Friday, June 08, 2007

Frank Lloyd Wright, designer of the "tippy chair" and so much more, would be 140 years old today

At an age when most men have long been retired, Frank Lloyd Wright was just getting started. Born on June 8, 1867, just two years after the end of the Civil War, he was nearly 72 when his Johnson Wax Building in Racine, WI opened its doors on the spring of 1939, on the eve of World War II. (The Research Tower in the background was started after the war and completed in 1951.) At the beginning of the thirties, his best years had seemed to be behind him. Commissions were rare, and he survived the Depression on the tuition and labor of his apprentices at Taliesin. The decade ended in triumph with in two acknowledged masterpieces, the Johnson Wax headquarters and the Fallingwater residence in Pennsylvania -- a late-career renaissance that continued for the last 20 years of his long life.

We toured Wright's Racine masterpiece recently. Interior photography has been prohibited since 9/11, so the interior photos are from an earlier visit in 1999. Wright designed not only the building, but the office furniture, which was built by Steelcase. Wright's original chair design was the famous three-legged "tippy chair," shown at left, which had a disconcerting tendency to tip over if its occupant didn't sit perfectly straight. When this was pointed out to Wright, he countered that it would be good for employees' posture. Legend has it that Wright's client H. F. Johnson, Jr. met with him, and while Wright was seated in one of the chairs, dropped a pencil. Wright reflexively leaned over to pick it up -- and toppled. He then agreed to design the four-legged version.

The highlight of the tour, of course, is the "Great Workroom" with its vast open space supported by Wright's dendriform "lily pad" columns.
Building inspectors required that a test column be built and loaded with twelve tons of material. The test column, once it was built, was loaded with sixty tons of materials before the "calyx", or part of the column that meets the lily pad, cracked (crashing the 60 tons of materials to the ground, and bursting a water main 30 feet underground). Wright was given his building permit after this demonstration.
It was an enjoyable visit, but the tone seemed different from eight years ago. People still work at the Great Workroom's desks, on new surfaces and on new chairs, but the corporate headquarters have moved to a new building a couple of miles away, downtown next to the Racine Art Museum. With the move, the corporate center of gravity seems to have shifted. The woman from Worldwide Corporate Relations who conducted our tour was pleasant enough, but there wasn't a lot of detail and we were subjected to a rather extended PR dog and pony show about Johnson Wax products and the current generation of Johnson heirs at the end of the tour. It was a reminder that landmarks of business architecture don't die, they just ever so gradually become corporate white elephants. Nevertheless, S.C. Johnson should be applauded for still keeping the facility open to the public and providing free tours (Fridays only).

We found that the complex really came into its own at night, when after dinner we chanced to pass it again on our way out of town. Thoughts of PR and white elephants were driven out of our minds. The lights in the Research Tower, which is no longer occupied for safety reasons, revealed its cantilever structure.
The 14-floor tower is one of the tallest structures ever built where there is no visible support under the outer walls. Wright designed the Tower using the cantilever principle which is similar to the root, trunk and branch system of a tree. This design allows the tower to appear to hang, suspended in the air. The interior levels alternate round and square floor levels. Wright's intention was to allow for easy communication between floors via the "open corners." The architect again used glass tubing instead of windows to allow for even, shadowless light and to prevent any view of outside distractions.
I'm not sure how the people who used to work there felt about the glass tubing. They might have preferred windows. But from outside, at night, the effect is stunning. The building glows in the dark like a dream, shimmering with a steady, pale light, as if it were illuminated by its own interior moon. (Much like the soft glow of the light globes atop the Monona Terrace in Madison, originally designed about the same time, which also use glass tubing to diffuse the light.)

We pulled the car over and just stared across the street, entranced. The man was a genius.


thechrisproject said...

Thanks for the nice writeup. I'd like to go check out the Johnson Wax HQ sometime.

I almost spit out my scone when I got to the part about interior photography being prohibited. That's just madness.

thechrisproject said...

I forgot to finish my comment. Wright's late life peak reminded me of a speech I heard Malcolm Gladwell give about artists who peak early versus artists who peak later, usually after years of experimentation.

It gives me great hope because I haven't done anything exceedingly spectacular in the period of life that most early artists peak. If I keep at it, I'll make something beautiful by the time I'm 70.

I'm can't find the audio of that speech anywhere to link. I have it on my computer, though, if you're interested.

Madison Guy said...

Chris, I'd love to hear it. I have a certain vested interest in late peakers myself...

They say the photography prohibition is for security reasons, but that just sounds silly. I suspect it's another one of those cases where the lawyers have erected an intellectual property wall, but then choose to hide it behind a security pretext -- especially since one of the departments that remains housed in the building since almost everyone else moved downtown is the lawyers.

thechrisproject said...

With a little more searching I found a link to the audio on the New Yorker website. It's a flash player that you can't rewind or fast forward, but I ripped the mp3s out if you have any trouble with that.

Prohibiting photography in the name of security is something that's been gnawing at me lately. People get stopped for taking pictures of public buildings, bridges, police officers, and all sorts of things. I've been questioned for taking pictures of parking ramps. Since I started reading Bruce Schneier's books and blog I do a lot more critical thinking about security. Actions that don't actually increase security (like stopping people from photographing a building) bother me. But I digress.

Mark Hertzberg said...

The corporate headquarters of SC Johnson - A Family Company, have not moved out of the Wright-designed campus. The newer building at 555 Main Street is headquarters for different Johnson companies, including Johnson Outdoors and the Johnson Bank.

Mark Hertzberg
Author and photographer, "Wright in Racine" (Pomegranate, 2004) and "Frank Lloyd Wright's Hardy House" (Pomegranate, 2006)

Madison Guy said...

Mark, thanks for the correction. I must have misunderstood what our tour guide said.

Kathy said...

I worked for S.C. Johnson and sat in the redesigned chair (with four legs). I understand the story was that Mr. Johnson called Mr. Wright because of the number of secretary's tipping over when they crossed their legs.

The design of the chair was to be supported by our two legs in the front.

I loved my four legged chair.