“You Can Own an American Home,” trumpeted a 1917 Chicago newspaper’s full-page advertisement for Frank Lloyd Wright’s new “System-Built Houses”-low-cost houses assembled from factory-produced elements. Customers requesting plans and brochures from the Richards Company would have received prints like these illustrating the many house models from which they could have chosen. Modeled on Japanese woodblock prints, the style of Wright’s lithographs evinces his life-long love of Japanese art. The high horizon line, the planar flatness of foreground and sky, the silhouetted foliage, and the red square (or “chop”) framed by the text-all suggest a studied japonisme. Most likely the originals were prepared by Antonin Raymond, Wright’s assistant on the contemporary Imperial Hotel project in Tokyo.
The System-Built Houses were Wright’s first experiment with mass production. Like many modern architects, he confronted both the benefits of the rationalized standardization associated with machine production and the desire for individual expression. “Individuality is a national ideal”, Wright proclaimed in 1910, and for him this ideal was symbolized by the American house. Thus he developed a system that allowed variety within an overall unity. Regardless of house size and plan, most of the details were “conventionalized”, a term Wright applied to a principle of abstracting form to its essentials. The houses were constructed of wood framing, floors, joists, rafters, roofs, and trim. To streamline the construction process, lumber was measured and precut in the Richards Company factory, then shipped to the site where it was to be assembled, thus saving the contractor and the customer time and money.
Wright liked to give his houses descriptive names, for example La Miniatura (pp. 62-63), but the System-Built Houses bear perfunctory labels, such as D101. There were dozens of models, ranging from one to three stories, and the isometric plans illustrate numerous room configurations as well as ideas on how to furnish them. The designs recall Wright’s earlier Prairie Houses, named for the landscape of his native Midwest. The characteristic low cantilevered roofs, the linear wood trim visually unifying the stucco wall planes, and the geometric decoration of the art-glass windows constitute a compelling modern alternative to the typical suburban bungalow. An untold number of System-Built Houses were built, mostly in the Midwest. In the following decades Wright continued to experiment with a range of materials and construction systems in an effort to reduce the expense of house building and to give industrialized methods character, expression, and personality.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Peter Reed, in Matilda McQuaid, ed., Envisioning Architecture: Drawings from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002, pp. 44-45.