Friday Traveller: Child of the Sun FSC Campus



People interested in urban planning and architecture stuff do predictable things when on vacation or travelling. If you are on the west coast of Florida, by all means make a stop at Florida Southern College, home of 14 or so Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, the largest collection in one place. (Lakeland, FL)

In the 1930’s depression the Methodist college had no money, but had a pool of potential students. Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW) had architectural skills, but no clients. Many people didn’t even know he was still alive. Somewhat persona non grata, he had a number of wives, whether they were legally sequenced is a matter of debate. One family went on to a Lizzy Borden style end.

So the College promised him commissions, provided he gave them the plans first, and got paid in instalments from a cut of the tuition of students using the buildings.  The first buildings went up in 1939, and then male enrolment dropped precipitously. So the college offered internships: you mix cement and make concrete blocks and assemble them in return for tuition. And women flocked to the campus and essentially built  the war period structures. There are about 2500 undergrad students there now.


The campus is on a gentle hill rolling down to a lake. The climate is hot and humid. The campus was a former orange orchard. There were already a few buildings in the usual Federalist (Georgian) or Jefferson style. FLW wanted to knock them down, but agreed to delay that until the new ones were built. The new buildings were planned between the orchard rows with lots of diagonals:

flw overview pic

Here is the standard building block module:


The square insets had coloured glass to let in light while cutting the glare:


For economy reasons, they used local sand. Alas, it is very porous; rain and moisture penetrates easily, rusting the reinforcing rebar, and the exteriors of the buildings crumble away (for a local example, check out the exterior of the PMO’s  Langevin Block made from Port Wallace sandstone):


IMG_0255 IMG_0253

The Florida sun is very hot. Other colleges use arcades to connect buildings, usually in a mission, mediterranean or monastry style. FLW invented the cantilevered arcade:


The decorative pattern and shape is to evoke an orange tree. When first installed, many refused to walk under them, unable to comprehend how a large concrete roof could be supported only on one side.

IMG_0219 IMG_0206

Imaginative features abound, like this roof line at an elevation change:


The orange orchards are all gone due to blight, and the buildings were seriously dilapidated when the College realized its unique advantage was FLW. Now it is a historic site, federal money flows in, and many lecture courses and research programs are arranged around the period, social structures, and economics of the era.

The orchards are coming back, as are huge rose gardens. It drove home to me the importance of building on local advantage, and not trying to emulate places were are not, for eg Silicon Valley (north, south, or east) or soliciting Florida’s Creative Class  to a bureaucratic town.

The interiors (seen by docent-guided tours only) are stunning:





The library is round. It was designed to hold all the books of a small campus, and offered work desks for each student built into the backs of the bookshelves. There was no provision for … more books … or more students.

Like other round structures, acoustics are excellent at the centre point, the librarians circulation desk. Apparently a standard freshman initiation task was to go to the library and have to request certain sexy books kept in the librarians’ stash. Everyone in the library could hear the request.



Frank Lloyd Wright designed a lot of the furnishings too. Here’s some fortunately retired:


Many classrooms open to the outdoors:


IMG_0282 IMG_0287

And others to a wonderful indoor courtyard / exam hall with various departments around the perimeter in a very industrial style, here set up for SAT testing the next day:


Like all starchitecture, and indeed FLW buildings in particular, it leaks:


The Florida climate is mild year round. College athletics specialize in things like water skiing. Most “cafeteria” spaces seemed to be outdoor BBQ stations offering an assortment of meals and drinks for consumption al fresco. No student card required.


One of the delights of FLW architecture is that he built structures in many places. I’ve been on tours in Oak Park (Chicago), Phoenix, LA, Florida, etc. He tried very hard to move America away from emulating old European styles popular in the 1880s-early 1900’s to a new native vernacular.

Architectural tours of the local wonders, and local neighbourhoods (albeit usually very expensive neighbourhoods) are available in almost every city you could visit. Google is your friend to finding variety and originality in an increasingly commodified world.