Following Frank: S.C. Johnson
There are few Frank Lloyd Wright commissions more well-known than the S.C. Johnson Administration Building and Research Tower. It is emblematic of the futuristic vision Wright had for the world and how technology was struggling to keep pace with that vision. I was mesmerized by the place from the first time I saw photos of the the Great Workroom and Research Tower. Photos could never convey the actual experience of being there and experiencing those places with your own senses, however. Of all the places we had planned to visit on our adventure, this place may have excited me the most.
S.C. Johnson was our first stop in Wisconsin and the start to a very busy day that would end halfway across the state. The weather was perfect, just as it had been for the rest of our adventure. Over the next few days, great white clouds would float across a blue sky, creating a ideal backdrop for the photos I would take of Wright sites across Wisconsin. When we pulled into the parking lot, we were greeted by an epic view of the research tower against that magnificent sky. It was a wonderful way to start a very full day of Frank Lloyd Wright discovery.
Starting from the visitor center, our group was escorted toward the tower, through the main gates, and then toward Fortaleza Hall. It’s a beautiful building, opened in 2010, but designed in a way that almost perfectly complements Wright’s design. Sweeping curves, lots of glass, and wide flat brickwork come together in a way that is clearly inspired by the administration building, without feeling copycat. The main feature of the building is the replica of the Sikorsky S-38 plane, suspended from the ceiling of the main glass rotunda. Most of the space serves as a way to showcase the history of the company. There isn’t much time to linger, though, and before you know it, you’re swept out the door and you are on the way across the campus.
The tour provides ample opportunity to see the many curves and corners of Wright’s design. As we walked along the side of the building, great walls of red brick are made more interesting by their contours. They bend and bow, sometimes revealing sharply-pointed cantilevers overhead or peeks at the tops of interesting facets beyond. You also get the first view of Wright’s innovative, if not perfected, glass tube windows that curve to match the lines of the building while also subtly obscuring the interior spaces from outside view. The layering of both geometric forms and materials/textures is exactly what you would expect from a Wright design. It is carried out in a new, futuristic context, though.
In some ways, it’s hard to believe that Fallingwater and the S.C. Johnson complex sprung from Wright’s mind at roughly the same time. While both are works of modern architecture, Fallingwater is a true “Organic” design, inspired by and intricately tied to its location, its architectural advances largely subsumed by its connection to the natural world. On the other hand, S.C. Johnson is a truly modernist creation—a Frank Lloyd Wright calling card, boldly presenting its technological advancement and pointing toward a new future of architectural design. Both are daring, but in very different ways. The S.C. Johnson campus is a small sample of the world that Wright envisioned in his Broadacre City concept.
After walking around the building, we were introduced to one of its most notable features—the Great Workroom. This is another one of those spaces for which Wright is so well known. Unfortunately, it was also a place the public is not permitted to photograph. Really, though, what could anyone capture of this space that hasn’t already been captured, time and time again, over the past eighty decades? The expansive room, subdivided only by its soaring lily pad columns, is an amazing sight. It is remarkable that the building was not only designed, but also contracted, prior to World War II. The bright, open space and futuristic design stands in stark contrast to the common architecture of the day. That it still serves as a working corporate headquarters is a testament to Wright’s vision.
After leaving the workroom, we were directed through the parking area. Even this space reflected the design of the Workroom, with lily pad columns supporting the building overhead. As we continued through the complex, the building began to open up to the outside light, where plantings, water features, and a seating area offered an outdoor retreat for office workers. Gradually, we emerged from underneath the administration building and into a paved courtyard, near the front of the campus. It was here that the second great feature of the S.C. Johnson complex—the one that I was probably most curious about–came into view.
The design of the S.C. Johnson Research Tower has long pulled at my futurist heartstrings. Standing in front of it only amplified that feeling. Designed by Wright in 1944 and completed in 1950, the alternating layers of brick, concrete, and pyrex glass tube, in combination with the central support structure of the building, give the appearance that each floor is floating on the outer wall of glass tube underneath. The rounded corners of the tower further contribute to the futuristic aesthetic. From the ground, just in front of the tower, the glass pyrex tubes obscure the view of the interior, just as they do in other parts of the building. It is not until you are either inside or farther away from the structure that you can see how Wright continues the illusion of weightlessness on the inside.
Again, no photos were permitted inside the Research Tower. Still if you look at the exterior image, you can see that each interior floor is a rounded disc that attaches to the central core of the building, while not touching the outside walls. This creates a single space that extends from the second floor, up to through the seventh. While this creates a space that was aesthetically pleasing and very open, it turned out to not be terribly practical as a workspace. The scientists and chemists apparently complained about the inability to control the amount of light in their workspaces and some resorted to working in sunglasses. The open design also allowed fumes to rise from floor to floor. Despite this, some of the company’s most famous products were created in the tower, within just a few years of its construction.
At the base of the tower, two massive stone statues reside. Nakoma and Nakomis were originally designed for the abandoned 1924 Nakoma Country Club project in Madison. and represent a Native American woman with daughter and man with son. These large sculptures were commissioned and installed at the S.C. Johnson complex nearly twenty years after Frank Lloyd Wright’s death, in mid/late 1970s. They are highly stylized and beautifully crafted. They are a both a wonderful contrast and great complement to the design of the Research Tower and the rest of the S.C. Johnson campus. In this case, they saw us on our way, back out through the great steel gates and back toward the visitor center. As we walked back, I turned to take my last photos of the Research Tower, standing against the blue sky and great white clouds.
There were a few unfortunate aspects of our visit to S.C. Johnson, though it was still a fantastic experience. The Golden Rondelle theater was under construction at the time of our visit, which prevented us from fully appreciating the structure that was designed by Taliesin Associated Architects for the 1964 World’s Fair. This provides an excellent excuse to return, however. Also, even at 90 minutes, the tour seems to pass far too quickly. Much of the time was spent walking to and from Fortaleza Hall, which, while lovely, is not of primary interest for a Frank Lloyd Wright aficionado. Lastly, I would have appreciated a bit more time in the Great Workroom, as it is the most famous feature of the campus. The fact it is still a fuctioning workspace most certainly complicates things, though.
Despite any complaints, I was thrilled to be able to visit and tour the S.C. Johnson campus. Even after being enthralled with the design for decades and having very high expectations, it did not disappoint. I am still in awe that something so modern was designed in the mid 1930s. Amazingly, it seems like the older Wright grew, the more futuristic his designs became. It is hard to imagine what Wright would have been able to do with more modern materials, tools, and construction methods. As I would sometimes say to visitors at Fallingwater, Wright was designing twenty-first century buildings with late nineteenth and early twentieth century materials. He was always ahead of his time, pushing design boundaries and subsequently, the limits of technology. That is precisely why he is still remembered as one of the great modern architects, more than six decades after his death.