It’s often hard or impossible to get into Wright buildings, as many of the ones that are not in private hands have restricted times, or high entrance fees, etc. So it is notable how easy the SC Johnson company has made it to visit their buildings – the cantilever-column administration building, the research tower, and Wingspread (formerly the house of the head of this privately-held company, and now a conference center owned by their foundation). There are frequent tours, no fees, and a remarkable degree of freedom allowed in wandering around Wingspread. Access to the two company buildings is more restricted, and unfortunately no photography is allowed indoors, as they are still used as the company headquarters, and there are lots of papers around, etc. The company has even gone so far as to provide tour buses up to Racine during the upcoming Chicago architecture biennial, and advertised them on bus shelters:
These three buildings together provide a unique opportunity to see some of Wright’s best designs, with almost no effort.
As with much of Wright’s work, the buildings were noticeably smaller than I expected. Even in photographs they have a presence and scale that leads you to expect something monumental, but in person the administration building is comfortable and welcoming, and the research tower is almost cute – it is quite small for a tower.
The skin is sleek. Brick and glass tubes. The scale is deceptive, as what reads as one story between the brick spandrels is actually two, with circular mezzanines held back from the surface (slightly visible in this photo). The interior is better than any mid-century modern image of a lab you’ve ever seen, almost a movie set for cool science.
The base is a little weird – Wright wanted to expose the innovative cantilever structure of the tower, and perhaps the function of the two wider lower stories is to contrast even more with the small footprint below. It just seems busy.
I won’t go on about the administration building as I have no photos, but it didn’t disappoint. I didn’t realize that there is a parking garage/carport in front of it, which gives you a preview of the structure.
Wingspread has the contrast of quite modest rooms in the four wings of the pinwheel, against an enormous central volume, where a tall brick fireplace mass organizes a series of spaces around it.
There is a spiral stair which climbs up from the second floor to a glazed observation cupola above the roof.
The daughter’s bedroom on the second floor ends in a spectacular cantilevered balcony into the landscape, with the wooden bar seemingly projecting out through the masonry element (eat your heart out, Jean Nouvel).
The exterior is a tour-de-force, with a combination of Wrightian elements articulated in different materials and integrated with the landscape in a way that is only matched by the Taliesins.
Phenomenal buildings all, produced in a circumstance where Johnson was more of a patron than a client, not only commissioning the buildings, but then passing this legacy through generations of the family, all of whom have maintained them and made them available to the public.
Thank you for the tour. VR jug
Love the FLW work in Racine, visited there many years ago and felt the same way then as you do now, kudos to the Johnson family. Also, did you remember that a former UO president was hired as the CEO of the Johnson foundation and lived in the house for a time? His name was Bill Boyd and was at the UO for two or three years. Not a bad job to have as you get a major architectural benefit from that. Thanks for the photos and the comments, we are loving your trip!!!!
You’re a great architecture blogger! Helpful comments with a trained perspective, and the photos speak clearly, really telling the story for themselves,. thank you ;^)
I feel like I just sat in on a Peter Keyes lecture – awesome! Really excellent photos. And, not an architect, I didn’t know he did towers. Very cool. But perhaps my favorite photo was of the columns in the parking garage.