Johnson Wax Building

Date   1936-1939
Floor Plan    

Worn down by the Master's own continuous rhetoric of earth, sky. rock, wood and agricultural virtue, most of us have come to accept a mythological picture of Frank Lloyd Wright as a sort of super-peasant, a primitive dolmen-builder suffused in bardic Welsh light. Certainly, the tribal encampment that he created under the hill at Phoenix, Arizona, and called Taliesin West, is the masterpiece of Romantic primitivism in modern architecture, but all through his career run buildings of conspicuous Machine Age sophistication, such as the Guggenheim Museum, and the king and queen of this persuasion are the Johnson Wax offices and their attendant laboratory tower.

The offices are near-enough contemporary with Taliesin West and could hardly be less like it. To the outside world, Johnson Wax presents blank brick walls, unpierced by windows, and rounded off with bull-nosed corners. But at the cornice (for want of a better word) the walls come to life with a glistening bulge of glass, for all the world like the chromium edge-trim of some primitive piece of Detroit car-styling. In functional fact, this glass trim is a piled-up system of parallel glass tubing that acts as a Tight diffuser, spreading light into the interior (and part of « membrane of similar tubes that roofs over most of the habitable interior space). Function notwithstanding, its appearance on the exterior gives a very strong sense of industrial styling, and the bride unit that connects the different parts of the complex continues this theme by looking very like the chain-guard or similar part of some machine-tool: it is part of the image of progressive industrialism being worked up in the same period by US industrial designers like Norman Bel Geddes and Raymond Loewy. Through their efforts, in particular, it began to look like the beginnings of an all-American architecture in the buildings of the New York World's Fair of 1939. It came to nothing (for a variety of historically compelling reasons such as the war) well, almost nothing, because the sub-style known as Streamline Moderne has left a few popular monuments to grace the American scene, particularly in California where extravaganzas like the Pan Pacific Auditorium look entirely at home in the Hollywood ambiance. But as a national style and a serious style it never made it. Johnson Wax alone survives as a testimony to what might have been.

It will always be remembered for the interior of the general office, a fantastic fish-tank roofed in concrete lily-pads and the membrane of transluscent glass. It was not Wright's first office, and he had earlier shown his preference for deep, toplit work-spaces fitted out with office-equipment purpose-designed by himself. At Racine, the decks follow the bull-nosed aesthetic of the exterior, and have semi-circular ends, while the structural lily-pads on stems run all through the building, supporting not only gossamer glass ceilings, but also quite massive structures such as over-bridges

When he came back to Johnson Wax, after the war, to design the laboratory tower, he decided to build the whole structure around a single lily-pad stem, and cocoon it in glass tubes even round the bull-nosed corners. Alternating round and square work-floors are speared on single central column like meat and vegetables on a kebab skewer. The circular floors are slightly smaller than the square ones and do not quite reach the outer skin which consists as one sees it from outside, of alternating bands of brickwork and glass tubing on a square plan.

Although the corners are still snubbed off, as on the earlier block, the effect of the tall banded tower is no longer primitive industrial design, but vaguely pharmaceutical or even electronic. The image of industrial progress had shifted and Wright with it, keeping an accurate finger on the pulse of technology even when pleading loudest for ‘the natural house’.


Banham R. Age of the Masters: A Personal View of Modern Architecture. Harper & Row., 1975. P. 103-105.
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