With the anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th birthday this year, it’s the “Wright” time to visit Florida Southern’s campus in Lakeland, home to an entire collection – 13 buildings — of Wright’s designs.
He took on this project in 1938 when he was almost 70 years old and launching his career for the fourth time. Florida Southern’s campus is his largest and longest single-site commission. It’s his only campus, and includes his last stained-glass window, his only planetarium, his largest water feature and his only theater-in-the-round. He worked on it until 1958, a year before his death in 1959 at age 91.
At the time he designed his “Child of the Sun” structures, the campus was set amid a citrus grove, and he designed his buildings with a low profile to fit the terrain. Structures and environment play and blend with each other.
“Buildings should seem to grow from the earth and belong as a tree belongs,” Wright said on his first visit to the college. “Every building is out of the ground and into the light — a child of the sun.”
Time, though, has left its mark, and the campus was put on the National Monuments Watch List in 2008. Since then, it received National Historic Landmark designation in 2012 and interior restorations of Wright’s Annie Pfeiffer Chapel were completed in September 2015. His water dome, esplanades and theater have also been recently restored.
Wright’s collection at the college also includes a second chapel, three seminar buildings, a library, two administration buildings, an industrial arts building and a science building.
The Annie Pfeiffer Chapel
“To me, the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, in its entirety, is breathtaking structurally, an origami in concrete,” said Jeff Baker of the Albany-based architectural firm, Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker, who oversaw its restoration. “It’s incredibly complex spatially and an enigma. It’s conceived as a series of balconies held up on four piers, but when you start following what’s holding up the upper parts of the building, it ceases to be evident from an architectural perspective. It’s difficult to understand an imagination developing and conceiving that space in that form and complexity.”
Added tour guide Bill Stephens: “An amazing teeter-totter of a building, if you removed the outside walls, the whole structure would still stand.”
Comprising three horizontal bands, cement blocks at the chapel’s base are decorative and bejeweled, pierced and inset with tiny pieces of colored glass. The second band of the chapel is made up of plain cement blocks, and the third, the superstructure, features a tower braced by bowties, symbolic of folded hands in prayer that the students like to call the “bicycle rack in the sky.”
“There are so many tiny details,” Stephens said. “Geometry was Wright’s thing and there are angles everywhere; and also, no matter what time of day, you can see the pieces of colored glass in the south wall, and looking up, you see that the whole ceiling is glass.”
Supposedly, Florida Southern had a temporary outdoor chapel with vine-covered lathwork over it, Baker said, and Wright wanted to design his chapel with the same feeling. “The bowties in the superstructure were actually planters, and he envisioned vines hanging down from what students call the bicycle rack. It was to be like a hanging garden, and the bowtie metalwork up between the towers was intended to be fitted with special bells so that the chapel became a hanging garden and a carillon, but that was never completed.
“That would have been unbelievable: a hanging garden and musical instrument.”
Restorations included removing carpeting and vinyl tile to reveal Wright’s signature Cherokee-red concrete floor; replacing theater seats with sculptural wood chairs based on Wright’s original design; replacing aluminum doors and window frames with wood; and removing more recent partitions to reflect the chapel’s original floor plan.
“The introduction of wood within the concrete warms up the space, makes it feel more human, and ties it together more closely to his previous work,” Baker said. “The furniture completely transforms how you sense the space, as do the doors, which have sidelights of wood and glass, forming almost a lantern-like appearance at the entrance of the building.”
Fountain of Knowledge
Aiming for a “Florida form” and “outdoor garden character,” Wright veered away from the massive domed brick-and-mortar edifice typifying traditional college campuses.
Rather, for Florida Southern, he envisioned a free-spirited educational complex. His water dome, the “Fountain of Knowledge,” is 160 feet in diameter and when its 75 jets spout arcs of water, it can create a watery dome up to three stories high. As such, it is a negative dome, a sensorial focal point that is light, transparent and constantly moving.
But lacking the engineering know-how, the water dome had never functioned as a fountain until it was restored and “realized” by Baker’s team in 2007. “It had been filled in by a later architect and replaced by three reflecting pools,” Baker said. “Happily we found the original basin intact. … Wright did have an outer ring of piping at its perimeter with holes and little jets, but he didn’t have an engineer’s knowledge of how the water would shoot through the nozzles. Even the piping to the pump room was too small. The way it is now, designed by modern hydro-engineers, is very different from what Wright had envisioned.”
Wright also did away with the classical college quad system. Rather, representing a natural path to learning, his mile-plus of cantilevered covered walkways meander off at angles.
“People don’t pick this up since they aren’t used to seeing square citrus, but the columns of the esplanade actually form an abstraction of a row of orange trees,” Stephens said.
Like the trees of the original grove, the columns were positioned 18 feet from each other. Each column, 6-feet and 9-inches high, sprout an elongated triangle that supports the overhang, edged in copper. Additionally, the triangular module is incised with a design mimicking leaves.
Also, since Wright’s architecture correlates with nature, he let the grove dictate the direction of his layout. Overlaying a grid of six-foot squares are two more grids: one rotated 30 degrees and the second one at 60 degrees, with buildings sited either along the legs or at pivot points.
“If all 18 of Wright’s buildings had been built, the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel would be like the hub of a wheel, and the esplanades would have been like the spokes of a wheel connecting all the buildings, as well as connecting with the outside rim,” Stephens says.
The low height of the canopy was purposeful, too, Stephens explained.
“The esplanade, as well as entry areas of buildings, were designed to give a feeling of compressed space, so that when people entered into a building, and were confronted by the interior space, they would say ‘Ah,’ while experiencing a sense of release. Frank called it, compress and release.”
Part of the Ordway Industrial Arts Building, the theatre-in-the-round was also recently restored. Wright had intended for the theater to be an indoor amphitheater, with students sitting on platforms around the lecturer in the center, but the space had been changed into a hermetically sealed black box, Baker explained. His team removed later-period materials and reinstated it as Wright conceived it, a “vessel of light.”
“Light comes in through clerestory windows and reflects off of inverted cones on the ceiling,” Baker said. “It’s a wonderful space, similar to the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, where you feel cloistered in a space, but also connected to the sky.”
“Acoustics were important to Wright. Speak from the center, and it seems like you are wearing headphones,” Stephens said.
Other features to note:
* Baker’s firm recently constructed a Usonian House, based on Wright’s designs for a neighborhood of faculty housing, which had never been built. The two-bedroom dwelling illustrates the Usonian ideals of respect for the natural environment, economy of size and the use of native materials (in this case, tidewater cypress). It also features Wright’s Cherokee-red concrete floor and built-in furnishings. Wright sought to create well-designed affordable housing with his Usonians. This project, however, cost more than $1 million.
* The Danforth Chapel is the least modified building, so more clearly conforms to Wright’s design, and he designed the stained textured glass window to create an optical illusion. If standing in back of the room, the top portion doesn’t look like it goes out as far as the bottom, but it does.
* The Ordway Industrial Arts Building is a scaled-up version of the drafting rooms at Taliesin West. Wright considered the Ordway building one of the best buildings in his career, well-suited to its purpose.
* All structures were built with Wright’s “textile blocks.” There are more than 100 types and sizes of these handmade cement blocks, which are similar in color to the locale’s sand. “Textile blocks” were Wright’s invention of weaving double rows of blocks together horizontally and vertically with rebar. The library, theatre-in-the-round, and planetarium have circular elements, and considering they were made with textile blocks, really push the envelope.