A closer look at the two architectural titans whose work ended up in a small Wisconsin city.
About 22 miles south of Milwaukee, Wisconsin lies Racine, a city that today, won’t turn every head as far as its local culture is concerned. But in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the city was a manufacturing hub. A testament to the region’s prominence is the SC Johnson Company wax factory and headquarters, which commissioned none other than Frank Lloyd Wright to design the company’s flagship offices in 1936.
The project was by no means Wright’s first Midwestern project, but the opportunity came at a point in his career when the architect had fallen out of public favor. Wright had said of the project after its completion, “Anybody can build a typical building. I wanted to build the best office building in the world, and the only way to do that was to get the greatest architect in the world.” With a commission of this scale—made more exciting by the commercial design challenges that he would solve for—Wright could hardly pass up the opportunity.
So he set to work designing what would soon become one of the most widely-recognized models for the modern office as we know it today. The Johnson Wax Factory headquarters are made up of two main buildings, both designed by Wright. The first is the company offices. Beyond the doors of this sprawling complex, a massive open floor plan, punctuated by lily pad columns that trumpet into the soaring ceiling. Curved edges and ample natural light provide a satisfying juxtaposition to the highly commercialized function of the spaces, introducing natural motifs into the American manufacturing landscape. Wright designed these offices to maximize efficiency and collaboration among the company’s executives, and designed every element, from the building’s envelope to the desks, chairs, and wastebaskets at each station. In hiring Wright, Herbert Johnson turned him loose in a utopian future of the workplace, where the architect freely imagined how division of labor could best support the daily duties of its staff.
The Great Workroom was finished in 1939, considerably over budget, but an aesthetic success all the same. The SC Johnson research tower came in 1950, standing guard over the complex. The design was executed in a cantilever style, with a centralized core and staircase surrounded by rings of usable space. Inside, Wright used innovative solutions to promote sanitation and wellness in the factory workers by constructing each work floor to have ample windows and a state-of-the-art ventilation system. Bands of windows with rounded edges on the tower also lent themselves to an effect of continuity inside, where workers could progress from station to station gradually, while also creating easily-cleanable counter spaces (rather than corners, where dust could quickly accumulate). However, certain design considerations made by Wright (like the lack of fire sprinklers) left the building unfit for use by the latter half of the 20th century.
The research tower was used as such until 1980, but has since been retired as a museum for a bygone era of American consumerism and commerce, where tours can see the interiors as they would have been on any given morning in the year 1940. As for the Great Workroom, some company executives still use the offices, but the majority of the space is dedicated to the memory of the building’s hey-day.
The time capsule effect of the Wright buildings at SC Johnson’s Racine headquarters is offset by a newer pavilion, designed by Sir Norman Foster—an addendum to the complex that nods to the same ingenuity of the offices and laboratories, while holding its own as a glossy departure from the reddish-tones and masonry finishes of Wright’s buildings. No, Foster’s building instead stands with a distinctly 21st century air, oval in stature with a Sikorsky-38 amphibious airplane suspended in the sky-lit atrium of the building.
Foster’s addition, dubbed Fortaleza Hall, came in 2010 to commemorate the 15,000-mile flight made by Herbert Johnson to Brazil in 1935, a voyage that came as part of a search for a sustainable source of natural wax. A marvel in its own right, the new building’s glass envelope and oval floor plan lend an enterprising spirit to the interior, one that is energized, exciting, and above all, adventurous, as though moving visitors ‘round the space by an invisible centripetal force.
Together, the old-meets-new campus of the SC Johnson Wax Factory. The complex is a concert of modern architecture, marrying functionality, history, and design in one unexpected place, a small city in the upper Midwest.