July 20, 2017 | by Hans Baldauf, FAIA
We live in a period of extraordinary change. Architecture is called upon to absorb these changes on multiple levels while at the same time nurturing the essential truths of human existence. For this reason we are simultaneously called to think about the impact of driverless cars in our cities while meditating on the effect of light and shadow on the surface of a wall.
Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive, now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through October 1, delves into multiple projects in depth which show Wright’s genius in simultaneously confronting the challenges of change and grappling with essential truths.
One of these projects is the “Little Farms Unit” that Wright designed during the height of the depression in the early 1930s in conjunction with his client Walter F. Davidson, a friend and client Wright had met in Buffalo. Wright drew on his own architectural background at Taliesin and its ongoing operation where he made architectural “chores” part of the everyday life of the apprentices.
The exhibition notes that “instead of trying to compete with colossal grain and beef rearing operations of the Midwest, these Little Farms would grow food for their own consumption with some land set aside for cash crops under a local cooperative agreement. Each compact farm unit was to combine five elements: living quarters, garage parking station, stable and pens, and greenhouse with mushroom cellar.”
These farms, with the retail sales component, were Wright’s response to the evolution of the automobile as the primary mode of transportation. With the retail element of the farm, both farmer and city dweller shared in an exchange that was beneficial. For Wright it provided the citizen with a connection to the land that was a requirement for a democratic society.
Juliet Kinchin is the MoMA curator who assembled Little Farms Unit: Nature, Ecology and Community, and wrote the essay in the accompanying catalogue.
The Little Farms Unit is such a thoughtful response to a myriad of challenges, and seeing and reading about this project gave me yet more respect for Wright (I did not know this was possible). Wright’s prescience is shown in the degree to which small scale agriculture today is such an important part of the sustainable food movement, as well as its reliance on direct-to-consumer sales.
Below, Kinchin explains how farming was seen as both the root of complex problems in urbanization, but also possibly as the way forward during this dire moment in the American economy.