#officetour Milestones – The Larkin Administration Building by Frank Lloyd Wright

As previously noted, the (hi)story of the office is long and has its origins in functions and individuals rather than physical spaces; its understanding evolving over the course of several centuries as those functions/individuals gradually became synonyms for their physical place of activity. Before in the course of the 19th century its understanding became increasingly institutionalised, not least against the background of increasing commerce, industry and civic administration, and leading to the emergence of the “office building” as an identifiable branch of architecture; something, arguably, most popularly associated with the skyscrapers of Chicago, and in which context Louis H Sullivan penned the (fateful) words “form ever follows function, and this is the law.1

A law, tenet, understanding, option, that Sullivan’s former employee, and in many regards pupil, Frank Lloyd Wright developed to a milestone of office building design with his Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, New York.

The Larkin Administration Building by Frank Lloyd Wright in Buffalo New York (photo ca 1906)

The Larkin Administration Building by Frank Lloyd Wright in Buffalo New York (photo ca 1906)

Commissioned in 1902 by the Larkin Soap Company and completed in 1906, the Larkin Administration Building was Frank Lloyd Wright’s first office building, or more accurately, his first independent office building, he having previously worked on numerous commissions while in the employ of Adler & Sullivan, and, arguably, was one of the first office buildings to be conceived and developed wholly on the basis of the work that went on within it, conceived and developed as an extension of and aid to the work that went on within it: and thus an early example of rationalisation in architecture and design, an early example of scientific management in architecture and design, an early example of functionalism in architecture and design.

And a newness in the understanding of the office building reflected in a newness of formal expression, a newness that, as with all that is new, divided opinion: while, for example, the US architecture critic Russell Sturgis described it as “a monster of awkwardness”, “so ungainly, so awkward in grouping, so clumsy in its parts and in its main mass” and “an extremely ugly building”2, the Dutch architect H. P. Berlage, who in 1911 was one of the first European architects to set eyes on it, was much more admiring and commending in his approval, noting for all the “tremendous impact” of the apparent contradictions between the scale, the volume, of the building and the openness and lightness within, and exclaiming that “I left with the conviction that I had seen a genuinely modern work, and with respect for the master who was able to create a work which is unparalleled in Europe.”3

Or, arguably, anywhere at that time. Certainly in 1906. The ornament light, paired down, Sachlichkeit, of the exterior, its geometry, its relationships, its fenestration, its flat roof, was an architectural language, a design language, still very much in development, and the Larkin Administration Building an early approach to an articulation. An approach to an articulation that helped form the basis of a new vocabulary. Or as the German architect Erich Mendelsohn opined after having visited Buffalo in 1924, the Larkin Administration Building represented a “spontaneous pitch from an early perceived developmental logic, too early for this consistently inconsistent colonial country, but early enough to wake an entire generation, to instruct and to compel”4

And so the exterior, so the interior.

“The building comprises only one room”5 proclaimed H. P. Berlage, not entirely accurately, but certainly capturing the spirit of the vast rectangular atrium rising up five stories, open-plan intermediate floors encircling the central hall, and the whole topped by a glass ceiling which allowed daylight to flood into the interior. A space which although very familiar today, was anything but then. And a space which is often, understandably, compared with a cathedral, but which also awakens comparisons with the turbine hall of a power station; and in many regards was an interior designed to power the Larkin company, or as Frank Lloyd Wright himself noted, “it was built to house the commercial engine of the Larkin Company in light, wholesome, well-ventilated quarters.”6

Light, wholesome, well-ventilated quarters which were conceived and layed out so as to assist the flow of the thousands of orders Larkin received and processed everyday, an order processing supported not only by the spatial layout and internal organisation, including the seating of managers directly alongside clerks, a novel, non-hierarchical seating plan that is today considered both democratic/progressive and totalitarian/oppressive, but by technical innovations: the whole building, for example, being permeated by a network of telecommunication wires which meant that “the mere pressure of a button [put] any official of the organization in instant communication with any other member”7, and also supported by Frank Lloyd Wright’s considerations on the furniture, or as he himself opined, “the general scheme of the arrangement of the desks and filing system, is as orderly and systematically complete as a well-disciplined army.”8 Something mediated, as Zeynep Çelik Alexander neatly explains, by the three different types of desk Lloyd Wright developed – one for clerical staff, one for chief clerks, one for executives – and which each supported different actions, regulated the users options and behaviour and thereby “carefully modulated the pace of the workflow.”9 The desk not just as a place of work, but a tool in that process.

And desks which generally featured a legless chair mounted onto a desk leg around which it could swivel, an innovation of Lloyd Wright’s to aid and abet the cleaning of the floor, for the same reason Lloyd Wright mounted the Larkin building’s toilets on the walls rather the floors, yes, that was new, and desks, as with near all the furniture, realised by Cleveland, Ohio, based Van Dorn Iron Works. From Iron. And steel and magnesite.

And thereby fireproof furniture. As indeed was the whole building, with its magnesite flooring, absence of wooden partition walls and, save the leather upholstery, textiles of any note. Or as Charles E Illsley noted, “from cellar to roof, from wall to wall, from end to end the visitors may search in vain for anything inflammable beyond the desk stationery and the summer millinery of the feminine clerks.”10 The masculine clerks presumably favouring iron headwear in summer and winter.

And a not unimportant consideration in the offices of an exclusively mail order company whose customer lists, and the details of its network of so-called Larkin Club hostesses, were held on paper; specifically in a novel index card system developed in 1885 by Larkin’s Corporate Secretary Darwin D. Martin, a customer management system central to the company’s growth and success, and which in Lloyd Wright’s new building was safely housed in fire-proof metal filing cabinets ensconced in the walls. As safely housed as contemporary online retailers house their customer databases behind firewalls.

Amongst the other furniture and fittings, including at least one wooden chair, a work whose slanted solid plank backrest confuses and delights in equal measure, and would, arguably, be taken up a decade later by Gerrit T Rietveld, the Larkin building also featured overhead lighting attached directly to desks, as with so much in the Larkin building, a very familiar concept today, but not in 1906. And also a mobile metal chair primarily used by the company executives, a work every bit as “ungainly”, “ugly”, and “a monster of awkwardness” as Russell Sturgis found the exterior; however, as we all know, the objectification of furniture through an assessment of its outward form is abhorrent, it’s what the work embodies, the ideals it contains, what it represents that is important, and as Mathias Remmele notes, the Larkin chair “unmistakably overcomes the historicism that was still prevalent at the time. The metal furniture for the Larkin Building thus marks the shift to modernism in design history.”11

And not just the metal furniture. The whole Larkin Administration Building in its genesis and realisation did so.

As observant readers will note, we’ve been discussing the Larkin Building in the past tense. It was, needlessly, demolished in 1950. Yet through the many photos Frank Lloyd Wright and the Larkin Soap Company commissioned, its numerous mentions in the architecture press of the period and the extensive archival documentation, it remains not only present, but pertinent and informative.

And since 2018 accessible, thanks to a virtual tour realised by the Frank Lloyd Trust.

A virtual tour of the exterior and interior which allows us all to approach a better understanding of a very interesting example of early 20th century architecture, and an important milestone in the (hi)story of office building design.

1. Louis H. Sullivan, The tall office building artistically considered, in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Philadelphia, March 1896

2. Russell Sturgis, The Larkin Building in Buffalo, The Architectural Record, Vol. 23, No 4, April 1908

3. H.P. Berlage, Neuere amerikanische Architektur: Reiseeindrücke, Schweizerische Bauzeitung, Vol 59/60, Nr. 12, 1912

4. Erich Mendelsohn, Letter from Pittsburg, 22nd October 1924, reprinted in Oskar Beyer [ed], Erich Mendelsohn. Briefe eines Architekten, Prestel-Verlag, Munich, 1961

5. H.P. Berlage, Neuere amerikanische Architektur: Reiseeindrücke, Schweizerische Bauzeitung, Vol 59/60, Nr. 12, 1912

6.Frank Lloyd Wright, In the cause of architecture, The Architectural Record, Vol. 23, No 3, March 1908

7. Frank Lloyd Wright, The New Larkin Administration Building, The Larkin Idea 6, November 1906, quoted in Zeynep Çelik Alexander, The Larkin’s Technologies of Trust, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 77, Nr 3 September 2018

8. ibid

9. Zeynep Çelik Alexander, The Larkin’s Technologies of Trust, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 77, Nr 3 September 2018

10. Charles E. Illsley, The Larkin Administration Building, Buffalo, The Inland Architect and News Record, Vol 50, No. 1, July 1907

11. Mathias Remmele, Untitled/Office chair for the Larkin Administration Building, 1906, Vitra Design Museum http://collection.design-museum.de/#/en/object/44695 (accessed 08.06.2020)

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