Dale Buss takes the WSJ Masterpiece column to Wisconsin and Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed S.C. Johnson headquarters, a building Kenneth Frampton called “not only the greatest piece of twentieth-century architecture realized in the United States to date but also, possibly, the most profound work of art that America has ever produced.”
Inside what is still S.C. Johnson & Son Inc.’s headquarters, the irrepressible Wright created an artificial forest that evokes the real ones where he placed structures such as his own home, Taliesin, about three hours away in the Wisconsin woods, and Wingspread, the house nearby that he designed for Johnson. Thus the three-story administration building features a half-acre Great Workroom for clerical employees that is distinguished by an arboreal canopy created by a grid of “dendriform” columns and interspersed skylights. The resulting openness must seem even more refreshing today — in contrast to the tight, sterile spaces of Cubicle Nation — than when the building was completed in 1939. Guided tours are open to the public.
Actually, the new headquarters began a form of architectural husbandry that S.C. Johnson continues to this day. In 1950, the company opened next door a 14-story, cantilevered research tower also designed by Wright (but mothballed in 1982 when it didn’t meet new fire-safety codes). Its visitor center is built around the clamshell-shaped Golden Rondelle theater, an IMAX predecessor that was a sensation as Johnson Wax’s exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York — and now gleams incongruously, like some vestige of “The Jetsons,” despite the fact that Wright’s school redesigned it for the spot. In 1986, Johnson Wax installed an 11-foot-diameter carbon-fiber outdoor globe — from an original design by Wright — that rotates every 24 minutes on the same axis as the Earth. And now, adjacent to all of these, the company is building Project Honor, two structures totaling 65,000 square feet that will align with the key horizon on the Wright buildings. One will display Carnauba, the aircraft flown by Chairman Emeritus Sam Johnson (since deceased) and his sons to Brazil in 1998 to retrace the expedition of his father, Herbert Johnson Jr., in search of palm wax.
Wright’s House of Wax (Wall Street Journal)