DESIGNER COLUMNS & BLOGS / Architecture Is Fun

Posted in Architecture Is Fun on August 28, 2014 2:26 pm EDT

All Googly-Eyed

God is in the details of Frank Lloyd Wright's Administration Building in Racine, Wis. The building is packed with architectural elements that project positive energy. Question: Does your workspace inspire you?









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TAGS: architecture, placemaking,


By Peter Exley, FAIA, and Sharon Exley, MAAE, ASID

On a terrific summer’s day we revisited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Administration Building, the expressive structure designed for SC Johnson and Son in Racine, Wis. Originally opened in 1939, the administration building is celebrated as one of the American Institute of Architects top 25 buildings of the 20th Century. With good reason, as it is truly a work of art that set a paradigm of innovation and adventure – a perfect match for the culture and spirit of the SC Johnson company.

Administration Building with Research Tower, by Stephen Matthew Milligan (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

The purposely low carport ceiling leads directly to the lobby of the administration building and into the “Great Room” where the sky explodes above you. Surrounded by the slender mushroom columns with light streaming in overhead, you cannot help but notice that Wright has created an uplifting place in which to work. In fact, the half-acre workspace seems almost Gothic in its aspirations. Soaring, structurally defined and light filled, could equally describe the emotive and physical attributes often attached to the great cathedrals. The administration building is still relevant, meaningful, and functioning in the way Wright designed, some 75 years later.

"It's easy to Google-ify places. But it makes them trivial, repetitive, predictable, presumably short lived and to be sure without embedded meaning. It is not the most responsible way to approach design."

—Sharon Exley,President, Architecture Is Fun

For the SC Johnson and Son Company, Wright’s administration building is a symbol of its culture in its age. The Johnsons were investors in design exploration; to which end, Wright provided a building unlike anything else of its time. It was and remains truly innovative. The three-story half-acre building was conceived out of “new” materials and technologies. Wright employed reinforced concrete and used over 43 miles of Pyrex glass tubing in his design, using it to diffuse light into workspace. The most memorable features are the structural “dendriform” columns that soar 30 feet tall. At the ceiling, the forest of columns appear as lily-like concrete pads living amongst the skylights. Each column tapers at the base to only nine inches in diameter, making the mushroom columns terrifically elegant. Built to house over 200 employees, the administration building consists of the Great Workroom, the second-story mezzanine offices for supervisors, an adjoining second-story theatre, third-story executive offices and a squash court positioned over part of the carport. In the American workplace of the 1930’s, this was one of the first uses of indoor plants, healthy air circulation, conscious natural lighting, and advanced ergonomic details that include low-rise front steps and the cork ceiling and rubber floor tiles to reduce noise.

Back in 1939, Frank Lloyd Wright had already solved the cubicle problem. He created an artful workplace, one that was healthy and responsible, utilized new technologies and shifted the culture of the workplace by creating openness. In today’s office environments, public space and collaboration are all the rage. As we strolled around the administration building interior, we pondered the creation of the “hip” office. The plethora of these new office interiors try to make the most of generic office and or loft spaces; we call them Google-esque, acknowledging the “pioneer” of this syndrome. Today’s ambition is casual, filling the workplace with coffee bars, table-tennis tables, dart boards, and rooms that resemble aquariums, trains, even, apartments. These are the oft repeated “innovative” ideas behind our “novel” workplaces. These are workplace one-liners and gimmicks used for recruitment. But they are inward-facing, not outward reaching, endemic of a throw-away culture. They aren’t built to last.  continued >>