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Title: Architecture for the Masses

Grade: 9-12

Subject: Social Studies

Estimated Time of Completion: 5-6 hours

I. Summary
II. Objectives, Standards, Prerequisites
III. Procedures
IV. Classroom Assessment
V. Extensions and Adaptations
VI. About the Author

I. Summary

In this lesson, students will learn about Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy of architecture and will relate this philosophy to a discussion of the role of democracy in art and architecture. They’ll tie these concepts into an analysis of the architecture in their community.

II. Objectives, Standards, and Prerequisites


  • Students will discuss the types of architecture and new construction in their community.
  • Students will view clips from the film concerning Wright’s architectural philosophy and his views of architecture’s role in a democratic society.
  • Students will view examples of Wright’s architecture on the PBS Web site and explain how these samples exemplify Wright’s architectural philosophy.
  • Students will gather more information and answer questions about the Usonian houses.
  • Students will discuss Wright’s idea of “architecture for the masses” and whether this was a democratic or an undemocratic belief.
  • Students will read two quotes from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, explain how Wright would have reacted, and describe how they personally react to these quotes.
  • Students will write articles pretending that they are architectural critics in their own communities and incorporating a discussion of architecture, art, and democracy, using ideas they have developed from previous parts of the lesson.

CIVICS STANDARDS from McREL standards at

  • Understands ideas about civic life, politics, and government
  • Understands the essential characteristics of limited and unlimited governments
  • Understands what is meant by “the public agenda,” how it is set, and how it is influenced by public opinion and the media


  • Understands and applies the basic principles of presenting an argument
  • Understands and applies basic principles of logic and reasoning
  • Effectively uses mental processes that are based on identifying similarities and differences (compares, contrasts, classifies)
  • Contributes to the overall effort of a group

SOCIAL STUDIES STANDARDS from the National Council for the Social Studies at

  • Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of people, places, and environments
  • Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of how people create and change structures of power, authority, and governance
  • Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic

GEOGRAPHY STANDARDS from the National Council on Geographic Education at

  • How culture and experience influence people’s perceptions of places and regions
  • The processes, patterns, and functions of human settlement


  • A copy of the Ken Burns PBS documentary, Frank Lloyd Wright, a television, and a VCR
  • Computers with Internet access
  • Pencil and paper

III. Procedures

  1. Ask students to discuss the types of architecture in their community. What does the older architecture look like? What does the newer architecture and construction look like, for both homes and businesses? Is there much diversity in architectural style, or does it all look about the same? Have them name their favorite buildings and explain why these are their favorites.
  2. Discuss regulations and restrictions on architecture and construction in your community or in general. Give students examples of regulations that might be imposed on building design and ask their opinions on these regulations. Why do local governments impose guidelines? Do students think this practice is fair? Is it democratic? Some examples of guidelines include allowing homes to be painted only certain colors, allowing only certain types of house plans to be used, or permitting only certain types of landscaping in front of houses.
  3. Tell the class that they’ll be viewing some clips from a documentary that describes the accomplishments and philosophies of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Explain that they’ll be returning to the consideration of their own community’s architecture after examining philosophies of architecture and democracy in more detail. Then show the following clips from the film:
    • Tape 1, 11:38—nature and Wright’s architecture
    • Tape 2, 11:27—modernist/International School, leading to a description of Wright’s own preferences
    • Tape 2, 25:48—Usonian houses and Wright’s philosophy of “architecture for the masses”
  4. Ask the class to explain what Wright’s primary architectural philosophy was. What purposes and functions did he believe houses and other structures should serve? What were his beliefs about the relationship between nature and architecture? How did the buildings he designed reflect this philosophy? What were his attitudes toward the community and the family? What were his attitudes concerning architecture for the common, as opposed to wealthy, people? Ask students to provide examples from the film, including specific homes and other buildings that the film shows. Write their responses on the board and allow them to take notes from the board and the discussion.
  5. Divide the class into small groups, and have groups take turns visiting the Locator section of the PBS Frank Lloyd Wright Web site to see examples of Wright’s architecture from around the world. Ask each group to locate five homes from a diverse set of geographic locations. Ask them to list each home that they view and, for each one, to state the ways in which this home illustrates Wright’s architectural philosophy. They should pay particular attention to the ways in which Wright made use of local materials and patterns of nature in each of the homes. Have groups write one or two sentences about each house and one paragraph about the houses as a whole.
  6. Have students remain at the PBS Frank Lloyd Wright Web site to gather more information about the Usonian homes and about Wright’s views on democracy. They will find some information about these homes in the Usonia section of Life and Work as well as the Locator section. Make sure they read the quotes by William cronon. Ask groups to discuss and answer the following questions about this type of house:
    • Why did Wright design this house? What were his intentions?
    • Did the Usonian house conform to local natural features in the classic Wright tradition, or was it more generic?
    • Why did the film say Wright could never actually build a house for less than $5000?
    • What was the legacy of the Usonian house? What happened after Wright designed this house?
    • How did Wright feel about this legacy?
  7. Discuss the groups’ responses to the above questions as a class. Read to them the quote by William cronon, “He was trying to pull the masses above themselves and as a result of something deeply impractical, and in some ways anti-democratic about his democratic vision.” Ask them to discuss what cronon means by “anti-democratic.”
  8. Have students read the following two quotes from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Remind them that Tocqueville visited the United States from France in the 1830s and wrote a lengthy commentary on this country’s political and social climate. Have them discuss in their groups the following questions for each quote and write down their answers:
    • How would Wright have reacted to this quote?
    • How do you react to this quote, based on things you’re noticing in your own community, in the country, or in other forms of art or entertainment (such as movies, TV, or books)?

    a. An aristocracy can never become a majority while it retains its exclusive privileges, and it cannot cede its privileges without ceasing to be an aristocracy. In the United States, political questions cannot be taken up in so general and absolute a manner; and all parties are willing to recognize the rights of the majority, because they all hope at some time to be able to exercise them to their own advantage. The majority in that country, therefore, exercise a prodigious actual authority, and a power of opinion which is nearly as great; no obstacles exist which can impede or even retard its progress, so as to make it heed the complaints of those whom it crushes upon its path. This state of things is harmful in itself and dangerous for the future.

    b. In an aristocracy he [an artisan] would seek to sell his workmanship at a high price to the few; he now conceives that the more expeditious way of getting rich is to sell them at a low price to all. But there are only two ways of lowering the price of commodities. The first is to discover some better, shorter, and more ingenious method of producing them; the second is to manufacture a larger quantity of goods, nearly similar, but of less value. Among a democratic population all the intellectual faculties of the workman are directed to these two objects: he strives to invent methods that may enable him not only to work better, but more quickly and more cheaply; or if he cannot succeed in that, to diminish the intrinsic quality of the thing he makes, without rendering it wholly unfit for the use for which it is intended. When none but the wealthy had watches, they were almost all very good ones; few are now made that are worth much, but everybody has one in his pocket. Thus the democratic principle not only tends to direct the human mind to the useful arts, but it induces the artisan to produce with great rapidity many imperfect commodities, and the consumer to content himself with these commodities.

  9. Taking into consideration the philosophies that they’ve contemplated during this lesson plus the observations they’ve made from their own community, ask students to pretend that they are architectural critics in their community who have been asked to write articles reviewing the current status of new architecture and construction in their town. If students live in an older urban neighborhood, have them write about the most recent architecture they can think of, regardless of when it was built. If they live in an extremely rural area, have them think of the nearest large or medium-sized town that they have visited. The article should include points addressing the following concerns:
    • A brief comparison of the community’s older versus newer architectural styles.
    • What Frank Lloyd Wright and Tocqueville would have thought about the new architecture.
    • Whether students think that an architect who really wants to build a beautiful structure in their community would be welcomed to do so or whether the will of the “masses” would stifle that desire, as Tocqueville and Wright might believe.
    • Whether they think that art in general is stifled by the desire of the “masses,” as Tocqueville and Wright would argue, or whether democracy and the will of the "masses" provides the artist with additional freedom to create.

V. Classroom Assessment

Since every class is different, every teacher will assess students in slightly different ways. However, areas of consideration should include the following:

  • Participating in all classroom discussions.
  • Working cooperatively and efficiently in groups.
  • Making careful observations about the houses they see on the Web sites.
  • Providing detailed and thoughtful responses to the questions about Usonian homes.
  • Providing detailed and thoughtful responses to the two quotations.
  • Providing a clear, relevant, and detailed analysis of the architecture in their community and tying it into the questions posed in step 9 to create an architectural critique of their community.

V. Extensions and Adaptations

  • Have groups of students devise their own set of local architectural guidelines for their town. They should explain how their city should regulate architectural styles (such as building colors and roof styles) and city plans (such as street width, areas zoned for residential versus business, areas designated for parks or open space).
  • Have students use cameras to document the older and newer architectural styles in their community.
  • Have students read more about Tocqueville on the Democracy in America Web site at and incorporate this additional information into their discussion of Frank Lloyd Wright, art, and democracy.

VI. About the Author

Betsy Hedberg is a teacher and freelance curriculum writer who has published lesson plans, student activities, and teachers’ guides in a variety of subjects. She received her Secondary Teaching Credential in Social Studies from Loyola Marymount University and her Master of Arts in Geography from UCLA. In addition to curriculum writing, she presents seminars and training sessions to help teachers incorporate the Internet and other technologies into their classrooms. In 1997, she founded Curriculum Adventures, a curriculum development, publishing, and consulting business.