When Frank Lloyd Wright began practicing architecture at the turn of the 20th century, American suburbs were a pastiche of borrowed European architectural styles. But Wright had a vision; he wanted to create a style that was uniquely American, inspired by the landscape and free of associations with the old world. He called this unique style "Usonian", a play on "USA."
In 1936, the same year his Fallingwater landed him on the cover of Time magazine, Wright began work on a series of single-story, modestly sized residences that have come to be known as his Usonian homes. These designs reflected his desire to craft a uniquely American style, as well his interest in creating well-designed homes that the average American could afford. The clients for his earlier Prairie houses were very wealthy; in contrast, the clients for Wright's Usonian homes were distinctly middle class. In their design, Wright rejected the Victorian formality of his earlier houses; the Usonians had no formal living areas, a reflection of the more casual direction American home life was taking.
Other features common to the Usonian houses included the radiant heating systems pioneered by Wright, with pipes full of hot steam running through the foundation to heat the houses from the ground up. To save money on construction costs, the houses were laid out on a grid, which allowed for greater standardization of parts, and materials like brick, concrete, and wood were left unpainted. Many of the features of the Usonians, especially their open floor plans, connection with the outdoors, and strong horizontal lines, had a huge influence on the Ranch Houses that would soon spring up in every American suburb.
Today, many of Wright's Usonian houses are still inhabited by the families of their original owners. When they do come on the market, they tend to sell for millions of dollars. It's a far cry from Wright's original intentions of affordability, but also a testament to his design genius and the enduring beauty and simple comfort of the houses he built for the everyman.
Re-edited from a post originally published 7.27.11 - JL