Johnson Wax Administration Building and Research Tower: Frank Lloyd Wright
by Brian Carter. Phaidon, 1998. 60pp. £19.95
Amounting now to 60 volumes, Phaidon's 'Architecture in Detail' series has since 1991 become a classic of architectural publishing - essential reading for architects and students alike, writes Patrick Hodgkinson. In large but slim format, each volume is generally concerned with one building by a master - not necessarily modern - with concise, factual text, fine photography, and precise drawings including the strategic constructional details.
In this instance Brian Carter's text is workmanlike. He singles out the facts that brought two giants together to risk an extraordinary idea, which was realised by Wright's design team, Johnson's aides, and a fine contractor in two stages - first the Administration Building at Racine, Wisconsin (1936), and 12 years later the pagoda-like Research Tower alongside, together making a monument to freedom for that era. Peter Cook's photographs - though sadly lacking a 'wow'-shot of the main space - are certainly adequate, while John Hewitt's drawings explain the concept and its details succinctly.
Too many writers, over time, have been too critical of Wright; his arrogance alone was always an easy target. Yet Fallingwater, Johnson Wax and Guggenheim showed a constructive path for those also capable of originality. These buildings still make the imagination race.
Wright apparently had no idea when conceiving the first part of Johnson Wax that the second would be needed; God must have held his pencil. They are incomplete without each other. The great workroom - not really a room because its cornice is replaced by glass - is rather, as Carter reminds us, a walled garden filled with trees, their foliage dappling the sunlight from above: a notion of freedom alongside streamlining scarcely surpassed. Yet the research tower's structure grows out of a similar dendriform idea to become a single flower reaching skywards, its short stem nestled by lower concrete saplings, this time in the open.
To fail to understand Wright is to fail dishonourably. I hope this admirable series will soon include his Guggenheim.
Patrick Hodgkinson is emeritus professor of architecture and urbanism at Bath University