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 neobaroque 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; 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 8

John Sergeant Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses: Designs for Moderate Cost One Family Homes 1976,Watson-Guptil Publications, New York, page 32 Housing 2004 National Association of Home Builders;

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

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful