Monday, March 01, 2010

Wright Across the Border

On Friday, I took my Mom on a cultural field trip to Racine, about 1/2 hour north of the Illinois-Wisconsin border, to take tours of some architectural splendors, both old and new.

Racine is the home, as it long has been, of the SC Johnson Wax Company, makers of Pledge, Raid, Ziploc, Windex, Off!, Glade, Scrubbing Bubbles and other top brands, which according to them, means 95% of American households use one or more of their products. Back in the 1930's, in the midst of the depression, SC Johnson commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design their administration building, which he famously did (for 3x the original budget).

Before I get to the architecture, one more note about the SC Johnson company itself, which I found interesting. It is a privately held company, still owned and run by members of the Johnson family, never sold to P&G, Nestle, an equity firm or anyone else. And as our tour guide--herself a SC Johnson employee--explained, during the current recession, the company has not laid off a single person. I don't know if this is because their household brands may be somewhat recession-proof, but I want to attribute it to the fact that they don't have to answer to Wall Street. So even if they didn't make as much money in 2Q 2009 as they did the year before, they still made billions and no one had to lose their job to appease shareholders. Does this make sense, to the economists out there?

Anyway, I digressed. The SC Johnson Administration Building, along with the Wright-designed (but now empty) tower built a few years later, is considered one of the architectural masterworks of the 20th century, particularly the "Great Workroom" at its core. I had taken a tour of this years ago, but my Mom never had. Unfortunately, this time around, photography was banned, so the pic just below is from about 15 years ago.

What actually prompted our excursion on Friday, however, was a new structure on the SC Johnson Campus designed by Sir Norman Foster, a highly acclaimed current architect in the strata of Gehry, Calatrava, Liebskind and a few others. Called Fortaleza Hall, it houses employee amenities, such as a cafeteria and fitness center, but most prominently houses a replica airplane. Back in the '30s the head Johnson flew to Fortaleza, Brazil, to scout out a new source of wax for the company's products; the plane he used was wrecked years later, but the next two generations of Johnson men would fly to Fortaleza again in 1998 in the replica plane.

Fortaleza Hall was pleasant but not exactly exhilarating. I like Foster's style, seen in NYC's Hearst Building and the Bilbao Subway, and it's kind of nifty for his work to show up in Racine, but a nice building--with subtle but not many overt references to Wright--housing an old airplane didn't make for a real fascinating tour.

The tour of the Administration Building was much better and I recommend that you visit it as the focus of any trip to Racine. But even better was a tour--though more so a self-guided inside look--of Wingspread, the home Wright designed for the Johnson family right after he did the Administration Building.

I've had the pleasure of being inside well over 20 Wright-designed homes & structures, and every one seems uniquely fascinating to me. So seeing Wingspread was a real pleasure, especially as I've wanted to for years, and never could when I was regularly working. It's one of Wright's biggest homes, and certainly a striking reminder of why he's considered the greatest American architect ever.

1 comment:

Bobster Rashkow said...

Seth, Wingspread looks like a beautiful mansion. Is it a lakefront property? Or, to put it another way, where in Racine is it located? I've seen the exterior of the SC Johnson building but never the Johnson home.