What It’s Like to Work in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Iconic Office Building

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A Vir­tu­al Tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Lost Japan­ese Mas­ter­piece, the Impe­r­i­al Hotel in Tokyo

12 Famous Frank Lloyd Wright Hous­es Offer Vir­tu­al Tours: Hol­ly­hock House, Tal­iesin West, Falling­wa­ter & More

Build Wood­en Mod­els of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Great Build­ing: The Guggen­heim, Uni­ty Tem­ple, John­son Wax Head­quar­ters & More

When Frank Lloyd Wright Designed a Dog­house, His Small­est Archi­tec­tur­al Cre­ation (1956)

The Mod­ernist Gas Sta­tions of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe

When the Indi­ana Bell Build­ing Was Rotat­ed 90° While Every­one Worked Inside in 1930 (by Kurt Vonnegut’s Archi­tect Dad)

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.

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  • Andrew Przybysz says:

    I think you for­got the Larkin Soap Admin­is­tra­tion build­ing designed and con­struct­ed by Wright in Buf­fa­lo.
    That was his first mul­ti-sto­ry office struc­ture.
    Sad­ly, it was demol­ished before his impor­tance to archi­tec­tur­al tourism had been known.
    Buf­fa­lo still boasts 5 oth­er FLW struc­tures to vis­it includ­ing the most pris­tine restora­tion you will find any­where in the US- the Dar­win Mar­tin house on Jew­ett pkwy.

  • Maggie says:

    It’s one of my favorite build­ings. For­tu­nate­ly, I live close enough to do the tour occa­sion­al­ly.

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