Frank Lloyd Wright, who drew so much inspiration from the wide open spaces of middle America, designed just two high-rise buildings. The second, completed late in his long career, was 1956’s Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The first opened six years before that, as an addition to one of his already-famous projects. That was the headquarters of S. C. Johnson & Son, better known as Johnson Wax, in Racine, Wisconsin. Seen at a distance, the Research Tower stands out as the signal feature of the complex, but it’s the earlier Administration Building that offered the world a glimpse of the future of work.
The Administration Building’s construction finished in 1939. Back then, says Vox’s Phil Edwards (himself an established Wright fan) in the video above, “offices were small and cramped, or private. This building had a spacious central room instead, meant to encourage the spread of ideas.” Such a concept may sound familiar — perhaps all too familiar — to anyone who’s ever worked in what we now call an “open-plan office.” But it was daring at the time, and it seems that no architect has ever implemented it quite as strikingly again. What other office makes you “feel like you’re underwater, that you’re in, maybe, a lily pond”?
That description comes from architect and Wright scholar Jonathan Lipman, one of the experts Edwards consults on his own pilgrimage to Johnson Wax Headquarters. He wanted to spend some time working there himself, something easily arranged since S. C. Johnson has by now moved most of its operations into other facilities. But however satisfying it feels to sit in the shade of Wright’s “dendriform columns” sprouting throughout the Great Workroom, the experience proves unsatisfying. “It wasn’t a real thing without any people around,” Edwards says, “without the energy of being in that office.”
Wright spoke of his intentions to create “as inspiring a place to work in as any cathedral ever was to worship in.” Today, amid the silent absence of typists on the ground floor and managers on the mezzanine, the Administration Building must feel holier than ever. The space exudes a magnificent loneliness, and opening a MacBook to log into Slack surely intensifies the loneliness rather than the magnificence. “In 1939, this was the future of work,” Edwards says. “These big corporate campuses, the Googles and Metas and Amazons: they owe a debt to this campus here.” But for the increasingly many living the remote-work life, even those twenty-first-century big-tech headquarters have begun to seem like temples from a passing era.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.