Frank Lloyd Wright’s landmark SC Johnson Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin, has gathered innumerable accolades over the years. Wright described it as designed ‘to be as inspiring a place to work in as any cathedral ever was
to worship in’. It attracted priceless publicity for
SC Johnson, one of the world’s leading makers of
household products. But soon after it opened, Wright’s
use of light in the building proved to be not only an
inspiration as intended, but also an engineering
nightmare for its ‘blessed’ occupants.
Wright used natural and artificial light to enrich the
lives of his clients. In 1936, the year he designed the
Administration Building, he expounded on light as
one of the foundations of architecture in a lecture to
the Royal Institute of British Architects: ‘More and
more, so it seems to me, light is the beautifier of the
building. Light always was the beautifier of the building
in the matter of shadows, but now it is the beautifier of
the building as a circumstance in itself, becoming the
blessing of the occupants.’
In 1936, SC Johnson was just weeks away from breaking
ground on a design by J Mandor Matson, a Racine
architect, when company president HF Johnson Jr was
persuaded to meet with Wright. Wright derided the
design as ‘a fancy crematorium’. Matson had presented
at least two proposals to Johnson. The innovative use
of light was not part of either programme.
The recommendation for Johnson to interview Wright
came from Jack Ramsey, the company’s general
manager. Ramsey had written a lengthy passionate
memo to his boss after his own first meeting with
Wright two days earlier. He wrote that an architect
who understood what the company wanted in its new
office building was ‘right under our noses in Wisconsin’.
He added that he had come to realise that ‘we should
disregard what we read in the newspapers about his
marital status, it has nothing to do with architecture’.
Johnson, roughly half Wright’s age, recalled that they
quarrelled about everything but their choice of car, the
streamlined Lincoln Zephyr. Nevertheless, Wright must
have charmed him because Johnson dismissed Matson
and sent Wright a generous retainer two days later.
Johnson’s visit came during dark times at Taliesin.
Opposite: the Great Workroom, with its forest of columns, interspersed with
skylights. Wright aspired to make a workplace as inspiring as a cathedral
Overleaf: supplemental lighting was needed above the skylights