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From Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia to Malaysia’s Honeycomb Housing

by Mazlin Ghazali, admin@tessellar.com

Abstract
Frank Lloyd Wright invented the quadruple house-type, produced innovative plats with
clusters of circular residential plots, and is well known for his hexagonal houses. They
were all strands of ideas he developed in his Usonian houses. This article outlines this
work and follows through with the development of the quadruple concept in Malaysia,
and how combined with the two other strands of Wright’s work leads to Honeycomb
Housing.

Introduction

In the years following the Depression, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a series of moderate
cost houses which he called Usonian Houses. These designs were practical
demonstrations of Broadacre City, Wright’s vision for the ideal city for the future – a
multicentered, lowdensity, autooriented suburbia. Measured by the number of years he
spent at it, Broadacre City was the chief work of Wright’s mature life. The architect
introduced his scheme for a decentralised city after the depression in 1932 in the book,
The Disappearing City, and revised and expanded the concept in The Living City in 1958.
This vision stands out in contrast to that of the other leading architect of the modern
movement, Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse. In this article we pick out three strands of his
work: the quadruple house, the clustered plats of his Usonian sub-divisions, and his use
of the hexagonal grid. We will show how these strands were further developed by other
architects elsewhere in the world, and conclude by describing how they come together in
our present work in Malaysia, which we call Honeycomb Housing.

The Quadruple House


One of the least appreciated of Wright’s work is the Quadruple House at Ardmore,
Pennsylvania designed in 1939, but based on an idea dating back to 19021. Here four
housing units are attached by a cross-wall, and accessed by separate driveways at right
angles to each other, such that from each elavation you could see only the entrance to
one house (Figures 1-2).
Figure 1 Quadruple House in Ardmore, Pennsylvania
Site Plan and Entrance View

Figure 2 Floor Plans of one Quadrant of Quadruple House at Ardmore

Frank Lloyd Wright is known mainly for the houses he designed for the rich, but here is
a design suitable for the lower income group. The cross party walls that divide each block
into four units are shared thereby reducing the cost of each unit. Typical single family
homes on ½ acre lots could provide a density of 8-10 persons per acre. Here was a new
house type that could triple that. Wright produced this design to be a prototype for mass
housing that does not sacrifice what Americans were used to! Wright wrote ‘in this
scheme standardisation is no barrier to the quality of infinite variety to be observed in
Nature. No entrance to any dwelling in the group is beside any other entrance to another
dwelling. So far as the individual can know, the entire group is his home. He is entirely
unaware of the activities of his neighbours. There are no looking from front windows to
backyards….Playgrounds for the children (on) sundecks, are here independent roof
gardens placed where the mother… has direct supervision over hers’ 2. However, in 1942
an ambitious design for a mass housing project for 100 units of quadruple homes for the
U.S. government in Pittsfield, Massachusetts went awry. Architects in the state lobbied
the government insisting that the job be given to a local architect. The government
relented,and dismissed Wright. The government offered to buy the plans from him. This
would have allowed the designs to be built. However Wright would have none of this,
and he never returned to designing quadruple homes.

America so thoroughly forgot about this novel building type that in 1990, the U.S. Patent
and Trademark Office remarkablygranted a patent to a Richard Mitchell for a building
form that is basically the quadruple idea3.

However, halfway around the world, in Malaysia, the quadruple form has been around
since 1976. In that year was completed 676 units of low-cost two storey houses in Kuala
Lumpur (Figure 3). Here clusters of four units joined together at cross walls also link to
neighbouring units by a link at first floor, creating rows of terraces, with footpaths below
the links. They were designed by Tay Kheng Soon (now a scion of the Singaporean
architectural fraternity), and was an experiment in high-density low-rise housing forms.
The housing layout was influenced by the studies of Lionel March and Leslie Martin and
others at the Land Use and Built Form studies in Cambridge, UK, published in the book
“Urban Space and Structures” in 19724.

Although, this project was considered a success - it was completed within budget, and set
off Tay Kheng Soon on an illustrious career - the building type did not immediately
become popular. Certainly, it did nothing to displace the terrace house as the most
common housetype. Perhaps, the design was just too radical. Whereas the standard
terrace house could have a car porch in the front yard Tay’s houses were accessed via
footpaths; the car had to be parked at the road surrounding the scheme. The lack of an
access road to each unit also meant that the houses could not qualify for land titles. They
were categorised as subdivided buildings, and therefore could only receive “strata-titles”
like those of apartments. From the point of view of investment, this was a negative.
Figure 3 Low Cost Houses, Cheras, Site Plan

Still the building-type evolved to much simpler but looser and more popular
arrangements. On the campus of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia in Johor built in the
1980s, are rather grand buildings designed to express a nationalistic architecture.
However, at Desa Bakti, hidden away in a corner of the campus are a group of humble
quadruple blocks for the lower ranking staff. The blosks stand aloof like those at
Ardmore. but access is, like those at Cheras, generally from footpaths (Figure 4).
Figure 4 Desa Bakti

In Section 17, Shah Alam, Selangor, are low-cost quadruple houses built by the State
Economic Development Corporation of Selangor at about the same time as those in Johor.
Here the houses are all accessible by car (Figure 5). These houses are all owner occupied
and most of the houses have been renovated. One could say that the houses as originally
designed and built could not fully meet the owners’ requirements, but I believe that it
shows that the housing programme was successful - the low-income house buyers had
done well and could afford to upgrade their homes.

It was unfortunate that the quadruple form was first used for low –cost housing. In
Malaysia these houses were called cluster houses and the association with the low-cost
image lingered long after the 70s; only in the 90’s did developers start to use the
quadruple building type for medium cost housing.
Figure 5 Low Cost Houses, Shah Alam

The Cluster Layout


Another strand in Wright’s Usonian idea is the clustered layout of circular residential lots.
In 1947 Wright designed the plat for two cooperative communities near Kalamazoo in
Michigan. The plan for both sites, at Parkwyn Village (Figure 6) and Galesburg County
Homes (Figure 7), proposed a layout of serpentine roads meandering about the contours
and servicing servicing circular 1-acre lots. Similarly, in the same year Wright also
designed Usonia Homes, another cooperative venture, in Pleasantville, New York, on 97
acres of virgin forest land (Figure 8). In Parkwyn the lots were lined up along the roads
and circular shapes overlapped each other to form, sometimes, wholly circular shapes,
but at others, only partially circular. But the lots at Galesburg and Pleasantville were
rigidly circular. The the lots touched only at their perimeters; open space between them
was maintained as community land. The acre lots form clusters with the roads snaking
along the contours, not simply strung out along the linear curves of the roads. The effect
is of a plat which departs from the linear form which absolutely dominates physical
planning towns. Even now, the standard housing layout pattern is largely linear and is
based on the orthogonal grid, whether in the form of the plain functional grid, with a neo-
baroque overlay of radial streets or distorted with picturesque, curving roads.

Figure 6 Plat of Parkwyn Village Figure 7 Plat of Galesburg

Figure 8 Plat of Pleasantville

The concept of community land must surely have been unconventional during in the U.S.
in the 1940’s, something that only cooperatives (just as uncommon) would contemplate.
This was a concept that would not get mainstream acceptance. The cooperative ventures
faced difficulties in the post-war years ‘ …. No bank would touch a cooperative because,
they said (a) the group might break up and the community assets would be dissipated;
(b)because there was no racial or religious discriminationin the project which some of
the banks regarded as detrimental to real estate values; (c) because the houses were of
modern design and had no re-sale value.’5
Indeed, hardly anyone followed up on Wright’s attempt to invent a new non-linear form
of layout design. This particular work was seen as a creative expression rather than a
technical innovation. I have since come across an air photograph of a suburban
development near Copenhagen where house lots are clustered in circular groups. Each
circle ic cut up like a pie, with wedge shaped lots facing a round inner road (Figure 9
from Yann-Arthus Bertrand, 366 days Above the Earth, Paris,2002). This photograph of a
non-linear plan looks interesting, but sadly unique, more than half a century after the
cooperatives layout.

Figure 9 Cluster layout at Brondby, near Copenhagen

Honeycomb Housing
For a long time, we have been promoting the quadruple housetype, following those at
Shah Alam, as a better aesthetic alternative to the barrack-like terrace house, but without
much success. There were two reasons for this:

• The quadruple house has two party walls to each unit, but generally the length of
the party wall in the equivalent terrace house is longer. Therefore, the
construction cost for the terrace house is lower than that of the quadruple house

• The quadruple house layout cannot fit in as many units for each acre of land as the
terrace house layout. Given the regulatory setback requirements, the terrace house
requires a smaller lot area than the quadruple house.

The higher construction cost and lower density of the quadruple compared with the
terrace were two drawbacks that made the terrace house form more attractive for
developers.

Another idea I was working on was the laying out of apartments not in rows, but in
clusters that fit in together efficiently together in a hexagonal grid (figure 10).
Approaching the solution by intuition and trial and error, we were able to show that it
was possible to equal the densities achievable by lining up rectangular blocks of
apartments in military fashion.
Figure 10 Apartments on hexagonal and pentagonal grid

But after some years, these two ideas converged into a neat synthesis: instead of laying
out the quadruple houses in rows, we arranged them around a central space that served as
a kind of common courtyard. By “clustering the cluster houses” we were able to generate
a novel form of layout. The quadruple houses front separate courtyards, and the cluster of
homes could be repeated in an interlocking geometry that is based on a hexagonal grid
and which resembled a honeycomb (Figures 11-12). In this layout, houses are arranged in
small cul-de-sacs, encouraging the formation of groups neighbourhood communities,
discouraging through traffic and speeding, and making the neighboorhood safer against
crime. In addition communal green spaces are placed where they are most wanted, in
front of every house, the focal point in each courtyard, accessible to the very young, the
old and the disabled; the green spaces are small but are capable of being planted with big
shady trees making the external urban tropical micro-climate less hot.6
Figure 11 Courtyard neighbourhoods in interlocking hexagonal

Figure 12 Honeycomb Housing Plat in Kuching, Sarawak


The critical difference between a layout based on the hexagonal grid compared to
Wright’s layout based on the circular road is that hexagons interlock each other each
perfectly; laying out circles as tightly as possible always result in either gaps or overlap.
In mathematical terms one would say that regular hexagons tessellate but circles by
themselves do not. This is one key reason for the efficiency of the honeycomb layout. In
this way, a plat more complex, functional and interesting than rows of houses is achieved
without sacrificing land-use efficiency.

Using the quadruple house on this honeycomb grid overcame the two earlier drawbacks.
The honeycomb quadruplex has both long back-to-back and side-to-side party walls,
much longer than the equivalent terrace house. And even better, the density is higher than
that of the equivalent the terrace house layout. But is the hexagonal and trapezoidal shape
of the residential lot and the house practical?

Hexagonal plans
Here again, one can look back to Frank Lloyd Wright and his Usonian homeplans. Many
of his houses were designed on a hexagonal grid. An example of his honeycomb house is
the Bazett House in Hillsborough, California (Figure 12).. called Honeycomb House
Wright frequently described the hexagon as being more natural movement than the
square and in his many hexagonal builings, he demonstrated the naturalness of 120o
angle for human use ‘As an experience the (Hanna House) has an inevitability and ease
and entering the forecourt is like encountering a warm embrace’7
Figure 13 Bazett House in Hillsborough, California

Certainly, the right angle is not ubiquitous because the anatomy of human beings is
rectangular, but because it was easier to measure and build with the right angle. The
laying out of rectangular plot of land, construction methods using the post and beam, the
use of bricks and tiles, all pushed human civilisation to adopt predominantly rectangular
shapes in planning and architecture. Yet in the realm of nature, it is hard to find the
orthogonal grid. Look at the molecular set up of inorganic matter and we see that it is
triangular and hexagonal structures that predominate. Look at plants and the pentagon is
common. Nature, it seems, does not favour the rectangular pattern.

Conclusion
For Malaysia, using the honeycomb layout can solve many of the problems associated
with the external environment of the ubiquitous tightly packed terrace house, which are
the negative side effects of the increasing centralisation of the population in the cities: the
lack of a sense of community, the lack of safety outside the home, especially for children,
the lost of a connection with the natural environment, things that were taken for granted
when the population was mainly rural and the cities much smaller.

In the U.S., the problem is that of the suburban spraw: it is a problem of abundance, of
seemingly having endless acres to develop, of owning too many cars, where the typical
home is 1770 square feet single-family house with the spacious front lawn and8. The
Smart Growth movement seeks to increase the density of housing development to
overcome the negative side effects of decentralisation. If higher densities is required, then
this is what the quadruple house has to offer. Clustered in the form of the honeycomb,
land is used even more efficiently while promoting small neighbourhood communities. Is
it possible that the quadruple house will make a comeback in America, more than a
century after her greatest architect first invented it?

2165 words

References
1 John Sergeant Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses: Designs for Moderate Cost
One Family Homes 1976,Watson-Guptil Publications, New York
2 Frank Lloyd Wright The Architectural Forum January 1948, quoted in
John Sergeant Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses: Designs for Moderate Cost
One Family Homes 1976,Watson-Guptil Publications, New York
3 Patent: 4,920,711 May 1, 1990; www.uspto.com
4 Robert Powell and Akitek Tenggara Line, Edge and Shade, the Search for a
Design Language in Tropical Asia 1997 Page One Publishing, Singapore
5 Priscilla Henken Town and Country Planning , June 1954 pp 294-300
quoted in John Sergeant Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses: Designs for
Moderate Cost One Family Homes 1976,Watson-Guptil Publications, New York
6 Mazlin Ghazali, Michael Durack, Mohd. Peter Davis Honeycomb Housing and
Tessellation Planning Proceedings of the National Conference on Affordable
Quality Housing, Miri, Sarawak 2004
7 John Sergeant Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses: Designs for Moderate Cost
One Family Homes 1976,Watson-Guptil Publications, New York, page 32
8 Housing 2004 National Association of Home Builders; www.nahb.com

List of Illustrations
Figure 1 Quadruple House, Ardmore,Site Plan
Figure 2 Floor Plans
Figure 3 Low Cost Houses, Cheras, Site Plan
Figure 4 University Staff Housing, Desa Bakti
Figure 5 Low Cost Houses, Shah Alam
Figure 6 Plat of Parwyn Village
Figure 7 Plat of Galesburg Homes
Figure 8 Plat of Pleasantville
Figure 9 Housing at Brondby, near Copenhagen
Figure 10 Students Apartments at Berjuntai Bistari, Selangor
Figure 11 Courtyard neighbourhoods in interlocking hexagonal pattern
Figure 12 Honeycomb Housing Plat in Kuching, Sarawak
Figure 13 Bazett House in Hillsborough, California