SC Johnson Wax Campus – Racine, Wisconsin

During the Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2015, SC Johnson Wax sponsored free tours of the SC Johnson Wax Campus and Wingspread home in Racine, Wisconsin. Even though I’m not a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright (I’m a Sullivan guy through and through), I jumped at the chance to see a building that is in the architectural history books. I came back to Chicago relatively impressed, but my position on FLW hadn’t changed much. With the Mies and FLW disdain, I’m sure I’ve alienated a good portion of the Chicago architecture community. Come at me, ghost of FLW.

SC Johnson Wax HQ – FLW

Low-slung and spread out Prairie-Style, it is hard to get a full read on the overall headquarters building. Indeed the design is more focused on moments and sequence, as well as structural gymnastics, versus an overall read. I found the sequence to be quite intriguing. The lowering of the ceiling at the garage and entry level plus the steps up to the entry served to heighten the experience of the grand hall of the Admin building (no pictures because interior shots weren’t allowed – this rule needs to die 1000 deaths, stop doing it). The materiality of the building is quite wonderful with brick, limestone, concrete, and Pyrex tube glazing. Bet someone had a fit detailing that one.

Research Tower – FLW

The coolest part of the Admin building campus? The Research Tower. All the floor slabs are coming off of a singular core tower allowing for double height, column free lab spaces. Of course the single tower isn’t code compliant and has one narrow stair but hey – structural gymnastics! Plus the Pyrex tubing and brick bands make for a great graphic counterpoint to the low-slung admin building.

Fortaleza Hall – Norman Foster

The highlight for me was the newer, beautifully detailed building that Norman Foster designed on the campus. In many ways it is a Museum for SC Johnson, and the building feels that way. There is a linear brick used that connects it to Wright’s building, along with the curvilinear form and large overhanging roof. The atrium contains a world map inlaid into the floor and an airplane hanging from the ceiling (I forget the significance). Overall it is a very nice contrast to FLW but still fits in.

Wingspread – FLW

Back to FLW and in another part of Racine lies the Wingspread house that FLW designed for the Johnson family. It’s a bit different from other FLW houses I’ve visited – it’s got a radial layout, a bitchin’ cantilever, and a crow’s nest. I was not able to go in the crow’s nest. There were some nice details and materiality in the design, and the center double height space is a great spot for lounging.

Next up will probably be quite a few Columbus posts ramping up to Exhibit Columbus in August. Everyone should visit my hometown and see all of the installations if in the Midwest area.

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Josh Mings

Architect and painter. Columbus, IN born, New Orleans educated, Chicago living and trying to leave the world better than I found it.