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Rem Koolhaas

Blog Building of the Week

Wax Works

Frank Lloyd Wright and SC Johnson

  • External view of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed SC Johnson Administration Building and Research Tower. (All images courtesy SC Johnson, unless stated) 1 / 20  External view of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed SC Johnson Administration Building and Research Tower. (All images courtesy SC Johnson, unless stated)
  • Left: Interior view of the Mezzanine in the Administration Building, c. 1980s. Right: Exterior of Administration Building and Research Tower. 2 / 20  Left: Interior view of the Mezzanine in the Administration Building, c. 1980s. Right: Exterior of Administration Building and Research Tower.
  • H.F. Johnson, Jr. sits with Frank Lloyd Wright and his apprentice, Wes Peters, during the weight testing of a dendriform column. 3 / 20  H.F. Johnson, Jr. sits with Frank Lloyd Wright and his apprentice, Wes Peters, during the weight testing of a dendriform column.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright and H.F. Johnson, Jr. admiring the Research Tower, 1953. 4 / 20  Frank Lloyd Wright and H.F. Johnson, Jr. admiring the Research Tower, 1953.
  • View east towards the Johnson Wax headquarters, c.1969. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) 5 / 20  View east towards the Johnson Wax headquarters, c.1969. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
  • With its rounded corners and horizontal glazing, the Administration Building is a stunning example of the streamline Art Moderne style. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) 6 / 20  With its rounded corners and horizontal glazing, the Administration Building is a stunning example of the streamline Art Moderne style. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
  • The “birdcage” lifts connecting the first and second floors. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) 7 / 20  The “birdcage” lifts connecting the first and second floors. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
  • Third floor reception area with Wright's three-legged chairs. The chairs had to be replaced because people kept falling off them (something Wright only acknowledged when he did the same). (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) 8 / 20  Third floor reception area with Wright's three-legged chairs. The chairs had to be replaced because people kept falling off them (something Wright only acknowledged when he did the same). (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
  • Detail of horizontal pyrex tubes used as a translucent glazing. The 7,000 tubes in the complex stretch 27 kilometres. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) 9 / 20  Detail of horizontal pyrex tubes used as a translucent glazing. The 7,000 tubes in the complex stretch 27 kilometres. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
  • The Great Workroom with dendriform concrete columns. Each is 23 cm wide at its base but fans out to 5.5 metres with edges almost touching at the skylight ceiling two stories above. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) 10 / 20  The Great Workroom with dendriform concrete columns. Each is 23 cm wide at its base but fans out to 5.5 metres with edges almost touching at the skylight ceiling two stories above. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
  • Clerks working in the Great Workroom, c. 1940s. 11 / 20  Clerks working in the Great Workroom, c. 1940s.
  • Wright referred to the tops of the columns as “lily pads” and the ensemble as “a glade of trees”. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) 12 / 20  Wright referred to the tops of the columns as “lily pads” and the ensemble as “a glade of trees”. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
  • The columns of the complex car park rise from circles of water like frozen white whirlpools. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) 13 / 20  The columns of the complex car park rise from circles of water like frozen white whirlpools. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
  • The Research Tower, built 1950, as viewed from the south. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) 14 / 20  The Research Tower, built 1950, as viewed from the south. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
  • The tower is 46.6 metres high and is one of only two Wright towers built. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) 15 / 20  The tower is 46.6 metres high and is one of only two Wright towers built. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
  • Glass dominates the façades of the Research Tower, rather than brick, which appears as thin bands. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) 16 / 20  Glass dominates the façades of the Research Tower, rather than brick, which appears as thin bands. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
  • “Wingspread”, the house built in 1938-9 for Herbert Fisk Johnson. 17 / 20  “Wingspread”, the house built in 1938-9 for Herbert Fisk Johnson.
  • The main living space of Wingspread, with its solid, central brick feature containing the hearth... 18 / 20  The main living space of Wingspread, with its solid, central brick feature containing the hearth...
  • ...rising into an octagonal pyramid with horizontal skylights. 19 / 20  ...rising into an octagonal pyramid with horizontal skylights.
  • An offset art-deco-type lookout structure. 20 / 20  An offset art-deco-type lookout structure.

Over eleven years during the first half of the twentieth century, two heavyweights of architecture and industry collaborated to construct a modern office complex that still exerts an architectural legacy today way beyond just the design of the office environment. Frank Lloyd Wright met H.F. Johnson Jr. – head of the cleaning products company SC Johnson – in 1936 and together they set about creating the Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. Herbert Wright (no relation) took a trip 95 kilometres north of Chicago – on one of the free tours organised by the company during the Chicago Architecture Biennial – to Racine for uncube, and waxes lyrical (naturally) about an industrial complex built with the workers very much in mind.

When HF Johnson Jr., head of the cleaning products company SC Johnson met Frank Lloyd Wright in 1936, Johnson recalled that “he insulted me, and I insulted him. But he did a better job”. But from this start came one of the twentieth century's most spectacular and innovative offices, the Administration Building at the Johnson Wax headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. Opened in 1939, it was followed by the adjacent Research Tower (1950), and also a great Wright house, “Wingspread”, built for the Johnson family nearby.  



The Administration Building is essentially a two-storey rectangular-plan box of brick, almost blind but for two thin horizontal glazing bands, but on one side, a third storey of offices rises (Wright called this the “penthouse”), with symmetrical angled wings and two circular service core heads. Most of the ground floor inside is a single space called the Great Workroom, a vast open office full of light falling through its most spectacular feature, dendriform concrete columns spaced in a ten by six formation on a six-by six metre grid. Each is 23 cm wide at its base but fans out to 5.5 metres with edges almost touching at the skylight ceiling two stories above. Wright had to prove that a column could support 12 tonnes, and when tested, it took 60 tonnes to crack one. He referred to their tops as “lily pads” and the ensemble as “a glade of trees”. The upstairs floor around the edge looks down onto the Great Workroom, cantilevering inwards from the outermost columns.

The Great Workroom with dendriform concrete columns. Each is 23 cm wide at its base but fans out to 5.5 metres with edges almost touching at the skylight ceiling two stories above. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)




Despite its light, you can't see out from the Great Workspace. Its glazing is clerestory and made of horizontal pyrex glass tubes rather than panes, and appears peripheral like the distant edge of a forest. 

The Workroom has a precedent in Wright’s since-demolished Larkin Building in Buffalo (1906), with its open office below a skylit atrium. There, Wright had pioneered air conditioning, and designed bespoke furniture. At Racine, the air conditioning pipes (“nostrils”) are behind round “birdcage” lifts, and again he designed the furniture. His original three-legged chairs had to be replaced because people kept falling off them (something he acknowledged only when he did the same). More dendriform columns rises three stories, defining a lobby between the Great Workroom and entrance. Outside, there are even more columns, shorter and supporting the cover extending into the car park, some rising from circles of water like frozen white whirlpools.

The columns of the complex car park rise from circles of water like frozen white whirlpools. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)




From the outside, with its rounded corners and horizontal glazing, the Administration Building is a stunning example of the streamline Art Moderne style. Its strong texture inside and out is shared with the Wingspread house, finished the same year. Rather than a form with fluidity, this is a sharp-cornered building, with four wings extending off-centre from the hub of the main living space, which itself surrounds a solid, central brick feature containing the hearth and rising into an  octagonal pyramid with horizontal skylights and an offset art-deco lookout vantage structure. 

Back at the Johnson corporate campus, Wright was commissioned again in 1943 to design a new research centre. The Research Tower was completed in 1950, and like the Administration Building, it shares the same fluidity and texture. Its form is different but just as radical. 46.6 metre high, it is one of only two Wright towers built. The other was the 67 metre-high Price Tower, completed in 1956 in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, while his 1,600 metre-high tower, The Illinois, remains a vision.

The Research Tower, built 1950, as viewed from the south. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)




The floors cantilever from a central core, and a narrow staircase is the only access. Square floors are overlooked by recessed round mezzanines, and this two-floor configuration is stacked six times. Wright's disdain for the view of the then-industrial townscape of Racine (he had initially suggested that Johnson build out of town) again resulted in glazing of horizontal pyrex tubes. But unlike the Administration Building, glass dominates the façades rather than brick, which appears as thin bands. The resulting light inside was so bright, scientists were initially issued sunglasses. The 7,000 tubes would stretch 27 kilometres (but still not as much as the 69 kilometres of Administration Building tubes!). With its translucency, the tower's solid parts evoke a pagoda.

Detail of horizontal pyrex tubes used as a translucent glazing. The 7,000 tubes in the complex stretch 27 kilometres. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)




Both of Wright's buildings at the Johnson campus came in way over budget, but Johnson wanted the best. At Racine, Wright anticipated the future with more than futuristic styling. The brick texture finds echoes decades later, in modernist buildings that moved beyond cladding or concrete surfaces. Richard Seifert would cantilever the floors of London's 183 metre-high Tower 42 just like Wright's tower. Atria would be revived in the 70s by architects from John Portman onwards. And there's even a hint of high-tech style in the way metal “mullions” support the tubing. 

Not least, the Great Workroom anticipates the contemporary open office. Nowadays, these are stacked on great floorplates to maximise profit, but Wright designed his floor – and everything from furniture to structure – for the wellbeing of workers.

– Herbert Wright is an architectural journalist and historian, author and art critic based in London.

 

During the Chicago Architecture Biennial, SC Johnson are offering free Wright Now excursions, including travel from Chicago to Racine and back, with a full tour of Frank Lloyd Wright's work at the Johnson campus.

 

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