Skylights at Johnson Wax. Built to leak.

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kcschmengle

Skylights at Johnson Wax. Built to leak.

Post by kcschmengle »

I am an architect and have done a fair amount of reading on the Johnson Wax Headquarters Building. I was fortunate to be able to pay a visit to Racine last summer to see the building. It's still every bit the masterpiece that it was in 1938.



The thing that still baffles me, with everything I've read, is how Wright convinced himself that that skylight system could be made weathertight. The system is pretty simple; rows of pyrex tubes laid horizontally, supported by aluminum armatures and calked together. This created multiplicity of parallel horizontal joints as a primary weather barrier, with no secondary strategy for handling any water that came through (other than a bucket on the floor).



Wright was many things but he was not stupid. He had to have known in his own mind not merely that this design could leak but that it WOULD leak. And further, being pretty shrewed about how he was perceived publicly, how this willful failure of technical design would tarnish the legend of this building.



The bottom line is that the skylight design never did work and even the later introduction of modern silicone based sealants can't resurrect this concept. As I understand it the original workroom skylights have been reworked as more conventional glass skylights (that keep the water out).



In summary, I'd guess I'd like to know if anyone agrees with me that, 1) Wright knew the technical principles of sound skylight design, 2) He knew his horizontally sealed pyrex tube design was not sound and WOULD inevitably suffer significant leaks and, 3) He didn't really care about the discomfort this would cause to the occupants, the maintenance cost to his clients and damage to his professional reputation - making his masterpiece something less than an unqualified success?

DRN

Post by DRN »

In todays world, Wright would most certainly have been sued for water damage and the costs of implementing a new design. I don't understand Johnson's god-like patience with this issue, as I believe the leaking in great workroom went on for some time. The solution was simple, at least for the skylights: build standard glass skylights over/outside the originals to protect them from rain. I believe the current condition has the Pyrex tubes removed from the workroom skylights and plastic panels that looklike Pyrex in their place beneath the standard outer skylight to provide access for changing lightbulbs.



I'm not sure how wind driven water infiltration was handled at the Tower or the cornice-like tubes that ring the great workroom, though I understand better sealants were developed over time.



There are numerous instances of Wright's overly optimistic use of wood structural elements as well as flashings or sealants. I wonder if to him the purity of the design concept sometimes took precedence with him over the realities of the materials he was using. If there was any question of the suitability of the caulk, a test panel could have been made and tested. Even in the 1930's it was not accepted practice to use caulk as the sole barrier to water on a horizontal surface. In today's world that would constitute negligence. In his day I think it did also.

JimM
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Joined: Thu Jan 06, 2005 5:44 pm
Location: Austin,Texas

Re: Skylights at Johnson Wax. Built to leak.

Post by JimM »

kcschmengle wrote:
In summary, I'd guess I'd like to know if anyone agrees with me that, 1) Wright knew the technical principles of sound skylight design, 2) He knew his horizontally sealed pyrex tube design was not sound and WOULD inevitably suffer significant leaks and, 3) He didn't really care about the discomfort this would cause to the occupants, the maintenance cost to his clients and damage to his professional reputation - making his masterpiece something less than an unqualified success?


Yes, without a doubt on point 1 & 3, but optimistically "hopeful" on point 2. I think he did not look at them as simply "skylights". Rather, as always, he focused only on the effect he needed to complement the vision as a whole; not any related costs or possible problems. This was always true. Discomfort or cost was never a factor, especially when someone could afford them!



I'm sure Johnson assumed Wright was a good enough architect to seal a skylight and was very surprised when they leaked, regardless of the revolutionary design. In the end, as a business man he was surely grateful the advertising and marketing value more than made up for any "shortcomings". Wright was well aware of this; it was that confidence in himself that propelled him to creative heights. Leaky roofs were annoyances to be dealt with....but you never want to leave the room!

pharding
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Joined: Sat Jun 25, 2005 5:19 pm
Location: River Forest, Illinois
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Post by pharding »

FLW was supremely self-confident and intentionally pushed the technical envelope. Many times this strategy worked. Sometimes it did not work and his building needed a retrofit. The retrofit in this case was required and it consisted of building a skylight over the glass tubes. FLW was a great architect, not a perfect architect.
Paul Harding FAIA Owner and Restoration Architect for FLW's 1901 E. Arthur Davenport House, the First Prairie School House in Chicago | www.harding.com | LinkedIn

rgrant

Post by rgrant »

I'm not going to jump in here and insist on the point, but I do believe the skylights were always covered. There was not just a big glass shed on the roof, but lights that conformed in shape to the pyrex lights below. I suspect they leaked because the skylight housing caused water to collect over the dendriforms between the skylights. I also believe the pyrex dome was always covered. But wherever the pyrex was visible outside, it was not protected.

kcschmengle

Pushing the technical envelope vs. ignoring it.

Post by kcschmengle »

pharding wrote:FLW was supremely self-confident and intentionally pushed the technical envelope. .


My contention is that Wright wasn't pushing the envelope in the case of the Johnson Building skylights but disregarding the technical requirements altogether.



I'm thinking that Wright was so entranced with this spatial and lighting concept that he ignored the technical requirements of skylight design entirely. In the same way of a lover who would tell you, in retrospect, that they saw the shortcomings of their partner and their inevitable incompatability, but pursued the relationship regardless of the ultimate cost.



Wright was a supremely talented architect and technician. But his very sensitivity and love (not too strong a word) for the poetic aspects of architecture led him into many ill-fated encounters with the realities of technical design. I don't devalue him or his architecture because of it. I just think it's fascinating evidence of his personal passion for architecture. He certainly paid a high price for his devotion.

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