It seems like everyone is celebrating Frank Lloyd Wright's 150th birthday this week (his birthday is actually June 8), so as an architectural historian I feel some obligation to pay tribute to America's favorite architect. Today on claass HAUS, we take a closer look at Wright's Depression-era masterpiece, the S.C. Johnson Headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin.
When Herbert F. Johnson decided to build the headquarters for his growing company in his hometown of Racine, Wisconsin, there was really only one midwestern master for the job. Frank Lloyd Wright won the commission in 1936 and quickly began work on one of the most influential projects of his legendary career. Wright, finding no natural beauty within the project's bleak industrial site, set out to create a self-contained, monastic office environment that would simulate nature in exclusion of the outside world.
Utilizing two groundbreaking innovations, steel-mesh reinforced concrete and Pyrex glass tubing, the architect produced an abstracted forest-like interior complete with novel "mushroom" columns that tower over the office space like ancient trees. At roof level, the columns resolve into broad lily pads of concrete and are woven together by the glass tubing, a system that diffuses the space with unexpected natural light and a warm aura. The slender, tapering columns and the network of tubes form the prime support for a large, open work area (spanning a half acre) sheathed in Wright's signature red brick and furnished with two circular "birdcage" elevators and a mezzanine. The result is a daring inversion of light and solid surfaces representing Wright's technical artistry and his radical approach to the work place.
The Johnson Wax Building relied on its reinforced concrete construction for its vast, streamlined open spaces, moderne curves, and circular vocabulary. Widely published and critically acclaimed, the building garnered influence even before its completion in 1938, and its success helped Wright gain a number of new commissions. Reimagining the place of work, Wright designed a collective office setting conducive to creativity, efficiency, and independence. Creating a corporate cathedral, Wright planned an exhilarating environment that suited the conditions of the new modern office while fulfilling the promise of his organic architecture.
Like many Wright projects, the construction of the Johnson Wax Administration Building posed a number of challenges (local building commissioners famously refused to approve the building until they tested the columns and the ceiling leaked) and the cost for the building ballooned from its original $200,000 budget. But Johnson remained loyal to Wright and his vision and would go on to commission the architect to design both his personal home (Wingspread) and a new building for the research and design division of the company. Connected to the original structure by a covered bridge, the resulting fourteen-story tower is composed of reinforced concrete slabs that form alternating square floors and circular balconies.
After the completion of the Johnson Wax Administration Building, LIFE Magazine called the project "a truer glimpse of the shape of things to come" and the "office building of tomorrow." One of Wright's most impressive statements on the nature of the work place, the S.C. Johnson Headquarters remains a classic example of the architect's ability to create new concepts of space, light, and form. Today the complex continues to serve its original function (the tower is no longer in use due to a change in fire codes) and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976.
On the eve of the architect's 150th birthday, I'll leave you with Wright's own words on the Johnson Wax Administration Building, a structure as brash and confident as the designer himself.
This building was designed to be as inspiring a place to work in as any cathedral ever was to worship in.
Frank Lloyd Wright in LIFE Magazine, May 1939.
Happy Birthday FLW!
image at top: Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Building, globe, and grounds of the S.C. Johnson and son headquarters building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Racine, Wisconsin. Racine United States Wisconsin, None. [Between 1980 and 2006] Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, 2011634906.
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