The Child of the Sun, Florida Southern College designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
Florida Southern College is the only campus designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and it is the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings located on a single site, anywhere in the world. However, despite the project’s unprecedented scale and the fact that the campus supports a collection of twelve Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings, this work remains relatively unknown to many architects who visit or even live in Florida. You might be thinking that perhaps these buildings are not given the same respect as some of Wright’s other designs, because they must be crappy buildings, or that they lack the spirit of Falling Water or Taliesin West, but the truth is that the campus of Florida Southern College is a rare architectural fantasy brought to reality by one of the most talented architects to ever step foot in Florida. Wright named the campus The Child of the Sun, envisioning the campus rising out of the ground towards the sun.
The campus of Florida Southern College is the closest thing to experiencing a world designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright does not attempt to design acres of Falling Water, there are many signature works that reside on the campus like the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel and the technical beauty of the Polk County Science Building, but there is also a strong supporting cast of background buildings that help Wright to build a campus of Wright without creating an architectural experience that becomes overwhelming. Wright builds tension on the campus between the vertical and the horizon, between the mundane and the divine. Suspense builds as you walk along the unique esplanades. He protects you from the hot Florida sunlight and then upon entering a structure it appears that the master architect has transformed the light into a collage of colors, beams of light literally bursting at the seams of the building. Florida Southern College should be at the top of any architects list of historic sites to visit, and is just another reason to make an architectural pilgrimage to Florida.
This is the first of a series of articles that will focus on the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright in Florida. Be sure to check back soon as I am building an extensive photo gallery of images for another article that will delve into the details of one of America’s greatest college campuses.
Books referenced for this publication that document the the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and Florida Southern College.
One could argue that the popularity of Frank Lloyd Wright is of course in part due to the fact that he is an exceptionally rare architectural talent. Yet despite his talent, Wright’s popularity in American culture is largely in part to his Hollywood styled biography and eccentric personalty. Unlike other architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect, has no difficulty competing against Frank Lloyd Wright architecture for story time in the history books. The beauty of Wright’s architecture can only be outshone by Wright’s uniquely cinematic life. His career as an architect and his works are made more fascinating by his life history, and this history has him firmly rooted as America’s favorite architect in American popular culture. The history of Florida Southern College is nothing short of the kind of story that one has come to expect when talking about Frank Lloyd Wright.
Dr. Ludd Spivey was the college president of Florida Southern College and after being inspired by Wright’s autobiography he approached Wright with a dream of building a modern American campus. Wright was 67 years old when he first visited Lakeland, Florida, the future site of Florida Southern College. While walking the site, Wright envisioned the buildings:
“. . . rising out of the ground, and into the light, a child of the sun.”
If you had to distill the campus into a single sentence, you could not describe the spirit of the architecture at Florida Southern College in any other way. The buildings feel as if they have always been. The earthiness of the concrete, and the way that the buildings seem to perform some kind of architectural photosynthesis, turning light into emotion and energy, is nothing short of architectural magic.
Construction of the campus would begin in 1939 and Wright expected the construction of the campus to take only three years, but the United States had just entered World War II limiting labor and raising construction costs. These two factors would cause the construction timeline to spiral out of control. In order to help combat the lack of labor and rising cost of materials, students were admitted into the college upon agreeing to work on the construction of the campus buildings. It would take nearly twenty years to construct the twelve Wright designed structures that reside on the campus today. The original master plan designed by Wright had proposed eighteen structures for the campus, Wright would only live to see twelve of these structures built, after his death, plans for the remaining six buildings were abandoned. Wright died on April 9th, 1959 shortly after the completion of the last building to be completed at Florida Southern College, the Polk County Science Building, which is one of the most unique structures ever designed by Wright.
Annie Pfeiffer Chapel (1941) – $100,000
The Annie Pfeiffer Chapel is without a doubt the architectural centerpiece of the Florida Southern College campus. The chapel is very similar in concept to Unity Temple, which was completed in 1908 and also has undertones of Falling Water which was completed in 1936. It is important to note these two structures to understand the relationship of the buildings at Florida Southern College to the other structures of Wright’s career and to study the evolution of his work. Although the building is the tallest structure on the campus it like the other buildings appears to emerge from the Florida landscape. Make sure you spend plenty of time exploring the interior of this building as it is one of the most beautiful interior spaces on the campus. I can only imagine what it must have been like to experience this building the day it opened.
Esplanades (1941-1958) – $86,000
What is an esplanade? Don’t be embarrassed I had to look it up too. Although I figured that it was obviously some sort of a covered walkway, I found the origin of the term and its meaning interesting. An esplanade is loosely defined in the dictionary as a long open level stretch of ground for walking along, usually next to a river or large body of water. The original meaning of the term referred to the long open level are outside of a fortress or the city walls, which leaves attackers unprotected from the defenses of the city. It is noted on Wikipedia that the terms esplanade and promenade are often incorrectly used interchangeably:
“Esplanade and promenade are sometimes used interchangeably, but that is a mistake. A promenade can be anywhere, and it is exclusively for walking, while an esplanade is for walking but also can include large boulevards or avenues with cars. A Promenade, often abbreviated to ‘(The) Prom’, was an area where people – couples and families especially – would go to walk for a while in order to ‘be seen’ and be considered part of ‘society’.”
Although the campus is near a large lake, the esplanades of Florida Southern College are far from lakeside, and is perhaps a better example of a promenade. The esplanades are yet another example of Wright and his ability to poetically represent a covered walkway as something more. I can just imagine Wright talking about the esplanades that will connect the campus, and describing their organic quality to the donors. Every person listening to Wright speak must have been hanging on his every word, fantasizing about the materiality of the organic esplanades. Even if the covered walkways function more as a promenade than an esplanade, I plan on dropping that five dollar term during my next design presentation to a Florida university.
The esplanades are the signature feature of the Florida Southern College. The columns which support the roof structure appear to grow out of the earth, and there are hundreds of these sculptural columns littered across the campus. At times the esplanade forms a portico, adhering to the facades of other structures as if a vine growing through the campus. At other times the esplanades join together creating intimate spaces that feel like a place rather than a path. Wright embraces the use of the esplanade as the signature element of the campus for many reasons. The esplanades are a poetic way of protecting students, faculty and visitors from the harsh Florida Summer sun. The esplanade also epitomize Wright’s concept of an organic architecture, and there is no finer realization of Wright’s concept of organic architecture anywhere in the world than at Florida Southern College. The shear scale of the site and the number of buildings forced Wright to think about his theory of organic architecture at level of sophistication that is nothing short of impressive. The esplanades stretch for 1.5 miles and connect nearly every structure designed by Wright on the campus. The patina finish of the copper trim of the esplanades reaffirms the connection of the horizontal to the landscape and the horizon.
Carter, Walbridge, & Hawkins Seminar Building (1941)– $80,000
The Carter, Walbridge, & Hawkins Seminar Buildings are Frank Lloyd Wright’s best attempt at creating a background building. The building seems so simple at first glance that you may dismiss it as not worthy of inspection, but upon closer investigation, the detailing of the custom concrete block and inlaid colored pieces of L-shaped glass is a truly remarkable feat of rare American craftsmanship. The offices glow in colored sunlight on the interior. There are times on the campus when the esplanade and the buildings on the campus appear to blend together in a way that reaffirms Wright’s concept of organic architecture. At the three seminar buildings the esplanade becomes the primary facade of the building, and the Wrightian columns create a perverted portico that pulls the landscape into the building while pulling your eyes out to the landscape when walking underneath the seductive esplanades. Take note of the normal sized man under the low roof eaves in the lower left corner of the above picture. Wright was always concerned with the landscape and creating buildings that respond to the horizon. In an attempt to express this relationship his ceilings often become dangerously low at times.
Thad Buckner Building (1945) – $120,000
Formerly the E.T. Roux Library, the structure was renamed the Thad Buckner Building in 1968. All of the structures on the campus have a unique character about them. The Annie Pfeiffer Chapel is the tallest and most extravagant structure, The Polk County Science Building is the mechanical beauty, and the Thad Buckner Building’s uniquely circular form causes it to stand out in contrast to the rectilinear forms of the other buildings on the campus. The circular form houses the reading room, which has since been converted into the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center and Esplanade Gift Shop. The library stacks were housed in the rectangular form that is conjoined to the circular form. At times the structure appears as if it is two different buildings that have been combined into one. The building is closed on weekends, so be sure to visit the campus on a weekday so that you can get inside this building. Even though it appears that the structure is without windows and has a modest presence, interior photos depict the reading room as a large expansive space, full of light, and classic Frank Lloyd Wright forms.
Water Dome (1948) – $15,000
The Water Dome may seem like a silly concept, but visit Florida on a hot day in August and you might change your mind. The Water Dome is the center of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed campus, and is an urban event that is both fun and refreshing. The Water Dome operates at certain times of the day, and changes the social environment of the plaza when it is running. Everyone stops what they are doing to admire the dome of water. I can imagine that in 1948 this would have been quite a spectacle on the campus. Wright’s Water Dome forms a perfect 160 foot circle, with water propelled 45 feet into the air creating a dome of water, when viewed at the right time of day at the right time of year a full rainbow can bee seen encapsulated by the Water Dome.
Emile E. Watson-Benjamin Fine Adminstration Buildings (1941) – $200,000
The Emile E. Watson-Benjamin Fine Administration Buildings are a cluster of small buildings that are grouped together by the esplanades. The intimate courtyards and spaces between the structures are similar in spirit to the small parks that you might find hidden away in a quaint European city. Like all of the Frank Lloyd Wright structures on the campus, the administration buildings have their own unique character. They are both monumental and intimate all at the same time. The interiors of these buildings are in remarkable condition and remain relatively unmodified. I suggest taking the detailed campus tour just to gain access to this building. The construction of these buildings were personally supervised by Frank Lloyd Wright and this is evident in the resoluteness with which the complex forms and details are resolved.
Lucius Pond Ordway Building (1952) – $52,200
The Lucius Pond Ordway Building has undeniable similarities to Taliesen West and despite the structure’s simplicity is another excellent piece of architecture at Florida Southern College. The classrooms are tall and full of natural light. The height of the spaces helps to manage the Florida heat, and the diagonal rooftop structures that appears to be metal is actually a translucent material that is used to supply the classrooms with clerestory lighting. The structure has a central courtyard that the classrooms line, this allows every space to have access to sunlight.
William H. Danforth Chapel (1955) – $50,000
Unfortunately I was unable to view the interior of this chapel when visiting the campus, as the Danforth Chapel, like most of the structures was locked up on the weekends. The William H. Danforth Chapel is the only Wright design project at Florida Southern College that made use of leaded glass and Florida red cypress on the exterior. The Danforth Chapel still contains the original pews and cushions designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Although the Danforth still maintains the character of the campus it becomes obvious that Wright is attempting to evolve the language he has developed for the campus with the design of each new project, and like each building before this, the Danforth has its own set of unique characteristics that distinguishes it from the other buildings on the campus.
Polk County Science Building (1958) – $1,000,000
The Polk County Science Building is by far my favorite structure on the campus, because it is a rare example of Wright playing with the formal language that he had created for the Florida Southern College campus, and combining it with a new high-tech Frank Lloyd Wright that we have not yet seen before. This is clearly a transitional piece, and represents a series of first for Wright. It is both the first planetarium Wright designed and constructed, and it contains the first use of aluminum for aesthetic purposes by Wright. This is one of Wright’s last buildings to be designed and completed while alive. One has to wonder, if Wright were to continue developing this language, would have usurped Norman Foster and Richard Rogers discovery of a high-tech modern architecture. We can only wonder what Wright would have done next.
It should be noted that the tour guide on a recent visit noted that the mechanical systems that sit atop the Polk County Science Building were added after the building was completed, but I have yet to find any information on this since the buildings and site are not well documented.
Organic Architecture, a common misnomer:
Organic architecture is architecture that is curvy or an imitation of nature, wrong! This description may be appropriate when discussing architecture outside of the context of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, but one of the things that disgusts me is when architects, especially architects from the era of Wright, talk of Wright’s work being organic as in the before mentioned way. Organic architecture is a process, it is a way of thinking, and it is something that is devoid of style. Although there are certain reoccurring principles that occur in Wright’s work, he never allowed style to interfere with his philosophy of organic architecture. For Wright organic architecture is drawn from nature in the sense that everything in nature is in harmony form and function are combined to create a natural ornament. In architecture, Wright did not believe that form follows function, but that form and function are one. This combination of form and function and the philosophy of organic architecture is what makes Wright’s work so unique. He is able to combine form and function into a system of architectural ornamentation that is consistent at every scale. If you are interested in learning more about Wright’s philosophy of organic architecture then I suggest that you read A Testament / Frank Lloyd Wright. A Testament is written by Frank Lloyd Wright and outlines his philosophy on architecture explicitly in this text, which was written by him and published two years before his death.
“This type of architecture can’t mean much to you until you have had a good look at yourself. This architecture represents the laws of harmony and rhythm. It’s organic architecture and we have seen little of it so far. It’s like a little green shoot growing in a concrete pavement.” – Frank Lloyd Wright
Visiting Florida Southern College:
Florida Southern College is in Lakeland, Florida, approximately 40 minutes southwest of Orlando, Florida. I suggest spending a full day on the campus if you really want to soak in the details of each and every building. The campus is very walkable, and there is a Robert A.M. Stern building that was nearing completion upon writing this article. Although the structure falls short in comparison to the buildings designed by Wright, since it is on the campus, you might as well visit it. The town, students and faculty are very proud of the fact that their campus was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and are accustomed to architects snooping around their campus, if you are in Florida, then you must visit this site. There are tours available during the week that will allow you into some of the areas that I was unable to gain access to during my weekend visit. Tours are limited and available on certain days only, so be sure to check the website below. I strongly recommend visiting the campus during the week, rather than the weekend like I did. Before you visit the campus, be sure to visit their website “Child of the Sun” Visitor Center. The site and this article will serve as a good primer before your visit. The campus can be overwhelming and you may miss something if not properly briefed, so be sure to stop at the “Child of the Sun” Visitor Center before getting lost in the largest collection of buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.