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Frank Lloyd Wright Paved the Way for Bad Silicon Valley Housing Ideas

Company towns and suburbanization mean inequality in the real estate market.

Jessica Jacolbe

Frank Lloyd Wright and Taliesin Fellows, Broadacre City model, 1935. Image: The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine

Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

Silicon Valley is going through an obvious housing crisis. The number of jobs being created annually in California’s tech hub exceeds the number of homes being built in the area, according to the Silicon Valley Competitiveness and Innovation Project, a joint venture between local organizations. Citylab reports that the average rent is now 227 percent higher than the national average.

Silicon Valley’s big tech companies have tried to transform themselves into seemingly generous property developers: Alphabet invested $30 million into housing for employees. It partnered with LinkedIn to take over the North Bayshore neighborhood, complete with police stations and college scholarships, where an employee with a salary of $74,000 just qualifies. Y Combinator is looking to build its own city. Facebook announced plans to invest in Menlo Park by creating its “Willow Campus” of 1,500 housing units. Amazon took over Seattle and is already looking for its next victim. But their initiatives skew the market, whittle away public land, and leave out entire communities.

The concept of companies investing in land for employees isn’t new. In the mid-20th century, corporations started building communities for employees, and populations in urban areas began increasing through absorption of neighboring cities. This led revolutionary architects like Frank Lloyd Wright to challenge how we live. Wright, perhaps best known for natural architecture projects like Fallingwater suggested a modern alternative to public housing called Broadacre City in 1932. Sketches of the planned city are now on view at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach at Columbia University in an exhibit called, “Living in America: Frank Lloyd Wright, Harlem, & Modern Housing.”

First publicized in 1935, Broadacre City was a precursor to what is happening today in Silicon Valley, and the “company towns” set up by Facebook and Google are echoes of Wright’s commuter town utopia. But these kind of forced communities, since their establishment, have proven to be deeply flawed: from perpetuating racial and class inequality and dominating carbon emissions due to population density and cars. And tech companies that privatize development instead of investing in public infrastructure are similarly complicit. The industry’s housing plans have created traffic problems and spurred the loss of local businesses, especially for citizens of this California region.

Roy E. Petersen, Section B, Broadacre City model, Taliesin, 1935. Image: The Frank Lloyd

Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine
Arts Library, Columbia University, New York

“I think fundamental to any housing crisis is some kind of a foundation that asserts and accepts housing as a right,” Jacob R. Moore, Assistant Director of the Temple Hoyne Buell Center at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, told me over the phone. “The company town was run by a company so it was an entirely private venture. Cities were the enemy for Frank Lloyd Wright and a lot of ‘enlightened people’ at the time.”

Without proper planning, or taking different populations into account, the kind of economic growth provided by tech companies can harm the people who live around them. One recent study found a direct correlation wherein the more innovation and patents that came from a city, the more income inequality increased over time. Cities have also created a hub of innovative networks that drive up prices of housing and eliminate people who can no longer afford to live there.

"Cities were the enemy for Frank Lloyd Wright and a lot of ‘enlightened people’ at the time."

Public housing, advocates say, would benefit a community that has been displaced by the growing number of tech companies, particularly those of people of color. Since 2000, there has been a declining number of working-class Latino households in the Mission District of San Francisco. In a poll by the Bay Area Council, 40 percent of residents would be leaving the region in the next few years due to the cost of housing.

The exhibit at the Wallach Gallery at Columbia University juxtaposes Wright’s plans for single-family houses in 1935 with the simultaneous construction of the public and subsidized housing in Harlem in 1936. The Harlem River Houses project, funded by the New Deal, was the first government-funded housing project in New York City and just one government development built during the Great Depression. These projects have allowed low- and middle-income families to remain in Harlem despite increasing gentrification and housing market fluctuations.

Schell Lewis, perspective drawing of the Harlem River Houses, 1935. Image: Horace Ginsbern

Papers, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York

With Canada bringing in Airbnb to help alleviate its own housing crisis, what's happening in Silicon Valley is only poised to continue. It signals a familiar issue with countries and cities coming up with ill-fitting solutions. Meanwhile, Moore said architects, urban planners, and policy makers must continue to consider the issues of race, gender, and class when it comes to building a diverse and accessible city. “Like any number of exacerbating inequalities, along all those different lines, architecture and housing plays a big role in producing and reproducing society’s ills today.”

If the government still cannot comprehend the gravity of the housing shortage, then businesses will keep feeding off the land and building Broadacre City-type models until few people can afford a place to live.

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