When Johnson Wax wanted a meeting centre at their headquarters they had a tough act to follow what with the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings dominating the campus. They called in Norman Foster.
The building is composed of two sections, this circular space sunken twenty feet below grade with tall glass walls and a sort of flying saucer top, and a curved two-storey structure that wraps around the back of the glass atrium. You can see in this photo that the roof appears to just float on a clear glass wall which it pretty well does (of course it’s actually held up by thin columns which also contain the electrical and drainage). The curved glass is specially manufactured. It’s an inch thick and yet completely transparent, which is quite a feat because usually iron in the glass would give it a slight tint.
The glass building is actually built to house a replica of an aeroplane from the 1930s that one of the Johnson family members used on his trip to the Amazon in search of raw materials for… uh, wax, I guess. You can sort of see the plane in the image below. The grass is mowed short in front of the building to create a sort of runway and the illusion is pretty good of a plane coming in to land.
The brick building is actually not brick, but stone (don’t ask what stone, I forget). Although you can’t tell from my photos of the Wright buildings, the bricks in those buildings have a strong horizontal emphasis, with the vertical mortar shaded differently than the horizontal mortar to emphasize the horizontal lines. Foster echoed this.
Entering the building the first thing that you see is the rather impressive staircase and the infinity pool fountain directly below it. The pool is at the same height as the floor with only a very narrow drainage gap surrounding it so it really just looks like a perfectly rectangular puddle. The vertical garden is filled with real plants, in case you were wondering.
The pool is fed by a curved water curtain, as seen here. Unfortunately I think water probably splashes onto the floor a lot, requiring the use of these slippery floor warning signs. I imagine they’re there all the time. This seems like a design oversight and does rather ruin the look.
Here you can see the plane. It’s only a replica because the real one crashed I believe. It was lost, anyway, for years and, as luck would have it, was rediscovered shortly after this replica was constructed. Apparently this plane can be raised and lowered in the building, though why you would want to do this I don’t know.
Going downstairs into the assembly area and looking up you can see that the stairs lead to an upper level with this coffee shop area. There’s also a bank and some other stuff for employees.
Here you can see what the lower level looks like. The walls are made of 14 ton concrete blocks which were pre-case and lowered into place. The image you see on them is actually a photograph from the Amazon that was taken on the fateful trip taken by Mr. Johnson all those years ago (yeah, there’s a fair bit of propaganda that goes on during this tour). The impressive thing about these walls is that the image is actually created by texture caste into the concrete. I should have taken a close up photo. The height variation of the concrete surface is quite large, which is what creates the image. The floor has a map of North America made out of chips of Brazilian wood embedded in the floor and polished to perfection. Actually, everywhere we went the floors were quite spectacular. I suppose that’s to be expected. I believe the benches are made of the same wood.
You may be sick of photos of this plane. I got a bit sick of it. But you can see the skylight above now. You can also perhaps make out how many video cameras are up there. I can count at least three. The whole place is wired up like Fort Knox. I don’t recommend trying to break in to steal their wax.
This isn’t the best photo, but it gives a good idea of what the whole place looks like. As you can see it’s not actually a huge building.
Another view of the stairs. They really are impressive.
We weren’t allowed to go to the upper level, but if we had these are the steps we would have taken.
And finally we left. You can see that the entrance and exit (or exit and entrance if you will) are identical.