Frank Lloyd Wright's "Water Dome" at the Florida Southern College campus
Speaking at a town hall lecture in 1957, Frank Lloyd Wright claimed that there was only one American university "that has an American campus and that is Florida Southern College." [emphasis mine] Its synthesis of architecture and planning, he continued, represented "new thought, our thought, our belief in humanity," if not only for the sole reason that he had authored them. It's safe to say that Wright's work at FSC did not spark the cultural renaissance he had hoped, yet the work has proved lasting and resilient. The university announced earlier this week that Wright's 12 buildings on the campus has been designated National Historic Landmark status by the National Park Service.
Annie Pfeiffer Chapel at Florida Southern College; Photo: Julie Fletcher
At the time that Wright developed his work at FSC, many of the nation's top universities had awarded commissions for prize buildings and sometimes whole campus plans to famous foreign and émigré architects, whose work, in Wright's view, was not sufficiently substantial and lacking in the homegrown ideals and pride (not too mention merit) required if the booming country were ever to cultivate a culture of its own. That promise could only be catalyzed, Wright believed, by the creation of an "organic architecture" like the buildings erected at FSC which, according to their maker, carried in them " the stem of a truly American culture."
Photo: Julie Fletcher
The architect's jingoistic rhetoric aside, the buildings, the largest concentration of Wright's architecture in existence, present an interesting, if not entirely spectacular interlude in the architect's illustrious career. The heights of Wrightian whimsy--mostly confined to the drawing board in the closing chapter of his life--is here unleashed in an urban landscape of idiosyncratic forms and decorative flourishes, wrapped up in a quasi-sci-fi sheen his designs exhibited from the mid-50s onwards. Yet, the structures pack relatively few spatial surprises and regularly fall into pastiche, with a cluttered formal language (in which Wright attempts to combine aspects of critical regionalism with futurism, with muddled results) and poorly executed details and finishes that fail to command the same awe reserved for the master's earlier work.
Wright devised a plan of asymmetrically-arranged buildings, of which he would design an administration buildings, a chapel, a library, a theatre, and several classrooms--all connected by shaded esplanades. Work on the campus continued over a 20-year period, beginning in 1938 and running up to and alongside construction on the architect's Guggenheim Museum in New York. Over the last half-century, the structures, which are characterized by angled concrete forms, colored and pocked with geometric reliefs and voids, have yielded to the deteriorating effects of weathering and neglect, to the point that the group of buildings were listed on the World Monument Fund's 100 most endangered sites in 2007. The buildings, which were collectively termed "Child of the Sun" after a Wrightian metaphor, received an extensive restoration in 2010 that revived the campus's image.