Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Disappearing City?

The President-elect enters an SUV after a campaign stop. AP photo / Jae C. Hong

Bruce Fisher's thoughtful article in last week's Artvoice (The President for Cities, cover story for v7n45) invoked for me some of Frank Lloyd Wright's late-career visions for urban planning, and inspired speculation about how successful - and sustainable - they might have been if implemented.

Fisher offers an erudite discussion that weaves together the potential of the American Presidency (a sort of "memo to President-elect Obama"), Urban planning (or lack of planning, as the case may be), energy policy (and independence) and suburban sprawl. Wright's radical re-visioning of the built environment of America - the Broadacre City model debuted in the mid-30s and widely exhibited and published for years after - was dependent on personal automobile ownership as the primary means of traversing the decentralized, "disappearing city." Wright's love affair with the car was sparked by his first roadster that terrorized sleepy Oak Park circa 1905, and reinforced by the annual automobile pilgrimage of the Taliesin Fellowship, from Spring Green to Scottsdale (and back again).

Wright's 1929 Cord L29 Phaeton

As Wright observed of his beloved 1929 Cord Phaeton: 'it looked becoming to the houses I design!' Designs in concert with the products of Detroit (which at the moment seem to be stalling...again) wend their way through Wright's later work: Usonian house carports, filling stations, elegant bridges for San Francisco and Pittsburgh, spiral parking ramps (the Kaufmann Garage project) and destinations for the Sunday drive (Automobile Objective for Sugarloaf Mountain, Maryland). In Wright's vision, we would all be driving streamlined cars (in Cherokee red, of course) between integrated spheres of work, play and education.

But did Wright consider long-term issues of fuel supply (mini atomic reactors, like those proposed to power the elevators in the "Mile High" skysc
raper?) or emissions that would eventually change the climate and consequently the American landscape that he held so dear? If implemented on a large scale, would Wright's Broadacre City have brought each of us closer to the office, the market and the theater? Would it have reduced our carbon footprint and headed-off various wars in the Middle East?

No one can fault Wright for not foreseeing the "end of oil," but one has to wonder how fossil fuel-driven transportation across seemingly endless ribbons of concrete figured into his fundamental concepts of organicism and designing in harmony with nature.

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