Usonian architecture embodies an architectural philosophy developed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s that seeks to provide families with affordable housing based on modern principles. With his single-story houses, the architect addressed primarily the American middle class, which have suffered extensively from the Great Depression in 1936, as commissions for his by then usual customers fell short.
The origin of the term “Usonia” lies in the term Usona, the acronym of “United States of North America”, and can be traced back to the American writer James Duff Law. The term was intended to describe an architectural style that was tailored to the United States’ society. Like the adjective “American”, it was intended to define the North American society: a way of life that existed in harmony with nature and free from previously prevailing conventions.
Wright first proposed this model of society with his urban concept “Broadacre City”. Based on a self-sufficient and mobile society that exists in a decentralised manner in a suburban landscape, Wright proposes to provide each American family with an acre of land (4000m2). This should be the foundation for a federal, individual, holistically value-conscious society that lives outside of the stressful city.
Usonian Architecture became known less for urban planning and more for the 536 family houses built in this style. The following five example buildings outline the features of the Usonian architectural style.
1. Jacobs I-House
The first Usonian house has many of the typical features, the first being its name. Wright named the buildings after their intended occupants, in this case, the Jacobs Family. The design includes three types of walls, positioned according to material and function: wooden room-dividing storage units, open glass walls and brick walls.
The targeted layout of these wall types defines different zones of living in the open floor plan. The usually L-shaped layout divided the public and private functions into separate wings. It also created multiple possible exits to the respective outer space, highlighting the importance of the connectivity of the interior and the exterior.
2. Weltzheimer-Johnson House
The possibility mentioned above of an all-round exit is only possible because all Usonian houses are single storey houses sitting on a single concrete slab. Underneath the load bearing slab lies the radiant heating system. Wright tried to incorporate the utility costs of the living space as efficiently as possible, so he resorted to radiant heating, also called “gravity heat”. This principle’s efficiency is ensured by the relatively small size of the respective houses, which are 1000-3000 m2 in size, following the principle of Broadacre city.
Furthermore, as a space-enclosing feature, Usonian architecture included a flat roof that also permanently houses a carport due to an overhang. The Weltzheimer-Johnson house’s design further contains the features already mentioned, such as the built-in furniture, the use of native material, the glass fronts, and the horizontal extension of the floor plan.
3. Zimmerman House
While the last example described the horizontality of the designs, the Zimmermann House design shows how Wright effectively defines spaces with verticality’s targeted use. In contrast to the typical Usonian design, he succeeds in doing this with a pitched roof, probably at the customer’s request. Both in the sense of varying room heights and by changing the canopies’ positions and heights, different zones of varying value are created.
Simultaneously, it is evident that the cantilevered roofs also serve to ensure a regulated indoor climate, even though some façades are entirely glazed and thus exposed to the sun.
4. Pope-Leighey House
The Pope-Leighey House is an example of the architect’s attention to organic architecture. The cantilevered overhangs of the flat roof create two merits: on the one hand, the architect zones additional covered outdoor space and, on the other, the façade is shaded, thus enabling passive cooling. In addition, the full-surface concrete slab floor construction enables a natural balancing of the indoor climate through its connection to the ground.
Finally, the architect implemented light bands above eye level, which, on the one hand, create the desired interplay between architecture and nature through their play of light. On the other hand, the elevated position serves as an outlet for heated air. In combination with the concrete slabs, the windows create a climatic cycle that can be considered a pioneer for green technology.
5. Rosenbaum House
In order to save costs in the construction process on the one hand and to strengthen the emotional connection of the residents with the architecture, on the other hand, the architect proposed a simple layout that should result in a self-executable construction.
For this reason, the layout of the floorplan according to a grid, which is typical of modernism, can be recognised in every design. This so-called “American System-Built House” was introduced; an architecture based on prefabrication, simplicity in terms of design and efficiency in terms of materials and construction – but it was never executed in this way. The construction of the respective designs was always carried out by trained personnel at the client’s request, which resulted in the planned, cost-effective framework always being exceeded.
In summary, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian style proposes a sense of well-being for the owners based on proximity to nature in contrast to the urban city. He implements this through targeted native and simplistic materials, the single-storey nature of the residential buildings and intelligent, constructive additions that ensure an optimal indoor climate.