By Libby Castro Special to Published Sep 24, 2009 at 2:05 PM

Project Honor
Racine, Wis.
Lord Norman Foster and Partners


Welcome to my blog OnDesign. In this space, I'll write about architectural projects in Wisconsin and in other parts of the country. 

Have you heard about the new SC Johnson building in Racine? I'm a Racine native, and I am very proud of the SC Johnson campus designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW). The campus is just blocks away from my family home and across the street from my old school. I am excited about this one, too. SC Johnson hired Foster and Partners out of London, England. Lord Norman Foster is an architect I admire as well. Think "The Gherkin" in London or "Expo MRT Station" in Singapore.

It's an honor to have him work on a building here in Wisconsin. Speaking of "honor," that's what this building is all about. Sam Johnson passed away a couple of years ago and his son, Fisk (current president of SC Johnson), lead the commission so appropriately named, "Project Honor" in remembrance of his late father and former President of SC Johnson.

The two of them, with Fisk's brother, Curt, went to Brazil in a sea plane in 1998. They were retracing the steps of Sam's father, H.F., who went to Brazil in a similar plane in 1935. The Johnsons do business in Brazil as they extract wax from the Carnauba tree for their products. The plane they used in 1998 is called the Carnauba and it will be on display in the main hall (Fortaleza Hall) of the Project Honor building as if flying through mid-air. I heard that they found the plane that H.F. flew back in 1935, it crashed in an unrelated incident (H.F. no longer owned the plane and was not flying it) off the shores of New Guinea where it still resides. Fisk wanted to recover the plane and display it along with the Carnauba, but I don't know if they were able to do so.

To give you a little background on the notorious SC Johnson campus, it was a year after H.F.'s expedition to Brazil that he hired the renowned architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. At that time, FLW was a bit of a has-been in architecture and this commission turned things around for him and breathed new life into his career. The SC Johnson campus proved to be one of the most notable works of FLW's career and 20th century architecture in general.

The plan was originally designed for a printing press in Oregon that never came to fruition. FLW dusted them off and H.F. dug it. FLW tried to convince H.F. to build the campus out in the country where the air was fresh and the scenery peaceful, but H.F. refused and insisted it be built in the city where the people of Racine were. As a silent or not so silent protest, FLW developed the Pyrex tubing for all of the windows that allows light in, but no views out. Another revolutionary design element was the two-story mushroom columns that adorn the main double height work room. FLW even designed the furniture and seating (as was typical on all buildings and building types he designed).

When seeing this building and all of the innovative ideas that went in and on it, I am amazed that it's from 1935 and 1950 (research tower). It still looks and feels like a modern building, albeit leaky and cracked and modified slightly due to FLW's ideas being a bit before their time. Now, we have developed ways of doing flat roofs, tubing for lighting and his research tower would have been functional and not closed up due to lack of attention to fire codes and the like.

I want to commend H.F. Johnson for taking a chance on the haughty FLW and not backing down when the campus that FLW said he could build H.F. for $200,000 turned out to be over $800,000 because it mattered. It mattered to the people who work at SC Johnson, the city of Racine and anyone with an appreciation for forward thinking architecture. It sets a good example for companies that have the ability to make a difference in addition to making a buck.

That campus commission, a sprawling work complex sited the world over for its aesthetics, functionality and new way of working (open concept), lead to several buildings on the campus as well as Wingspread located a few miles north of the building campus. Originally designed for H.F. and his family and is now used as a conference center. For a while SC Johnson went local, hiring the likes of Zimmerman Architectural Studios and Eppstein Uhen Architects, both based in Milwaukee. It seems they have returned to hiring "starchitects" in contracting Lord Norman Foster and Partners.

There is no clear connection from Lord Foster to Wisconsin, but a likely reason Fisk hired them is to draw the savvy architecture lovers to Racine. Currently, the campus draws over 25,000 visitors a year. Not far from Chicago or Milwaukee, but a good inconvenience from either of those destinations.

Let me tell you what I know about the new building so far. The 40-foot structure sits on the north east corner of the FLW Campus and Fortaleza Hall comprises of a 17,000-sq. ft. round glass structure with a 2,285-sq. ft. elliptical skylight designed to show off the plane(s) Fisk would like to display and be visible even from the street. I don't think it will be as visible from the street as Fisk had hoped. With the Golden Rondelle closest to the street, the very high fence and trees planted just behind that fence, the most an unsuspecting passerby will get is a glimpse of light.

The back of the building seen from Villa Street and which houses the Community Center and employee amenities is a brick structure that seems to take cues from the buildings that FLW designed, but does not try to blend in entirely. It is a bit too early to tell as the building is under construction, but I see it being a glowing beacon and an inspiration to tell the story of an American dream.

My hope for SC Johnson is that they continue working with the caliber of architects they started with. I know they set the bar high with FLW, but there are many architecture firms, local and otherwise, that could continue to serve the Johnsons and Racine well. I think Fisk chose wisely with Lord Norman Foster and Partners as it appears to be a beautiful building thus far. I am happy to see him follow in his grandfather's footsteps and remind us all that design does matter. I can't speak for the employees and the family members of SC Johnson, but I think your father would truly be honored, Fisk.

Check it out. Just be warned, the current viewings of the FLW campus are at 12 p.m. on Fridays only. I couldn't get a definitive answer as to how the tours would run for the new building, but it is scheduled to open in January of 2010 and will be open to the public on specified tour dates and special events. There are other cool buildings in Racine, several homes by FLW, one just east on 14th street as it spills out onto Main Street.

Also, there is a very cool new home designed by Milwaukee's Johnsen Schmaling Architects and I will blog about this house at a later date. It has been causing quite the stir in Racine, tell me what you think. And lastly, while you're in Racine, check out (arguably) one of the best darned burger joints in Wisconsin, Kewpee's.




Libby Castro Special to
Libby received her Masters of Architecture from Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah Georgia and spent one year in Florence Italy with Syracuse University. While in Florence she worked for and Italian architect/industrial designer. She lived in San Francisco for eight years immediately after college. There she worked for three architecture firms with projects ranging from the nuts and bolts of retail to retail branding to high end residential and custom commercial buildings. Libby returned to her native Wisconsin where she is the Architecture and Design Manager for Novation Architectural Products and a partner in LP/w Design Studios. To date, her most accomplished and important job is mom of two beautiful girls.