SC Johnson Headquarters

During a trip to the USA in August, I drove 90 minutes from Chicago to Racine, Wisconsin to visit the SC Johnson Wax Headquarters. The industrial campus has been famous for the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Administration Building and Research Tower which captured architectural inspirations since the 1930’s and 1950’s respectively.

A recent addition to the place is the Fortaleza Hall designed by Foster + Partners. Opened in 2010, the hall presents to visitors items related to the Johnson’s Family and their business philosophy. Together with the facility building featuring curved corners behind, the new complex houses staff facilities such as dining, banking, a fitness centre and a library / reading room dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture.

The Golden Rondelle Theatre

Arriving early in the morning, I checked into the visitor centre underneath the Golden Rondelle Theatre. The theatre itself has an interesting history. The UFO-shaped theatre was originally designed by Lippincott and Margulies as the futuristic Johnson Wax Pavillion for the 1964-65 New York’s World’s Fair. After the fair, it was dismantled and brought back to Racine. Taliesin Associated Architects, who were students of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture school, was commissioned to redesign the structure to complement Wright’s buildings nearby. The result is a structure with shapes and colours which reminded me of Wright’s Gammate Auditorium at Arizona State University I visited a week earlier.

Fortaleza Hall

I booked in for two tours, one to the Fortaleza Hall and the other to the Administration Building. These tours are available free of charge to the public, following this link to reserve your place if you can fit this into our trip to America. We were then lead to the glass cylinder appearing to support the circular plate roof with ten thin columns. The central exhibit is the Carnaúba Airplane built by Sam Johnson during the 1990’s. It is a replica of his father’s old aircraft which flew to Fortaleza (Brazil) in the 1930’s to source an important ingredient for the major product of the company. With this new plane, he and his two sons followed the exact route in a late 1990’s expedition.

After Sam’s death in 2004, the family decided to build the hall with the aircraft as the focus. It is hung from the roof and appears to be taking off from the hall. The interior of the hall is minimalist, with a void looking down to the basement level accessed through two grand circular staircases. Between ground and upper floor is an open staircase over a reflecting pool, as one goes up, there is a soil-free vertical garden with South American native plants to the right. The upper floor dining area features a balcony with a gentle curved shape leading everyone’s eyes towards the focal point.

Unfortunately we were not allowed to take interior photographs, but interior photographs are available from Foster + Partners’ website.

Research Tower

After a short break we headed off to the Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings. As the Research Tower is now closed to public, we were only able to see it from the outside. It opened in 1950 and is one of the tallest buildings ever constructed on the cantilever principle. The central concrete core supports all the floors alternating between a circular and square floor plates. Like the Administration Building, the windows were formed from Pyrex glass tubings.

The research team used the building for 30 years but their requirements for space outgrew the building in the late 1970’s and they had to move to a larger premises nearby. Under the current fire regulations, the building in it’s current form cannot be used due to the lack of a second fire staircase, however, it remained a symbol of the company and continued to be lit at night like a lighthouse.

Administration Building

Photo © by Jeff Dean from Wikipedia

The Administration Building was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to be a “Centre of Creativity”. The most famous detail of the building is the mushroom-like dendriform columns supporting a circular plate. The gaps between these plates were filled with Pyrex glass tubings to act as skylights. The filtered light through these tubes produces a well lit interior most of the time so that the employees can work in this open office arrangement without the need of artificial light. The building is 70 years old but it still functions well despite the dramatic change in office environment since its opening.

Looking at the group of buildings above, I believe Foster + Partners has produced a great design to add to the existing world famous architecture on the campus. The circular floating plate roof is a tribute to the Wrightian column top in the Administration Building. All the curved corners of the facility building are apparently drawn from the Research Tower while the overall circular shape of the hall works well with the The Golden Rondelle Theatre. This is an exceptional example of designing contemporary architecture to fit in the immediate surroundings without mimicking the neighbours.

Further Reading
Plans and Sections of Administration and Research Buildings
3D Model of the Administration and Research Buildings


Openhouse – XTEN Architecture


A beautifully executed house with a commanding view of Hollywood. Designed by L.A. based firm XTEN Architecture. The husband and wife team Austin Kelly and Monika Haefelfinger once said Monika is rational while Austin is the opposite. It sounds like that the Yin and Yang balance makes the practice work.

open-house-2The horizontal folding form capture ones eyes and expresses itself as the main structure while the vertical elements are obviously secondary or even non-existent at times. The sliding glass panels making up the majority of the walls disappear into carefully designed pockets.

The indoor and outdoor forms a continous space with the smooth flow of flooring material out to the balcony, taking in the city skyline in its entirity.

open-house-3 The interior is clean and minimalist with very few colours. You would not need any more colours when you have the blue sky, city lights and a well manicured green garden brought into your home every minute. I can see both the rational minimalist and the expressionist working in this design.

I would absolutely love to own it (and rent it out to make a profit) or visit this place to appreciate the aesthetics but I cannot imagine myself living in it.

Although I love minimalist designs, my domestic self is messy, I prefer things lying everywhere around me with easy access. I collect and showcase my books, my CDs, my decades of architecture magazines. I have bookcases on every imaginable vertical surfaces in my room. My dockets have to be on my table or I will lose them forever, etc etc.

This house is designed for those who love orders and neatness. I might need some external force to balance me out before I can live in minimalist houses like this.

designmilk @ Flickr (Licenced by Creative Common)

Architectural Record

Further Reading:
Home Design Find
XTEN Architecture

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Architect’s Statement

The Openhouse is embedded into a narrow and sharply sloping property in the Hollywood Hills, a challenging site that led to the creation of a house that is both integrated into the landscape and open to the city below. Retaining walls are configured to extend the first floor living level into the hillside and to create gardens on two levels. The front, side and rear elevations of the house slide open to erase all boundaries between indoors and out, connecting the spaces to gardens on both levels.

Glass, in various renditions, is the primary wall enclosure material. There are forty-four sliding glass panels, each seven feet wide by ten feet high and configured to disappear into hidden pockets and allow for uninterrupted views and access to exterior terraces and gardens. There are also fixed glass walls, mirror glass walls and light gray specular glass panels which lend lightness to the interior spaces.

The glass walls are visually counterweighted by sculptural, solid elements in the house rendered in stone, dark stained oak, tinted concrete and plaster. The use of cut pebble flooring throughout the house, decks and terraces continues the indoor-outdoor materiality, which is amplifed when the glass walls slide away. The building finishes are few in number but applied in a multiplicity of ways throughout the project, furthering the experience of continuous open spaces from interior to exterior.

Set in a visible hillside area above Sunset Boulevard, the Openhouse appears as a simple folded line with recessed glass planes, a strong sculptural form at the scale of the site. The minimalist logic of the architecture is transformed by direct and indirect connections to nature. With the glass walls completely open the house becomes a platform defined by an abstract roof plane, a palette of natural materials, hillside, gardens and the views.



Spanish Pavilion, Expo 2008 – Francisco Mangado


We did not hear too much about Expo 2008 last year in the northern Spainish city of Zaragoza, partly because it was overshadowed by the Olympics in Beijing and also probably because Australia did not participate.

spanish-pav-2The theme chosen for last year was “Water and sustainable development”. The issue of sustainable water supply is directly related to our survival on this driest continent on earth. It was quite curious that Australia decided not to take part in it.

Designed by Francisco Mangado, the pavillion was one of the main focus of the expo. The 750 classical columns made from terracotta were placed around a glass-walled hall. The columns supports a thin roof which acts as solar and water collector.

spanish-pav-1The columns were intended to draw water up with a osmosis process through the clay and the evapouration of this water would cool down the building.

The columns were arranged in a pattern resembling a bamboo forest. The strong Spanish sun cast long and dense shadow to control the heat load. The reflection of the shallow pool gave a sublime sense with the use of water, the theme of the expo.

The use of fluted columns signified the continuity of western architectural traditions into the era of conservations. The tranditional form was transformed into an energy-conserving device. I wonder if the columns had a symbolic meaning that we should look into tranditional ways of living when we fight for the sustainability of life on our planet.

Photographs: (from top to bottom)
arquitextonica @ Flickr (Licenced by Creative Common)
srgblog @ Flickr (Licenced by Creative Common)
pictfactory @ Flickr (Licenced by Creative Common)

Further Reading:
Expo 2008
Francisco Mangado


Green Void – LAVA


I was in the Customs House last weekend. The overwhelming installation “Green Void” by LAVA was still there (until 10 June 2009) and it turned RED.

green-void-31Red lights and green lights indicate the exact opposite at road junctions. In the same sense, the calm, soothing green fabric installation connecting different sides and levels around the huge atrium became red: mysterious and dangerous. Looking through the tube hovering above me, I felt that it could suck me up and throw me out in an alternative universe. Just a change in colour can stir someone’s emotion.

green-void-11Slowly, green bubbles started to appear at the bottom. Were these going to spread and make the whole thing green again?

I suddenly thought of its similarities to the large number of products, building materials and architecture that claimed to be environmentally friendly. Are they truely green? Or is it just a tint of green light shone on a white surface? It might even turn into an opposite colour with a flick of switch by mistake. Many so-called “green” products use a lot energy in production, some “green” buildings requires careful control to work. Architects need to look into all that and make informed choices. Not easy.

Dr. Chatterjee wrote in Architecture Australia (May/June 2009, p.26) “The installation is capable of satifying a casual visitor as well as a highly learned audience.”

This is so true. But am I a casual visitor or a highly learned individual?

I stood there and sank into deep thinking.


Architecture Australia – May/June 2009, p.25-26

Further Reading:
Customs House
360 degree panorama by Peter Murphy


House N – Sou Fujimoto


House with a “box-in-a-box-in-a-box” concept for a retired couple.  They asked the architect Sou Fujimoto to reinterpret their home in a simple way when they decided to rebuild their house in Oita City (Kyushu, Japan).

Photo: japanese_craft_construction @ Flickr (Licenced by Creative Common)The outer box has no glass, so the space inside are still classified as external and not counted towards floor space. The middle box is the house.  The interplay between the outer and middle boxes creates a playful overlay of openings and solid on the walls and the roof. The inner box is the living / dinning hub in the same proportion as the middle box.

Photo: japanese_craft_construction @ Flickr (Licenced by Creative Common)I can’t help but to link this to the nesting dolls made by traditional Japanese craftsmen. Removing an outer doll to reveal an inner one is a metaphor of coming closer to your true self. The house with three shells also gives visitor a strong sense of coming closer to the real heart of the occupant’s domestic life. The shells roughly correspond to layers of privacy, public, semi-private and private in the concept of home we learnt from architectural school.

It was reported in the Architecture Review article (April 2009, p.50) that the neighbours are not alienated by the scale of the house.  All I can say is that, I wish the older generation in Australia and their neighbours are more open to ideas alternative to the usual suburban house.

japanese_craft_construction @ Flickr (Licenced by Creative Common)

Architectural Review – April 2009, p.48-53

Further Reading:
Sou Fujimoto Architects

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