July 22, 2014

The Wright Stuff

I've never been a big Frank Lloyd Wright fan. In fact, I am somewhat mystified by all the acclaim that surrounds him. The great American architect? How so? His influence has been minimal. Buildings built in his style are as scarce as hen's teeth. (Look at Mies van der Rohe and Addison Mizner if you want influence.) Just about every theory he ever advanced has been proven wrong, or ignored. His various pronouncements sound silly today-he claimed the human body could never feel comfortable in a Gothic building, for instance-and there's something very off-putting about that scarf he always wore.

Still, I have to admit that he was a unique and brilliant artist. When it comes to designing one-of-a-kind masterpieces, there is no equal. He is like Mozart, coming up with melodies upon melodies of design subtleties that most of us can't even detect. His genius was in the emotional manipulation of geometric shapes.

I'll always go out of my way to see a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, so I find it a little strange that it's taken me this long to get to Lakeland to check out the entire college campus he designed there. I think my reluctance had to do with the way the place photographs-a little shabby, poorly landscaped, sun-baked in a dreary way. But finally, as with returning an overdue library book, I decided I had to do it now. I set out for Florida Southern College in Lakeland, which is about 30 miles east of Tampa and much more famous as the home of Publix supermarkets than for having the only "matched set" of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in the world.

How did it end up there? It's as much the story of Dr. Ludd Spivey, the president of the college back in the 1930s and '40s, as it is the story of Wright. The college PR brochures paint a rosy picture of affectionate friendship between two prominent men, but I see a darker, more Shakespearean story. Each had what the other wanted. If Spivey got the most famous architect in the world to design his little college, he and it would be made. And Wright was being handed the opportunity to show off on an unprecedented scale-a whole college campus! That would show those stupid critics.

To view the fruit of their collaboration today is to be simultaneously thrilled and dismayed. Dismayed because it's in such poor shape, but thrilled because it has that indefinable FLW magic that only his buildings have. And the best part is the style itself-this is '30s futurism at its most extreme. It's very dated. It looks like a Buck Rogers movie or Shangri-la as envisioned by an MGM art director.

Wright designed the campus' master plan on 163 acres that slope down to Lake Hollingsworth, right in the middle of town. He devised a group of buildings of various sizes and shapes that are interconnected by a network of cantilevered walkways supported by a row of geometric columns. At the base of each column is carved the name of a major donor. There are nine buildings actually designed by Wright. Naturally, you'll want to visit each one, but if time is an issue or you're really not that interested, make sure you hit:

The visitor's center. This is located in what used to be the library and is more or less circular. It contains much fascinating Frank Lloyd Wright memorabilia: pictures, scale models, documents, and best of all, china and other FLW stuff you can buy.

The two chapels. The larger, the Annie Pfeiffer chapel, still seems quite small, although I'm told a thousand students can fit in, and none will be more than 50 feet from the speaker. Here Wright uses many blatantly Art Deco motifs that seem a little beneath his genius. But he redeems himself with the use of tiny pieces of colored glass set between the concrete blocks. The smaller chapel, called Danforth, is oriented toward a dramatic stained glass window of geometric design, looking down to the lake. The original pews that Wright designed are still here. (I was thinking of taking one home for a souvenir, as there was absolutely no security anywhere, but they weigh a ton.)

The administration building. Wright was no fool. Spivey's office is one of the prettiest buildings he ever designed. The scale is small, once again, but every inch is packed with detail: the texture of the concrete, the fish pond, the cantilevered roofs edged with verdigris fascia. Here the visitor can spend hours examining the geometric relationships that blend in a way that only Wright could achieve, when he was in the mood.

Wright's early designs for the campus were built by student labor, and this may account for the way they're falling apart. Yes, student life was a lot different in those days. You could pay your tuition in chickens and rabbits, then work three days a week on a Frank Lloyd Wright building.

Wright apparently thought all hot-weather climates were the same. The ornamented concrete blocks that worked so well at Taliesin back in Arizona turned out to be unsatisfactory in the Florida humidity. Water damage is everywhere you look. Also problematical are the "Wright lite" buildings. After Wright died in 1959, his associates designed some additional buildings in a vaguely Wrightian style. They are interesting in that they prove that only Wright himself had the touch. They illustrate perfectly the difference between competence and mad genius.

The drama of Wright and Florida Southern lasted almost 20 years, but gradually the two protagonists realized their goals would never be met. Spivey discovered the famous architect's name was not bringing in money. In fact, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney withdrew her offer of an arts center when she learned Wright would design it. And Wright was a horror to work with.

And Wright saw a situation that was going nowhere. The college just didn't have the money to do what he wanted. The best that even he could say about the campus was that it was "charming." And Spivey was a horror to work with.

But the result of their collaboration still sits there, cracking and flaking in the sun. It is very much a place where people are working and learning, not a museum. Human beings, it turns out, will not succumb to Wright's aesthetic dictum. They bring in inappropriate furniture and hang pictures on the wall even if not allowed to. And I'm sure that the powers that be at the college realize how badly it needs repair, so I won't belabor that point.

I do suggest, however, that they are sitting on a real gold mine. Put together a son-et-lumière show about the epic struggle between Wright and Spivey and present it every weekend during the season. The buildings would light up beautifully and a fountain could be placed in the water feature. Students from the theater departments could play the parts. Music could swell from hidden speakers-or, better yet, the school marching band could appear, playing Flight of the Valkyries. Why, people would flock to see it. The more sophisticated Orlando tourists are hungering for just such an attraction, something they can sink their brains into; and you have to admit, Florida Southern has all the Wright stuff. 

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