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.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Sometimes I Just Want to Scream: John Tierney enlists in the right's anti-Rachel Carson rampage.

Although Silent Spring author Rachel Carson died of breast cancer in 1964, the attacks on her did not stop. Carson, whose centennial was celebrated recently, has long been the target of rightwing and corporate interests. They hope to discredit environmental regulation in general by discrediting and demonizing her and her book. That's where NYT science columnist John Tierney comes in, propping up the right's totally discredited memes by burnishing them to a fine, pseudo-respectable glow in the pages of the NYT. The former conservative Op-Ed columnist is described this way in the jokey bio blurb on his blog, TierneyLab:
John Tierney always wanted to be a scientist but went into journalism because its peer-review process was a great deal easier to sneak through...
Obviously. Or he would never have gotten away with such an ill-informed, malicious rant as his NYT column about Rachel Carson, "Fateful Voice of a Generation Still Drowns Out Real Science."
“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings,” she wrote, extolling the peace that had reigned “since the first settlers raised their houses.” Lately, though, a “strange blight” had cast an “evil spell” that killed the flora and fauna, sickened humans and “silenced the rebirth of new life.”

This “Fable for Tomorrow,” as she called it, set the tone for the hodgepodge of science and junk science in the rest of the book. Nature was good; traditional agriculture was all right; modern pesticides were an unprecedented evil. It was a Disneyfied version of Eden.
The phrase "hodgepodge of science and junk science" might be better employed to describe Tierney's own column, filled with distortions that are ably dissected by science blogger Tim Lambert in "John Tierney's Bad Science." For me, two things stand out:

1. Tierney revives the old rightwing canard that Carson was indirectly responsible for countless Third World malaria deaths, due to the DDT bans her work inspired. But as Lambert notes, Carson never opposed all pesticide use. And one of her main arguments against overuse of DDT was that it would only cause disease microorganisms to become more and DDT-resistant. And that's exactly what happened.

2. With distorting rhetoric like this, Tierney makes Carson out to be an alarmist about cancer.
But scientists like him were no match for Ms. Carson’s rhetoric. DDT became taboo even though there wasn’t evidence that it was carcinogenic (and subsequent studies repeatedly failed to prove harm to humans).
Carcinogens were not the main focus of the book, what Carson wrote about them was pretty mainstream for the time, and in any case, DDT was not banned as a carcinogen, but due to its impact on the entire ecostructure. And in any case, accusing someone of being an alarmist about cancer who fought a brave, losing battle against it while finishing her book just seems creepy.

Sometimes I just want to scream.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Condos after Dark: Randy Alexanderplatz


After a bit of financial indigestion last year, Randy Alexander's Capitol West in the 300 block of Madison's West Washington Avenue is once again under construction. In many ways it's Madison's most ambitious condo project. Plans call for filling an entire city block with $110-million dollar, mixed-use development which, their website enthuses, is designed to create a sense of neighborhood (no mention of the former neighborhood it replaces).
The Alexander Company is redeveloping the site into an urban community incorporating approximately 375 to 400 townhomes, condominiums, lofts and penthouses, along with neighborhood services, shopping and covered, convenient parking.
Think something is missing from this list of features? Right. There's no hotel!

Having identified this unmet hospitality need in the neighborhood, Alexander recently proposed filling the space for a planned future 13-story condo tower down the block with a more "modest" 11-story, 151-room Hyatt Place Hotel (the new brand name for the AmeriSuites chain that Hyatt bought a couple years ago).
Although Downtown condominium sales have slowed along with the rest of the local real estate market, Joe Alexander, also of the Alexander Co., said the current market wasn't a factor in replacing the condominium tower because completion of that phase wasn't planned for several years.
Hotel plans are popping up like mushrooms all over condo land. First, a boutique hotel was proposed for Hilldale. Now there's Alexander's proposed Hyatt Place Hotel. The proposed hotel would require city review, neighborhood meetings and a zoning change. Will it ever be built? Or is it mainly a developer's dream, presented to keep the momentum going when market conditions make it harder to finance another luxury condo tower?

Maybe it should be called Hotel Hail Mary Pass.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Watching the world pass by on State Street


June in Madison: At the corner of State and Gorham, where Saturday afternoon we enjoyed a leisurely gelato at Paciugo, 341 State Street, and watched the passing parade.