The Great Workroom on the dining table
S C Johnson & Son, Inc of Racine Wisconsin produce domestic cleaning products, of which the best-known is Johnson’s Wax. In the mid-1930s the president Herbert ‘Hib’ Johnson commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a headquarters for the company with offices and research laboratories. The building’s walls are of red brick, the floors are smooth concrete, and - since this is a Johnson building – all surfaces are polished to a high gloss. The Great Workroom for clerical staff is a tall space whose roof is made from circular concrete plates supported on columns that get wider towards the top. Wright called them ‘lily pad columns’. Between the pads are rooflights of Pyrex glass tubing.
Building inspectors were suspicious of the proposed slenderness of these columns at the base, and required Wright to construct a test column and place twelve tons of load onto it. It passed the test easily, and Wright ordered that the load be increased to sixty tons. Only then did cracks start to appear. The photo shows the test in progress. Wright (at the right) is wearing his signature broad-brimmed hat.
The Canadian playwright Robert Lepage is known for his spectacular technical effects and visual coups de théâtre. His play Geometry of Miracles is centred on the characters of Frank Lloyd Wright and the mystical guru George Gurdjieff, spiritual guide to Wright’s wife Olgivanna. In one scene ‘Hib’ Johnson is expected for dinner at Wright’s studio Taliesin, but the drawings of the Racine building are not ready. Wright primes his apprentices, and when Johnson arrives and sits down to table, they bring champagne flutes and saucers, set the glasses out in lines, balance the saucers on top and – hey presto! – there is the Great Workroom.
“Where’s the form, the shape, the box?” asks Johnson.
“We’ve deconstructed it, Mr Johnson’, say the apprentices (rather precociously for 1935). Johnson is convinced, agrees to the design, and goes away happy. In life, presumably, the commissioning process was not quite so simple.
Robert Lepage, The Geometry of Miracles, first performed by LePage’s company Ex Machina in Toronto in 1998