In 1935, H.F. Johnson, Jr., third generation company leader of the cleaning products company SC Johnson, returned from his historic trip to Fortaleza, Brazil, invigorated and energetic. At that time, designs were in development for the company’s Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin. With his renewed outlook, Johnson sought out Frank Lloyd Wright for new designs with a more modern approach.
When Johnson met Frank Lloyd Wright in 1936, Johnson recalled that “he insulted me, and I insulted him. But he did a better job.” From this start came one of the 20th century’s most spectacular and innovative offices, the Administration Building at the Johnson Wax headquarters in Racine. Opened in 1939, it was followed by the adjacent Research Tower (1950) and a Wright house, “Wingspread”, built for the Johnson family nearby.
Wright began work on the Johnson Administration Building in 1936 while he was still deeply involved with the development of Fallingwater. He tried to persuade Johnson to move the building into the country, Broadacre City style, and when Johnson refused, Wright shut out the surrounding industrial neighbourhood, much as he had done with the Larkin Building in Buffalo many years earlier.
Wright, an aficionado of elegant cars (he and Johnson both drove Lincoln Zephyrs), recognized early the automobile’s rising primacy. The Administration Building, three stories that appear to hug the ground, reveals itself along a driveway in fluid bands of brick trimmed with blond Kasota stone and inset with ribbons of glass-tube glazing.
As the driver turns toward a low, covered porte-cochere, the round-cornered shapes slide under and over one another, implying the perpetual motion of whirring fan belts. It’s an abstract sculptural evocation of industry, progress and innovation.
From the shadowy porte-cochere and low vestibule, a reception space explodes up to three stories, supported by rows of the lily-pad columns (called “dendriform” by Wright), bathed by sunlight from glass-tube skylights.
The theatricality of this entry sequence, all of which occurs within 12m of the door, is pure Wright, conjured with low ceilings and high ones, shadow and light, the heft of brick and stone, and the sparkling weightlessness of glass.
In what’s called the Great Workroom in the Administration Building, 1930s streamlined desks line up loosely amid rows of delicate columns. The columns gently thicken as they rise to form spreading lily-pad capitals that appear to support only daylight. This 2,000 square meters office floor feels like it’s set in a sun-dappled forest.
Today, the room appears much as it did when it opened in 1939. It is still filled with dozens of employees’ desks, all of which were designed by Wright himself, and which mimic the building itself with three flat geometric levels.
The Johnson Administration building is light and elegant. Where the curved corners met the ceiling, a flowing line of glass tubing – a new, experimental material that had never been employed in this fashion before – admitted a wash of light. Tapering columns made an enchanted architectural forest; more columns were used than structurally necessary, to increase the effect. Light rising from their lily-pad tops dematerialized the room. It is a timeless, magical space.
The glass tubing was untested and, inevitably, it leaked. Wright’s enthusiasm for new materials and unproven methods of construction had creative advantages for him that far outweighed any discomfort for his clients. Faced with his airy unconcern, they learned to deal with experimental systems like the radiant heating in his houses that soon became standard building practice. The columns, which tapered from top to bottom with an amazing delicacy, were mistrusted by local building authorities, and with his usual bravado, Wright held a public test for officials and company executives. Sandbags were piled high on a sample column, far in excess of the required weight-bearing capacity, until it crashed – dramatic proof of Wright’s self-possessed infallibility. The construction of the Administration Building never received more than a conditional building permit, but it went ahead, in part because Hib Johnson personally backed his architect at all board and commission hearings.
Wright’s chair design for Johnson Wax originally had only three legs, supposedly to encourage better posture (because one would have to keep both feet on the ground at all times to sit in it). However, the chair design proved too unstable, tipping very easily. Herbert Johnson, needing a new chair design, purportedly asked Wright to sit in one of the three-legged chairs and, after Wright fell from the chair as he bent over to pick up a pen that had ‘accidentally’ fallen on the floor, the architect designed new chairs with four legs! These chairs, and the other office furniture designed by Wright, are still in use.
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. Wright’s design endures both because of the innate intelligence of its design and the pride the family owned company takes in it.
The headquarters building has attracted attention since its completion in 1939 and has long welcomed visitors. Other structures on the campus are also open to the public. Fortaleza Hall, a glass-cylinder event pavilion and gallery space by Foster & Partners. It is a celebration of the 25,000km flight made to Brazil by H.F. Johnson Jr in 1935, in his search for a sustainable source of natural wax: the carnaúba palm tree. Comprising two companion buildings, the project continues a tradition of inspired architectural patronage on a seminal Frank Lloyd Wright campus in Wisconsin, and is a tribute to the pioneering fifth generation S C Johnson family company.
The Golden Rondelle, the company’s saucerlike 1964 New York World’s Fair pavilion, has been repurposed at SC Johnson as a movie theater.
And in May 2014, after 8 years and $30 million in campus-wide renovations, the company opened Wright’s 1950 Research Tower to tours for the first time, making a visit even more worthwhile.
The SC Johnson Workroom became the indelible image of white-collar efficiency. A mezzanine that wraps the Workroom offers a perch for managers to check the effectiveness of the staff laboring below.
The tour also includes H.F. Johnson Jr.’s refurbished 1940s penthouse office in the Administration Building. Opened in 1939, the office has been expertly restored to its original state and features original Wright-designed desk and chairs, as well as memorabilia that provide a deeper look into SC Johnson’s rich history and family legacy.
Wright turned the Administration Building inward in the belief that any world he created would be far superior to the dowdy frame houses and brick factories that surrounded the Johnson tract. The 70km of Pyrex glass tubes that formed the windows and skylights deliver light that’s beautifully diffused and glittering—while obscuring views out.
Advanced sealant technology has rescued the leaky glass-tube glazing. Wright’s balky radiant-floor heating system was switched to heating delivered by the ventilating ducts. The radiant tubes proved convenient conduits for the wiring and telecommunication cabling the building now demands. (When built, a few electrical outlets in the base of each column sufficed.)
Wright’s process demanded extraordinary fortitude on Johnson’s part. At almost $1.2 million, the building was six times more expensive than the $200,000 structure Johnson first asked for. Wright kept changing his mind as construction proceeded.
In the company’s view, the payback came not just from the headquarters’ functionality, but in rapturous reviews and invaluable press attention. A few years later Johnson hired Wright to add the elegant, diminutive and far less useful Research Tower. However, in 1943, when Johnson wrote to Wright about plans for the research edifice, he simultaneously warned him: “To be frank, Frank, we simply will not consider a financial and construction nightmare like the office building.”
The tower rises 46.6m as a spirelike counterpoint to the horizontal bulk of the headquarters. Wright repeated the alternating bands of brick and glass-tube glazing. He also paired six full floors with circular mezzanines recessed from the exterior to create double-height lab suites, which silhouette like ghostly disks through the glass bands.
It’s easy to paint Wright’s 15-story S.C. Johnson Research Tower, an exquisite mini-skyscraper wrapped in red brick and glass tubes, as a functional flop. The tubes leaked badly after the tower opened in 1950, and its inside was so unrelentingly bright that employees demanded that the company provide sunglasses. Wright abhorred the curtains installed later. The tower proved difficult to expand and just as hard to escape. It has one 75cm wide, twisting staircase, a shortcoming that could have proved lethal had fire struck. Wright also resisted installing sprinklers in a building where open-flame experiments were often underway, on the grounds that they were unsightly. The sprinklers eventually were installed. S.C. Johnson had to pay higher-than-normal premiums for fire insurance. When the number of people working in the building rose, its single fire stair was pronounced inadequate. In 1982, the company moved its research and development operation to a nearby structure, essentially mothballing the tower.
Yet the Research Tower was also an inspiring incubator. Within a decade of its opening, S.C. Johnson scientists invented four of the company’s iconic and still-profitable products — Raid, Glade, OFF! and Pledge.
The two floors opened for tours have been returned to the glory of their product development days — cabinets restored to the original Cherokee Red paint along with beakers, flasks, centrifuges, balances, test tubes and graduated cylinders set out on counter tops as if the folks who invented Off! had just stepped out for a coffee break.
Instead of using dendriform columns, Wright supported the tower with another engineering innovation he called a “taproot”, a central core from which the floors cantilever as “petals”. No columns interrupt the lab space nor the continuous veil of exterior glass.
The original round recessed light fixtures in the ceiling have not aged well and have been replaced with replicas. More than 7,000 2.5m and 3.5m long glass tubes have been cleaned — with Johnson Wax product Windex, of course — and bricks replaced in the building.
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.