The Larkin Administration Building (1902–1906) by Frank Lloyd Wright (1869–1959) was his first major public work, built, as he said, “to house the commercial engine of the Larkin Company in light, wholesome, well-ventilated quarters.” It was a milestone in the history of commercial architecture, in terms of both its spatial organization and the exploitation of modern technology. Indeed, some historians identify it as the twentieth-century structure that, more than any other, changed the face of architecture; within a few years it was hailed in Europe. Peter Blake has claimed that it was the “first consciously architectural expression of the kind of American structure which Europeans were beginning to discover to their delight: the great clusters of grain silos and similar industrial monuments that [they] found so exciting in the early 1920s.” (Blake 1964, 55–56). The Larkin Company’s soap-manufacturing and mail-order operations occupied a large urban industrial site between Swan, Exchange, Van Renssalear, and Hamburg streets of Buffalo, in western New York State. Wright’s innovative building on Seneca Street, near the corner of Seymour and Swan, housed the firm’s administrative functions.
Around 1902 Wright realized that different building types called for different esthetic systems. Thereafter, he developed two patently distinct architectures. In his houses he pursued what might be called prairie horizontality—the line of repose that reached its best expression in the Frederick C. Robie House, Chicago (1908–1910). For nondomestic buildings, such as the Larkin Building; Unity Temple, Oak Park, Illinois (1905–1909); and Midway Gardens, Chicago (1913–1917), he adopted “Cubic Purism,” often squat and squarish with symmetrical plans and elevations. The rather severe exterior of the Larkin Building was relieved with sculpture by Richard Bock, who produced a globe of the world, supported by celestial beings and emblazoned with the company name.
The great six-story space in the center of the building—today we think of it as an atrium—was lit by a large skylight. It was surrounded by balconies; lit by high-level windows around the perimeter of the building, they contained the general office spaces, set out (years before their time) on an open plan. In keeping with Wright’s views about the nature of work, and no doubt with those of his client John D. Larkin, the interior espoused nonhierarchical, democratic office planning. There was even an employees’ lounge with a piano, where the company provided a weekly lunch-time concert for the workers; an organ stood at one end of the third story of the atrium. Many of the 1,800 employees worked at long desks running between the outer walls and the atrium. The lighting was an important part of the design; the desks received daylight from two sides: the exterior windows and the atrium. Electric lamps were mounted at the ends of the tables in the ground floor of the central court so that every office worker had well-balanced, shadow-free light. Wright believed in making total architecture and designed the lighting system himself, as well as the steel office furniture. The employees were protected from industrial pollution and the noise of the nearby rail yards by heavy red brick walls, and from undue interior noise by sound-absorbent surfaces. The revolutionary working environment was also air-conditioned, one of the first in the United States.
Just as he separated service rooms from living rooms in his contemporary houses, Wright gathered the services—electrical and plumbing ducts, stairways, toilets (he introduced wall-hung water closets to make cleaning easier), and heating systems—at the outer corners of the main building. “Beating the box” (as he put it), he expressed the service functions as square towers, “freestanding, individual features.”
Responding to criticisms by Russell Sturgess of The Architectural Record, who called it “an extremely ugly building” and “a monster of awkwardness,” Wright said in 1908, “It may be ugly … but it is noble. It may lack playful light and shade, but it has strength and dignity and power.” He went on to claim: “It is a bold buccaneer, swaggering somewhat … yet acknowledging a native god in a native land with an ideal seemingly lost to modern life—conscious of the
fact that because beauty is in itself the highest and finest kind of morality so in its essence must it be true.” His opinions, even if a little arrogant, were confirmed by the great Dutch architect H. P. Berlage, who spoke of the Larkin Building to attentive European audiences. To call it Wright’s magnum opus (exclaimed Berlage) “was not to say enough.” It was a building without equal in Europe, and there was “no office building [there] with the same monumental power.”
The Larkin Company went into decline in the 1930s, and within a decade its world-famous Administration Building was being used as a showroom. In 1949–1950, for “mysterious and untraceable reasons,” it was pointlessly demolished, brick by brick. Today, only a single pier remains—the site was never redeveloped but used as a parking lot—and in 1997 the outline of the building’s footprint was painted where once stood one of the most important achievements of twentieth-century architecture.