Frank Lloyd Wright and the Johnson Wax Buildings (review)
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Frank Lloyd Wright and the Johnson Wax Buildings by Jonathan Lipman. Dover Publications, Minneola, NY, U.S.A., 2003. 224 pp., illus. Paper. ISBN 0-486-42748-X.

Nearly 20 years ago, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University organized a traveling exhibition that opened at the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., and was afterwards installed, during the next two and a half years, at 10 other major museums across the country. Titled Frank Lloyd Wright and the Johnson Wax Buildings: Creating a Corporate Cathedral, the exhibition focused on the planning, design and construction of the two major components (the Administration Building, completed in 1939, and the Research Tower, completed in 1950) of the corporate headquarters of the Johnson Wax Company in Racine, Wisconsin. To accompany the exhibition, a book-length study was produced by Rizzoli, of which this newly published book is an unabridged reissue. Its author is the (then young) architectural historian who curated the original exhibition and has since gone on to write other books about the architect, preside over the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy and serve as an expert consultant for a number of Wright restorations. Born in 1953, only three years after the completion of the Johnson Research Tower, Jonathan Lipman has devoted much of his life to becoming an authority on Wright's creative process and to preserving the structures that evidence that. Not surprisingly, this is a book of unusual detail, some of it fairly technical and, yet, because of the varied and interesting mix of vintage photographs, architectural [End Page 259] drawings, accounts by Wright's apprentices and other eyewitnesses, sometimes combative letters between architect and client and all kinds of behind-the-scenes sources, it really does read like a novel while also maintaining the more serious tone of scholarly sleuthing. Of particular interest is Lipman's insightful discussion of Wright's Prairie Style residential buildings (which were "extroverted and integrated with the landscape") in contrast to his public buildings, the Johnson Wax buildings among them, which were almost always closed off from their surroundings (being "introspective and virtually windowless"). As in any book about the colorful and then-controversial architect, amusing anecdotes abound, such as the short-lived suggestion by the company's board of directors that the finished building should be identified by a neon sign. One of Wright's underlings answered: "When this building is finished it is going to be such a contribution that you won't need any sign. After all, there's no sign on the Washington Monument." [End Page 260]

Roy R. Behrens
Department of Art, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA, U.S.A. E-mail: <ballast@netins.net>.

Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review.

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