Matthew Skjonsberg

There Is No Wealth But Life
Architecture and Environmental Ethics
From the Charter of Athens to the Charter of Elements




The radically original point proposed by the author of this text is the need for a Charter of Elements on the model of the Charter of Athens, an outcome of the 1933 international congress and published in 1944 by Le Cobusier.
Soil, water, and air, in a word, all natural elements hold, like all human beings on earth, the right to exist and to be protected. The Charter of Elements plays this specific function, at least in a theoretical-cultural way.

This is even more necessary because, as pointed out in the essay, military, industrial, and financial interests still underpin a myopicone-sided commitment to urbanism.
To overcome this, we need to promote, once again, a rural-urban space made of a wealth of rural-urban interrelations. To do so, the author invites us to rediscover the work and writings of some figures of the past, in particular: Patrick Geddes, Frederick Law Olmsted, Piotr Kropotkin and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Patrick Geddes (and John and Evelyn Dewey), introduce us to nature study.
Piotr Kropotkin, and Frank Lloyd Wright with his vision of Broadacre City, push us toward overcoming the divisions between town and country. In principle, each of these protagonists agree that their shared agenda is to ‘ruralize the urban, and urbanize the rural’, as Ildefons Cerdá wrote in 1867 when he coined the terms ‘urbanization’ and ‘ruralization'.
As for Frederick Law Olmsted, the close link between natural surroundings (parks and gardens) and human health, brings him to invent the concept and the practice of “park system” that would connect rural and urban spaces.

The richness of the references makes this text a mine of information, to be further explored in order to build up a vision and a reality of rural-urban spaces and their multiple interrelations, radically different from the many congested, polluted and noisy metropolises of the present.

Source: Panos Mantziaras and Paola Viganò, eds., Racines Modernes de la Ville Contemporaine, MētisPresses, Genève, 2019



The historic La Sarraz Declaration (1928) made numerous claims and aspirational assertions regarding architectural pedagogy, practice and policy – among those claims whose merits stand out 90 years later is that “the essence [of urbanization] is of a functional order…[whose] essential objects are : (a) the division of soil, (b) the organization of traffic, and (c) legislation” (CIAM 1975: 110).

While there are elements of continuity in those concerns expressed by the authors of La Sarraz Declaration and contemporary issues, perhaps the greatest apparent difference derives from the very different environmental inclinations that exist in the Anthropocene.

So the purpose of this essay is to focus on an issue that was not really on the minds of the La Sarraz authors. The issue is climate change mitigation.
Historically, environmental ethics were predicated on a certain casual anthropocentrism – characterized by environmental historian Roger Kennedy as “the theology of dominance” – in which nature was regarded as “belonging of right to mankind” (KENNEDY 2011).

Our contemporary ambitions are informed by the distinction made in a 1992 amendment to the Swiss Constitution stating that the purpose of the constitution is to “ensure the dignity of living beings”, and by the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology’s advocacy of this in their official 2008 report, The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants: Moral Consideration of Plants for their Own Sake (LEACH SCULLY and BACHMANN 2008).

Highlighting change and continuity in the architectural discourse, the essay relates CIAM’s La Sarraz Declaration (1928) and the Charter of Athens (1944) on one hand, and the proto-ecological architectural discourse from John Ruskin’s Unto This Last (1860) and Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Living City (1959) on the other, arriving at contemporary efforts to create “The Charter of Elements” – extending rights to soil, water, and air themselves.


Urbanism and Ruralism

It is safe to say that there is a certain myopic enthusiasm for urbanization in our era, and that this has been carefully cultivated by a certain practical interest but also by a range of, generally speaking, military industrial and finance industry interests – MIT’s new Mastercard Center for Advanced Urbanism being an illustrative case in point. Even so, there are quite a few parallel interests between this discourse in urbanism, and another discourse related to ruralism that I would like to highlight with this essay.

To enter into these parallel discourses of urbanism and ruralism, we might begin with a common point of departure – acknowledging that the La Sarraz Declaration made a very valid start in this direction, explicitly listing “the division of soil” as the first of three major considerations to be addressed within the scope of urbanism, along with “the organization of traffic” and “legislation”. However, the document does not pick up again on the theme, neither does it refer again to soil. When The Charter of Athens (1944) is issued nearly two decades later, it makes several suggestive references to the subject, but these are likewise not clear, and even rather puzzling – such as a reference to “the protocol of nature”, for example (LE CORBUSIER 1973: XIX). There are also statements made about “green areas”, or other kinds of “nature”, but again these are of a very general nature (LE CORBUSIER 1973: 70-71).

In 2014, I was engaged to work on “The New Charter of Athens” with Richard Sennett, Saskia Sassen, Ricky Burdett and some others, and after familiarizing myself with the historic material, the working title I proposed for the “new” charter was “The Charter of Elements” – the idea being to bring the focus of these interests back to the ecological factors providing the basis for all human settlements, as for life itself : soil, water, air, and fire – here interpreted as technology and social structure.

By championing the rights of the elements themselves, the rights of all – rural and urban, even human and non-human – are best assured. The team regarded this proposal as being relevant to the basic premise of our research, which was to establish a counter position to the United Nations’ “New Urban Agenda” – but as Richard Sennett said, “I don’t know that this is the right crowd for that particular discourse”.

The title finally adopted for the published research was The Quito Papers and the New Urban Agenda – and this was quite fitting, as the material that appears in the book is pretty consistent with the contemporary discourse of urbanization that broadly takes on board – generally in an uncritical way – terms like “hinterlands”, where rural areas are regarded as of value primarily for exploitation by further urban interests, and even referring to rural inhabitants as “peasants” (SENNETT, SASSEN and BURDETT 2018). This is very clearly colonial terminology, and like historic colonists, many urbanists’ conception of rural inhabitants is limited to the idea that they want to be more like themselves – which is to say, “more urban”.


Protagonists of Ruralism

In this context – urbanism-as-the-new-colonialism – we might helpfully refer to the Greek etymology of the word “design”, coming from schedio, derived from eschein, past tense of the verbe eho (I have), referring to something you once had but no longer have (TERZIDIS 2007: 69-78). It is about making a sign to point to an existing condition, or relationship, that has been forgotten or neglected.

Design, according to the Greek, is more about memory than it is about invention. In recognizing existing but neglected relationships in this discourse we can identify any number of well-known parallel structural, formal, and even morphological interests between “urbanists” and “ruralists” – as illustrated, for example, by D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form (1992), Philip Steadman’s The Evolution of Designs : The Biological Analogy in Architecture and the Applied Arts (1979), or Dom Hans van der Laan’s more recent The Play of Forms: Nature, Culture and Liturgy (2005).

In contrast to this common ground, so as to get a clear idea of the counter position to urbanism established by the historic discourse of ruralism, we can identify three of its protagonists – Patrick Geddes, Frederick Law Olmsted and Frank Lloyd Wright – each of whow are quite well known in themselves, but whose relations have been little researched (see for example, SKJONSBERG 2018: 1, 373) [1]. In fact, their fields of relations, as revealed through their life-long advocacy of ruralism, expand through a wide array of individuals and parallel movements between pedagogy, practice, and policy (SKJONSBERG 2018: 1-8).

By using these other figures as lenses – for example, pedagogues Margarethe Schurtze, Jane Addams and Liberty Hyde Bailey – we find a group of people who identified themselves as ruralists and who might well be regarded by us as a “new school of nonlinear design”.

The term ruralism was coined by American horticulturalist Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858-1954), about whom historian Lewis Mumford – a protégé and close correspondent with both Geddes (NOVAK 1995) and Wright (WOJTOWICZ and PFIEFFER 2001) – had intended to write a biography, but never completed. Bailey’s book The Nature Study Idea, the first of a series he called the Rural Outlook Set, addresses issues of contemporary interest that are largely neglected by, when not at odds with, the contemporary paradigm of urbanism (HYDE BAILEY 1903). Likewise, Frederick Law Olmsted’s entire oeuvre is predicated on rural urban relations (LAW OLMSTED 1852 ; 1997: 79-111, 112-146), and Patrick Geddes’ early masterpiece Civics as Applied Sociology (1904) explicitly frames a “synoptic view” of rural and urban together (BARNETT and GEDDES 1979).


In Cities in Evolution (1915), Geddes includes just one diagram, illustrating the social and spatial potential to be found in rural urban relations (ill. 1) : on the left, the star-like form of the city radiates from a center at intersecting axes, and on the right, the reciprocal force of the country pushes back into the city, yielding an articulate, ruffled edge condition - where the qualities of rural and urban side by side were capitalized upon by elongating that edge of strong contrasts and defining it with civic structures, playgrounds and parks for nature study (GEDDES 1915).


Nature Study

This idea of nature study forms another common theme relating these figures. On the last page of Patrick Geddes’ final notebook, he writes the phrase in beautiful calligraphy, and follows this with “Growing Cons[ciouness] of Water”, and then lists the various kingdoms – “Rocks and Minerals, Vegetable K[ingdom], Animal, Human” (ill. 2). The page ends with the statement “Beauty : Good” – made somewhat enigmatic by the fact that he then crosses it out. Nevertheless, his sense of the importance of beauty is evidenced in his final book, a biology textbook simply titled Life, wherein he declaims in a manner altogether uncharacteristic of biology textbooks : “No one who studies Animate Nature can get past the fact of Beauty. It is as real in its own way as the force of gravity” (THOMSON and GEDDES 1931 : 35).


The pedagogical idea of nature study was also effectively advocated for by renowned sociologists and educational reformers John and Evelyn Dewey, who, in their book Schools of To-morrow (1915), effectively demonstrate the practical benefits of climbing trees as “an hour a day spent in the ‘gym’, and show “the gully is a favourite textbook” (DEWEY and DEWEY 1915: 30). “Real gardens for city nature study” are illustrated as a practical pedagogical method (DEWEY and DEWEY 1915: 97), and another poignant example is given, “Using the child’s dramatic instinct to teach history” – illustrated with a photograph taken on the terrace of Wright’s Coonley house, in the garden designed by noted Chicago Park System Superintendent landscape architect Jens Jensen, within the Riverside community designed by Olmsted and Vaux – evidencing the nature study pedagogical idea in landscape and architecture (DEWEY and DEWEY 1915: 128) (ill. 3 and 4).



Of course, Wright was also intimately involved with the idea of nature study, describing architecture itself as being “a profound nature study” (WRIGHT 1987: 28).
Frank Lloyd Wright’s first published statement on the application of these ideas to the city was The Art and Craft of the Machine (1901), prepared and delivered for a meeting of the Chicago Society of Arts and Crafts at Jane Addams’s Hull House – an institution with a broad reputation for its advocacy of social reform (see JOHNSON 2004). But Wright did not explicitly address rural urban relations in this essay, as he was evidently not really attuned to the issue until Piotr Kropotkin’s lecture on his book Fields Factories and Workshops (1898) to the same Society of Arts and Crafts, again at Hull House, about a month and a half after Wright’s lecture (AVRICH 1980: 27).
Kropotkin was explicitly concerned with rural urban relations, and was an early advocate of decentralization. Wright attended his lecture, and in later years credits Kropotkin’s influence on his rural urban vision for decentralization, Broadacre City (see for example, WRIGHT 1932: 561).

The first text in which Wright described his vision for rural urban relations was his 1930 lecture on “The City” at Princeton University (WRIGHT 1987). It is also here that he first used the term “ruralism”, writing : “Ruralism as distinguished from Urbanism is American, and truly Democratic” (WRIGHT 1987: 109).
Later that year, he lectured at the Art Institute of Chicago, again echoing his early Art and Craft of the Machine:

Decentralization not only of industry but of the city itself is desirable and imminent… The greatest service sentient man is to receive from the machine… will be the death of urbanism! Hectic urbanism will be submerged in natural ruralism. (WRIGHT 1992b: 90)

That he intends this as a polemic statement becomes eminently clear when he writes, in An Autobiography of 1932:

Ruralism as distinguished from “Urbanisme” for future machine-age development is the business of the modern architect. Truly democratic business. (WRIGHT 1992b: 345)

That he employs the French spelling in quotation marks suggests that Wright is formulating his own vision – based on his own rural experiences, as affirmed by Kropotkin – in direct opposition to Le Corbusier’s popularization of urbanisme. This appears to be confirmed by the fact that the term “Broadacre City” was first used by Wright in an article he contributed to the New York Times Magazine in March 1932 (LLOYD WRIGHT 1932), written in response to one that Le Corbusier had written for the same magazine just two and a half months earlier (LE CORBUSIER 1932). The editors described Wright’s text as presenting “a diametrically opposed program… which he sees as the logical development of the machine age” (WRIGHT 1932b: 8).

Wright was clearly motivated by Le Corbusier to clarify his own positions, and had, with certain qualifications, favourably reviewed the English translation of Vers une architecture [Towards a New Architecture] in the periodical World Unity in September of 1928 (WRIGHT 1992a: 317-318). Soon thereafter, Wright confronted Le Corbusier’s vision for The City of To-morrow, co-opting it and turning it on its head, describing his own “Broadacre City of tomorrow” in the explicit terms of a counterproposal (LEVINE 2015: 163). Rather than “tear down the city and try to bring the green country in only to build the city up again on its old site,” he proposed to “take the city to the country”. In 1934, the same year the meetings were held for The Charter of Athens, Broadacre City was launched as a pedagogical research project at Taliesin, Wright’s architectural school established on the campus he had designed for the Hillside Home School.

Founded in 1887 by his aunts Jane and Nell Lloyd-Jones – who together with their sister and Wright’s mother, Anna, were known locally as “the Lloyd-Jones sisters” – the school was famed for its high quality progressive education. John Dewey and his University of Chicago colleague William James participated at the school before establishing their own famed “Laboratory School” at the University of Chicago in 1894, and many of the key figures that would later join Roosevelt’s New Deal administration were also educated at the Hillside Home School (see for example, KASPAREK 2006: 111) (ill. 5).


The practical and philosophical basis for the program was repeatedly described by the aunts as “nature study” – the spirit of which is effectively illustrated by a series of photographs taken by Frank Lloyd Wright and assembled by him into a folio in 1900 (ill. 6).


The photographs illustrate various studies undertaken by Hillside students – sewing, mathematics, languages, chemistry, and cooking – all of which were framed by first-hand nature study. There was a great deal of continuity from this program to Wright’s Taliesin, founded in 1932 at the suggestion of his aunts after the Hillside School closed.

An important European parallel can be made here, as the Lloyd-Jones sisters had set up the school “to operate according to the principles of Emerson, Herbert Spencer, Froebel, and other exponents of the ‘new education’ [2]”. So this pedagogical legacy really comes from Pestalozzi – coming from the north of Italy, whose exiled family settled in Zurich – whose great protégé was Froebel, who invented the “kindergarten”.
And Froebel’s great protégé was Margarethe Schurtz, who established the first kindergarten in Britain in 1851, and the first kindergarten in the United States in Watertown, Wisconsin in 1855 – where there is evidence suggesting that the Lloyd-Jones sisters were among her first students (VANDEWALKER 1908: 12-36). I was recently speaking to this rather startling example of nonlinear continuity in the nature study paradigm with students, when one raised her hand and said, “Yes, you are talking about my great-great grandfather – my name is Maria Pestalozzi !” Here, with at least seven generations of Pestalozzi’s in Switzerland, we have a vivid illustration of the benefits of continuity of knowledge – a complete circuit of interdisciplinary interaction – highlighting the essentially intergenerational nature of this transdisciplinary tradition.


Reverence for Life

Just a year after Wright created the Hillside folios, he penned the landmark text The Art and Craft of the Machine, where he refers to John Ruskin (1819-1900) as “the great moralist” and as “a prophet”. The title of this essay, There is No Wealth But Life, is taken from Ruskin’s book Unto This Last (1860), where Ruskin himself elaborates his ambitions for just rural urban relations (RUSKIN 1860: 146). Wright is known to have had the book in his library, and Patrick Geddes directly quotes Ruskin when he writes :

… [for the biologist] just as for the physicist there is no wealth save in realised and conserved energies and materials : so for the evolutionary biologist, exactly as for Ruskin before him, “there is no Wealth but Life”. (GEDDES 1915: 110)

It is interesting to point out that Mahatma Gandhi’s great enthusiasm for Ruskin’s book prompted him to translate and publish a paraphrase of it in 1908 under the title Sarvodaya (Well Being of All). This translation is very similar to Albert Schweitzer’s phrase “reverence for life”, coined about 1910 on a boat trip on the Ogooué River in French Equatorial Africa, now Gabon, as he later wrote:

Ethics is nothing other than Reverence for Life. Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil. (SCHWEITZER 1923: 35)

Reverence for Life was the outcome of Schweitzer’s search for a “universal concept of ethics”, and the phrase was avidly taken up by Patrick Geddes, Frank Lloyd Wright and Lewis Mumford, among others cited here. It was later embraced by early proponents of the environmental movement, and Rachel Carson’s highly influential book Silent Spring (1962) was dedicated to Albert Schweitzer (CARSON 1962).

The sensibility of reverence for life was then finding powerful confirmation in advanced scientific research. For example, in 1923, Geddes wrote a biography of Sir Jagadis Bose, a biologist whose research demonstrated that stress-break curve graphs are the same for plant tissue, human tissue, and for metals – highlighting the fact that the distinction between living and nonliving is much more subtle and relative than we have been led to believe, much less certain (GEDDES 1920). This sentiment is elaborated in many of Bose’s publications – Response in Living and Non-living (1902), Plant Response : As a Means of Physiological Investigation (1906), and so on.

This research inspired renewed enthusiasm in the 1970s with the publication of the book The Secret Life of Plants, addressing sentience – or the possibility of sentience – in plants, and was amplified in popular culture when the film version was made, and Stevie Wonder performed the soundtrack (TOMPKINS and BIRD 1989).

The fundamental premise of reverence for life has since been confirmed in the work of cellular biologist Lynn Margulis, who demonstrated that the relationship between the mitochondria and the cell is symbiotic. Her last work, The Basic Unit of Life, was written for and published in a collection of architectural essays, The Politics of the Impure (MARGULIS and MULDER 2010: 282-303). Margulis’ work had been ridiculed for decades – along with her colleague James Lovelock, whose Gaia hypothesis was considered by many to be very far-fetched – but she had the satisfaction to have had her work acknowledged as a new paradigm shortly before her death. Margulis’ theory of serial endosymbiosis has since become widely accepted – as has the overall theory of the Gaia Hypothesis, evidenced by the current work of people like Bruno Latour who are taking on this Gaia paradigm in a deliberate way as a response to climate change (LATOUR 2017).

But we already have this basic attitude summarized in the discourse between sociologist Baker Brownell and architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who co-authored the book Architecture and Modern Life (1937) (ill. 7). Brownell was a close associate of John Dewey, and there is a tremendous correspondence between the two – Dewey even explicitly refers to reverence for life, stating, “I’m sure you’ll agree that these words of Schweitzer’s are of unusual wisdom” (DEWEY 1950). Architecture and Modern Life opens with an image of the famous Ming-era vase installed on the hill at Taliesin, and the way in which it is referenced illustrates the point of this essay.



Everything is Alive

In the closing chapter of the book, titled “Broadacre City : A Dialogue on the Nature of Structure in Architecture and in the Integral Life”, Brownell, the sociologist, is trying to get Wright, the architect, to explain how he designs – you will recall the etymology of the word – and one senses his frustration as Wright responds poetically, but he is trying to get a practical answer. So Brownell says :

Look, let us return to the Ming jar on your terrace. The structure of the designs in relief on its surface is not a process.
[And Wright reponds :]
But it is ! That feature proceeds from generals to particulars – it has definite motivation and the motivation eventuates into appropriate pattern.
[And Brownell argues :]
But the pattern, once we have it, isn’t getting us anywhere. It doesn’t do anything.
[Wright’s response is radical :]
It does. It is alive. It is a realized form expressing the purpose of the jar while it reinforces the walls. It is a rhythmic expression of this jar maker’s joy in his job.
(BROWNELL and WRIGHT 1937: 281-282)

There is something very profound about the immediacy with which Wright identifies this artifact as being alive – but if we are talking about the deep issue of climate, is it not a bit sentimental ? A compelling affirmation of the practicality of this sentiment is provided by early environmentalist, polymath and American diplomat George Perkins Marsh (1801-1882), who, in 1847, delivered a public lecture warning of human-induced climate change and the mismanagement of natural resources (MARSH 1847).

Marsh’s certainty was founded on his own research, and was further informed by his familiarity with Alexander von Humboldt’s observations in 1800 of harmful human-induced climate change in Venezuela [3]. In Marsh’s far-seeing book Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (1864) he asserted : “The influence of man in changing the climate… needs no argument to substantiate” (MARSH 1864 ; as cited in RAUCH 1869: 32).

This assertion was cited by Chicago Board of Health superintendent Dr. John Rauch (1828-1894) to frame his own arguments advocating for public parks in Public Parks : Their Effects upon the Moral, Physical and Sanitary Condition of the Inhabitants of Large Cities (1869). Rauch’s report on the beneficial moral and sanitary effects of public parks had been commissioned by the Chicago Academy of Sciences, and it served a timely purpose : in February 1869, shortly after the Academy had lobbied for public parks with the report, the State of Illinois passed legislation establishing the commissions to create Chicago’s park system (HOLT 1979: 178). Dr. Rauch was a specialist in cholera, and he knew very well Dr. John Snow’s work in London, identifying that cholera was a water-borne disease (SNOW 1855).

At that moment in history, the prototypical morphology of this alternative model of the city was anticipated by Olmsted and Vaux’s project for the Riverside community in Chicago (1868-1870) (ill. 8) – where you will recall Wright’s Coonley house terrace later served to illustrate the Deweys’ idea of the “school of tomorrow”.


Olmsted had coined the term “park system” about 1860, “while the Central Park was in its earlier stages of progress”, describing that a grandparent could take their grandchild by the hand in their neighbourhood park, and walk together to visit relatives in the countryside without leaving the park – a complete park system, as Olmsted envisioned it, would connect rural and urban “from the backyard to the wilderness” (OLMSTED 1997: 140).

The Riverside community plan operates at the neighbourhood scale, but in essence, this is a fractal kind of figure – also operating at the regional scale, where the “territorial figure” is derived from the region’s ecological armature. Such early initiatives coalesced into a complete, citywide park system for Chicago, the result of a collective, ongoing effort by many parties across generations. In fact, Olmsted and Vaux had also evidently developed citywide park system drawings but they were burned along with everything else in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Among other noteworthy contributions to remain unbuilt was Frank Lloyd Wright’s early park system for the Chicago City Club project (1913), which provides a good example of the kind of fractal thinking noted above.

Wright deploys precisely the same proportional system for the neighbourhood as is later deployed at the scale of Broadacre City – the same figure expressed both at the scale of the neighbourhood and region (SKJONSBERG 2014: 47-72) (ill. 9).


In the course of my research, I discovered another park system designed by Wright for his own community in the Lloyd Jones valley near Spring Green, Wisconsin – a previously unknown project that I argue is the best practical example we have yet of the Broadacre City idea (ill. 10).


It will take some time yet to develop the scholarship necessary for a proper understanding of this project – for the moment, it is sufficient to point out that in the decade after this park system project was proposed, Wright proceeded to voluntarily augment it with a sequence of civic designs, including Butterfly Bridges (1947), Taliesin Viaduct (1953), Taliesin Parkway (1956), Wyoming Valley Elementary School (1957), Spring Green Post Office (1957), Spring Green Medical Clinic (1958), Spring Green Community Center (1958), and Unity Temple for Taliesin Valley (1958) (SKJONSBERG 2018: 38-56).

We know that throughout his life, Wright repeatedly referred to his love for this valley, as he did when interviewed in 1953 and was asked to describe his home :

… the countryside is southern Wisconsin – low hills, protruding rock ledges, a wooded site… The site determined the features and character of the house… in winter the snow would sweep up over it and it looked like a hill itself, or one of the hills. It was built to belong to the region my grandfather came to, when the Indians are still there, about a hundred and twenty-five years ago. And the valley was called “The Valley”, lovingly – and it was a lovable place. “The Valley” was cleared by my grandfather and his sons, and Taliesin is an instance of the third generation going back to the soil, and really developing it, and trying to make something beautiful of it. [4]

Wright’s description of himself as the “third generation” is striking in this context, as he often spoke about Broadacre City as illustrating “four generations” of continuous inhabitation of the land. For example, in his 1940 essay The New Frontier : Broadacre City he writes:

… the ghastly heritage left by wars and overcrowding in overdone ultra-capitalistic centers would be likely to disappear in three or four generations. The old success ideals having no chance, new ideals, natural to the best in man would be given fresh opportunity to develop. Growth becoming the law of the land. (WRIGHT 1994a: 49)

Again, in the 1943 edition of An Autobiography, he states that “if we began… in earnest’” Broadacre City would appear in “three generations, at most” (LLOYD WRIGHT 1932: 251). In the same edition, he explicitly reveals his ambition for his ancestral valley to serve as a model of the scheme, writing of his disappointment at having to turn away so many applicants to his school:

Had I enough money to keep and feed them we could have filled the valley with hopeful young workers and might have started Broadacre City right then and there, ourselves. (WRIGHT 1932b: 152)

We know that Wright’s working title for his autobiography was “From Generation to Generation” (WRIGHT 1932b: 103), and that he said of the valley that it “was to be recreation ground for [his] children and their children perhaps for many generations more” (WRIGHT 1932b: 227).

The intergenerational nature of this newly discovered park system project is emphatically underlined by another previously unpublished project I discovered in the course of my research, the park system designed for Los Angeles in 1962-1963 by Wright’s son – Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. (1890-1978), known professionally as Lloyd Wright. It is a striking, hybrid design suggestively synthesizing Geddes’s valley section, Olmsted’s park systems, and Wright’s Broadacre City (ill. 11).


This regional park system illuminates another facet of the Wright family story that has not been known, again highlighting the intergenerational effort involved in the creation of these park systems (SKJONSBERG 2018: 362-398). This project’s relevance is further emphasized by the park system initiatives currently being undertaken for Los Angeles parks (ARNSPERGER and SKJONSBERG 2017: 53-74), which are based on contemporary interpretations of the park system designed for Los Angeles in 1930 by Frederick Law Olmsted’s sons – who had employed Lloyd Wright Jr. for years (SKJONSBERG 2018: 385, 394). Among all else, it is certainly relevant that Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. worked together on projects such as these. This community initiative adopted the territorial figure of one park circuit for a logo, showing how the design has continued to provide a vision for communities in Los Angeles, working to help one another to establish the park system over generations (ill. 12).




I believe these park system projects, weaving between rural and urban, are characteristic of the kind of projects that can benefit both – this is a regional vision, and participatory processes are fundamental. We are, in the end, a water–, soil–, air– and plant-dependent social species. In the polemic exchanges we have considered, Wright was prompted – like Olmsted and Geddes before him – to champion ruralism in response to what he perceived as the regrettable neglect of the things he loved. Le Corbusier’s urbanism had been met with popular support in the media, in academia and in the profession – so Wright’s formulation of ruralism was in that sense reactionary, and there were periods when the polemicism between these men was merely rhetoric in the contemporary sense – laden with bombast and hyperbole, even appealing to narrowly nationalist sentiment. But in retrospect we can recognize that Wright and Le Corbusier were effective polemicists on both sides of rural/urban and organic/mechanic debates when it suited their purpose (see for example, FERNÁNDEZ-GALIANO and CARIÑO 2000), and that they were at their best when they employed rhetoric in the classical Greek sense of employing artfully persuasive, effective speech. To that end, Wright’s observations of the failures of modernist’s urbanism are more relevant than ever:

We have tried to stem and hold in check the tides of life. Now, why go on with it ? Why not see that if pattern is to be made at all it must be free pattern, the one most suited to growth, the one most likely to encourage and concede growth to life ? (WRIGHT 1994b: 313)

In setting up our research programs advocating “The Charter of Elements” at EPFL’s new Habitat Research Center we have carefully considered how best to describe this kind of work – is it interdisciplinary, or pluridisciplinary, or multidisciplinary ? Having thought about it a lot, I suggest we maintain an ambition for transdisciplinarity, as it is the only one of these terms that explicitly involves local stakeholders in the discussion : the communities involved, human and non-human, are the greatest assets of any project.




[1] Among noteworthy references to the influence of Olmsted on Wright: JOHNSON 1991; LEVINE 2015).

[2] “Hillside Home School, Graduation Program for 1908”, Wisconsin State Historical Society, 1908.

[3] WULF 2015: 283-297. N. Wulf’s heroic biography dedicates individual chapters to Humboldt’s relationships with or influence on several key figures relevant to this discourse, including Goethe, Jefferson, Darwin, Thoreau, Haeckel, and Muir as well as Marsh.

[4] “A Conversation with Frank Lloyd Wright”, Wisdom Series, Chicago, NBC, 1953, 8: 02-9: 43.




ARNSPERGER, C., SKJONSBERG, M. (2019): “A Civic Hope : From Lausanne to Los Angeles”, in Mantziaras, P., Viganò, P. (eds), Urbanisme de l’espoir. Projeter des horizons d’attente, Geneva, MētisPresses, pp. 53-74.

AVRICH, P. (1980): “Kropotkin in America”, International Review of Social History, 25, nº1, p. 27.

BARNETT, C. ; GEDDES, P. (1979): The Ideal City; Civics: As Applied Sociology, Leicester, University Press.

BROWNELL, B., LLOYD WRIGHT, F. (1937): Architecture and Modern Life, New York, Harper & Brothers.

CARSON, R. (1962): Silent Spring, New York, Houghton Mifflin.

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