Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959), architect and writer designed over a thousand structures in his career that spanned across 70 years. He is synonymous with his most celebrated project – Fallingwater, which he designed in the latter part of his career around 1935. Wright trained under the master architect Louis Sullivan, the father of modernism, and has affirmed to have been influenced by his work. However, Wright’s philosophy and architectural style developed over time and evolved into what he termed – ‘organic architecture’. In his early works, historians find similarities with the work of his ‘beloved master’, Louis Sullivan. But Wright became an original upon constant experimentation and innovations throughout his career that led him to fully develop his architectural philosophy and give us the treasures like Fallingwater in the latter years of his career. Another such gem under Wright’s name is the distinctive Johnson Wax Building which he designed right after Fallingwater.
Commission for Johnson Wax Headquarters or also known as Administration building of S.C. Johnson and Son was awarded to Wright by Herbert F. “Hib” Johnson, who was the company’s head at the time. The site was located in the industrial area in Racine, Wisconsin. The narrative around this project states that Wright wasn’t particularly pleased with the site for the project and insisted on changing it. The building’s fort-like design, to isolate itself and its inhabitants from the immediate surroundings, does reveal Wright’s distaste for the site. The entire structure lounges horizontally on the site and blocks itself from its immediate context in the horizontal plane.
The wrapper with curved edges that circumscribe the space within, is made out of Cherokee red bricks without a single-window on its facade. This facade, however, has no facade like quality. No grand welcoming entrance or a suggestion of front and back.
The innovative white columns in reinforced concrete stand in striking contrast with the red bricks. This color contrast and balance seeps into the interiors as well where one finds oneself standing amidst a domesticated forest of the white tree-like columns, on the ground that resembles the forest floor and mimics the warm hue of the bricks. To add to this effect of sitting in a forest, Wright collaborates with nature and allows for skylights in the Great Work Room. The gaps between each column head on the ceiling is filled with Pyrex glass tubes. These tubes bring in filtered sunlight of a specific quality into the working room.
Wright employs these Pyrex tubes at a variety of locations in multiple fashions. But again, even while using glass, there’s no compromise with the privacy and a sense of insulation inside the building. Glass tubes, through which one only sees a very distorted version of the other side, provided him with the opportunity to bring in natural light without letting go of the privacy. The use of these skylights in the entrance foyer is particularly enchanting. An entrance that is quietly placed near the parking lot, under a roof supported by the dwarf version of iconic white concrete columns. Wright’s design gives enough importance to cars, a symbol of modernity as he allows his wrapper to provide an entrance to the modern vehicle into the building.
Wright wanted that one should move around the building to appreciate it completely. This is very similar to a tradition of circumambulating a sacred space, considering that Wright himself suggested that the Great Working Room of the building is like a cathedral for the workers of SC Johnson.
Wright, in one of his interviews, says that factories and other working spaces should use the philosophy of organic architecture more than any other type of building. He goes on to say that it is profitable for the employers to keep the workers of a corporation happy and suggests that his design of Johnson Wax Building does that.
The building after it opened, met with raining praises everywhere. It was described in very many ways by the print media of the time. But more importantly, the employees of SC Johnson were happy with their workspace, maintaining the master architect’s claims. Wright in his career as an architect had come up with many innovations, in planning, services, and structural aspects of architectural design. Johnson Wax building is a testament to his one such innovation – The ‘lily pad’ columns. These ‘dendriform’ columns as Wright called them, rested on a 9-inch base and rose to the ceiling, and bloomed into a circular disk that was more than 18 ft in diameter. These columns were tested for their ability to take the desired load and to everyone’s surprise, Wright’s unusual column passed this test with flying colors. The column could bear up to 10 times the load it was expected to. These columns may or may not have been inspired by the long trees of Pennsylvanian woodland, which was the site for his last project – Fallingwater.
Wright declared ‘Organic Architecture’ to be the modern ideal for architecture. He defined organic as an entity, where the whole is to the part as the part is to the whole, where there is a unique relationship between the site and the built. It could be argued that Wright does not establish any relationship between the Johnson Wax Building and its locality rather devises a barrier between the two. Whereas, in his previous project, he creates this intimate union between the waterfall on the site and the house itself to an extent that even the project’s name is interlinked with the site’s context. But one has to understand organic architecture in more detail before making this argument. According to Wright, this relationship between the site and the built structure is not merely about connecting the natural and the manmade in an inseparable way, but it also is about the fact that the features of a particular building are informed by the landscape of its site. And in the case of Johnson Wax Building, the industrial locality of the site informs the office building’s design to look inwards and detach itself from the noisy surrounding.
Employees of SC Johnson have on record said that they admire their workplace and that it is a beautiful building. Open office plan with customized modular furniture, which now seems conventional was a novelty at the time. Originality was also his extravagant structural design, provision for natural light, pairing it up with artificial light smoothly, and to use materials like reinforced concrete in ways that the hollow capitals of columns housed electric wires inside.
Despite all these achievements, the construction technology of the time had failed the architect. The glass tubes weren’t sealed properly and thus rainwater from the roof leaked through the gaps and littered the floor. These practical problems were later resolved and Hib Johnson awarded Wright with the commissions of his own house and the research tower at SC Johnson. Why? One could ask. In today’s times, if the roof of your project is found leaking, the client will most probably cut the fee or wouldn’t choose to work with you again.
The most probable reason for putting Wright’s lapses behind could be that what Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright created was so unique that Hib Johnson was ready to accept a reasonably flawed building by him than a fully functional but a mediocre one. One thing that we must take back with us is that mediocrity is unacceptable and can’t be a justification for pragmatism and maybe, therefore, Wright’s architectural forms did not follow function. “Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union”, said Frank Lloyd Wright.