“The home is a shelter, not a fortress.” That was the ethos behind the post-war Usonian community built amidst a heavily wooded site in Pleasantville, upstate New York, guided by the masterplan of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Shelters don’t need fences, only screens. Each home in this 50-strong subdivision had its own circular lot, shown above, the site’s natural ‘screens’ being the existing trees and landscape existing in the interstices in between the circular lots, which were shared and covenanted to the community.
This makes a very different place to live in than your traditional cut-felled-filled-and-fenced subdivision.
Reisley House, Image via Flickr
This simple arrangement enabled owners to enjoy the very thing that drew them to the site in the first place: the landscape itself, and the chance to live with it.
And the relaxed relationship with landscape and neighbours that was encouraged to develop became the community’s cement:
Usonia was initially established in 1947, and the project's original families have played a remarkably consistent role in the ongoing development of the community, with only 12 of the 50 houses changing hands during the first 40 years — six of those to younger family members. Its residents have reported an unusual degree of connectedness amongst neighbours, with doors left unlocked, children roaming from house to house, and former residents keeping in touch almost 70 years after their initial meeting.
Lerner House. Image via Flickr
Some of the main lessons to be learned from Usonia and Wright’s masterplan are summarised in this article at Architizer. Taking that article’s lead, I would characterise the lessons slightly differently however, among them being:
- Shared landscapes can work
Private lots living within a shared covenanted natural landscapes – with perhaps a body corporate structure for maintenance, pruning, planting and the like – gives protected, private spaces that can open benevolently to the beauty around them;
- Keep roads narrow and winding
”Usonia’s intentionally narrow roads privilege the human over the automobile, forcing cars to drive at slower speeds, and encouraging residents to walk through the woods to get to neighbours' homes. Smaller roads also leave a lot more room for the scenery, leaving more flora for absorbing water runoff, and making even a quick spin into a scenic drive.”
- Diminish boundaries
Square sections surrounded by fences create easily seen boundaries, and dead spaces in each section that neither neighbour enjoys. Wright designed lots as a series of circles within the greater landscape, blurring boundaries and making the effective visual boundaries of each lot almost as far as each eye could see, allowing lots to mould fluidly to the contours, and opening up what would normally be dead space at corners to become (quite literally) live space.
- Landscape is at least half the project
Owners move to a site like this to enjoy the landscape, so designing with it seems more than common sense. “Wright is, of course, renowned for his efforts at joining interior and exterior, bringing the landscape into the building. Usonia was no different, in that topography played a big role in the design. In his design of the Reisley House, for instance, Wright insisted that it be built on the side of the hill, rather than on top, so that its residents would experience the full benefit of living on a hill. Similarly, the narrow roads wind around the contours, while every house is designed with the view of the landscape as a primary concern.”
- Keep doors unlocked
”Once you get to know your neighbours, keep your doors unlocked. A posture of openness toward your surroundings increases the quality of life. The home is a shelter, not a fortress.”
- Enlist an architect with vision
One how can design your house to be in and of the site, instead of on top of it.
Perhaps it’s this last that’s truly missing at that site everyone’s talking about in Titirangi…
Friedman House. Image via Flickr
[Hat tip for images to Architizer]