous. He also deplored most conventional decorative elements, believing that the house itself could be its own ornament. “Furniture, pictures and bric-a-brac [are] unnecessary because walls can be made to include them or be them.�
The plans were simple L-shapes with one arm for public spaces and the other for bedrooms. The bathroom and “workspace�, in other words 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 facades to coordinate with them afterwards. This allowed him to use a much more fluid arrangement of space than was dictated by previous design strategies.
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. He did still take care in most plans to position it out of view of the dining area so that formal pretensions could be preserved during a dinner party if that was desirable.

The house Wright designed for Herbert and Susan Jacobs was the first official Usonian project and it 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. While Usonian houses were simplified and streamlined they not devoid of certain essential generous elements. Every Wright home had a fireplace, “the masonry core,� which provided both physical and psychological warmth to his central spaces. 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.
Wright asked the Jacobs family, “Would you really be interested in a $5000 house? Most people want a $10,000 house for $5000.� 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 that is so popular right now there is no discussion of getting less value for the money.
Despite all the talk of affordability, even the Usonian houses did not always come in under or on budget. The Pope-Leighey House in Virginia is an example. The client, journalist Loren Pope, told Wright that his family could manage not much more than fifty five hundred out of their income ($3000 annually). Despite a budget-induced redesign, the house finally came to $7000. While economical, the Usonian houses were still for the middle class who could manage to pay more than they could really afford for that they really wanted.
Most of Wright’s Usonian clients were middle class professionals, “teachers and journalists.� He was never designing for the working class, let alone the working poor, and after WWII his clientele was of a much higher income bracket. That certainly did not hinder his tendency to run over budget. The Zimmerman House in Manchester was estimated at $36,000 and finally built for over $50,000. This is a far cry from the five thousand dollar house that Wright had querulously complained no one really wanted in 1936. The price bump came from and increase in materials, scale and complexity as well as the rise in post war labor costs. The exterior of the Zimmerman house was all brick, the interior detailed wooden carpentry and the roof form was angled and fragmented. It had also grown in footprint to 17,000 square feet. The Zimmermans also replaced all the furniture from their previous house with Wright designs executed in Georgia Cypress. The house does still employ many off the Usonian ideas, however. The plan is an abbreviated L and it has the characteristic fully glazed terrace walls with fully articulated connection to the outdoors and the corner location of the fireplace/utility mass. It even has a carport.
Wright as an environmentalist: A client wrote to Wright to say that, due to the in-floor heating system he had used in place of the conventional radiators (Wright called it “gravity heat�) he had used 110 gallons of oil during the first February in the new house. This compared well with the 250 to 300 that they had typically used per month in the old house.


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