Foster's Glass Museum Nods to FLW

August 11, 2010

Foster + Partners' new Fortaleza Hall is open and inviting, a striking contrast to the largely inward-looking buildings of S.C. Johnson & Son's Racine, Wis., corporate campus, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

“Fortaleza Hall has given us a unique opportunity to work alongside one of the finest Modern buildings in the world”—the Johnson Wax Building, 1936-1939—“and to tell a remarkable story of adventure and discovery,” said Norman Foster, Pritzker Architecture Prize winner and the design firm's principal. The structure is the first new building on the campus since Wright's Research Tower, designed in 1944 and completed in 1950.

While paying his respects to his predecessor, Foster steered clear of Wright's design vocabulary; instead, Foster chose to make Fortaleza Hall spherical and surrounded it on three sides with glass. The 60,000-sf facility, a company museum and event space, houses the Carnaúba—a replica twin-engine Sikorsky S-38 amphibious aircraft used by Samuel Johnson, Jr., and his sons in 1998 to re-create the trip his father, H.F. Johnson, Jr., took in 1935 to Fortaleza, Brazil, to find a sustainable source of carnauba wax. It has the most exterior glass of any building on the campus of the manufacturer of Windex, Pledge, Fantastik, Glade, and thousands of other home products.

Foster's exterior had to be completely transparent to showcase the Carnaúba, the Frank Lloyd Wright Reading Room and Library, and several other exhibits based on the rain forests of Brazil. This ruled out using regular low-e glass, because any blue or green tint would obscure the view into the interior. By using low-iron glass—manufactured with reduced iron content—rather than regular soda lime glass, Foster was able to show the true colors and details of the interior exhibits.

The open, airy design features 85 inch-thick, low-iron glass panels, each 7½ feet in height and totaling more than 11,400 sf of surface. The panels and steel framing system were fabricated and installed by Gartner Steel and Glass GmbH, Würzburg, Germany.

One of the exhibits is an 8,000-sf interior mural of precast white concrete with rasterized images of the Brazilian palm forest, re-created from a photo taken during H. F. Johnson, Jr.'s 1935 expedition. Another is a polyconic mosaic map inlaid on the building's floor that depicts the topography of the Western Hemisphere and traces Samuel Johnson's journey from Racine to Brazil. Four different types of sustainably harvested wood were used in the mosaic.

Fortaleza Hall opened in January. Foster designed it to achieve at least LEED Silver certification, and the company is waiting to hear back from the U.S. Green Building Council on the building's level of certification.