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Sunday, November 07, 2010

Book Review: Frank Lloyd Wright's SC Johnson Research Tower

Frank Lloyd Wright's SC Johnson Research Tower by Mark Hertzberg
Pomegranate, 2010
Hardcover, 80 pages

Frank Lloyd Wright designed hundreds of buildings that were realized (hundreds more than weren't) and just about any of them could be the subject of a book, but none has a story like the Research Tower he added to the Johnson Wax Administration Building for S.C. Johnson & Son in Racine, Wisconsin. Three decades after the tower's 1950 opening it closed, and remains so to this day. Tours are given of the famous Administration Building with its mushroom-cap columns but they do not include the tower, above its second floor at least. This situation is due to a number of safety and functional matters (narrow stairs, small floor plates, leaky windows), all ultimately returning to the great architect and his ability to execute an amazing design that the client never wanted or could use but was grateful for anyways.

In his third book on Frank Lloyd Wright for Pomegranate, photojournalist Mark Hertzberg presents in words and photographs (both original ones by the author alongside numerous archival photos) the story of the 15-story tower in the prairie. He goes into detail on the building's design -- from its cantilevered construction and deep core foundation to the leaky pyrex-tube windows and interior casework (what was leaked upon) -- but for the most part Frank Lloyd Wright's perspective is played down in favor of the client and the builder. Given Hertzberg's job as a journalist this isn't a surprise, as he can interview client H. F. Johnson, Jr.'s descendents, the contractor's son, and employees past and present, not Wright. Throughout are descriptions of the tower's inadequacies but also a certain pride to have worked in the building and recognize its role in the development of many of S.C. Johnson's important products; in essence the design's innovation and uniqueness did more for the company and its employees than a functional but plain one could have. The tower's current symbolic role is enough to keep it mummified, forever without adequate exiting and other requirements that would mar the design while bringing it up to code.

The importance of architecture in S.C. Johnson's working environments and public image continued after the 1950 Research Tower. In the 1960s H. A. Maaskant designed a dramatic and expressive headquarters for the company in Mijdrecht, Netherlands. And most recently for the Racine campus Norman Foster contributed his design skills for Project Honor, which includes Fortaleza Hall (containing the plane flown to Brazil by elder Johnsons) and the Community Building. These are certainly extensions of the Administration Building and Research Tower, two related but one-of-a-kind designs infused with idea and innovation, the qualities S. C. Johnson wants to foster in their work and their products.

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