Architect Robert Stern talks about his connection with Florida Southern
World renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern, who has designed the College’s new student life complex along Lake Hollingsworth, talks about his association with Florida Southern and calls FSC “the coolest architectural campus” in an interview that appeared in the Lakeland Ledger on July 16, 2006.
Moving in The Wright Direction
Stern, 67, founder of Robert A.M. Stern Architects, is designing three new residence halls on the Florida Southern College campus. The buildings will replace the five Panhellenic buildings that sat on the shores of Lake Hollingsworth.
A Brooklyn native, Stern still seems very much the New Yorker, his accent coming through in answers that could be mini-lectures straight out of a classroom at Yale University, where he is dean of the School of Architecture. He is nattily dressed, this day wearing a dark suit and a peach tie that perfectly matches the socks in his shiny loafers.
The $10 million Florida Southern project is a relatively small one for Stern, but he is obviously excited about being asked to work on the campus noted for its Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, the largest single-site collection of Wright's work in the world.
We sat down with Stern while he was in town to accept an honorary doctorate and give the Founders Day address to ask about designing a new building on this historic campus.
Q. You and your firm are noted for keeping an eye on history while you build for the future. What's it like to design a building for a campus that's noted for its architecture?
A. Well, it's a tremendous challenge. The truth is the Frank Lloyd Wright part of the campus is fantastic, although in serious need of loving attention. But other parts of the campus -- and there are parts that were here before Frank Lloyd Wright and parts that were built after Frank Lloyd Wright -- include some that paid attention to his ideas and some, I'm sad to say, that did not pay attention to his ideas.
So, it's kind of like having a big puzzle -- you have all the pieces and you wonder if you're ever going to be able to sort them all out and get them straight. And I hope that what we do in the way of the residence halls and maybe some other buildings that we might be asked to do (such as a classroom building) will put the college back on the Frank Lloyd Wright track, an amazing track.
Q. The buildings are fascinating.
A. They are fantastic and fascinating. And we forget that they are all 60 or 70 years old. I'm really thrilled to be asked to take on the architectural responsibilities, and I hope we can do something that's appropriate. It will be its own thing, that's always the trick. You don't want to copy a Frank Lloyd Wright building.
Interestingly enough, Wright designed more buildings than were built because there was no money for them.
Q. Because they ran out of money?
A. I don't know that they had money to run out of. But we've been looking at as many of the drawings for those buildings that we can find and try to think about what he was thinking about, and trying to, shall we say, tap into the DNA of his ideas.
Q. What other types of buildings were there?
A. He had designs for residence halls. They were very simple; I think they would be too simple for today's standards.
Q. I know you love houses. How does your love of houses carry over when you're building a residence hall? It must be different to design a home for dozens and dozens of people rather than four or five.
A. When you're designing a house for a family, you know who the family is, and it's a complicated structure of the father and mother, normally, and children, and maybe the grandma will come to call.
With students, every generation of students -- which is every four years, really -- has new ideas, and so to anticipate their needs is really tough.
What we're concentrating on in the design of the residence halls is making the rooms as efficient as possible, and so the students can at least arrange their rooms in two different ways. So when kids come here at the beginning of the year, they can put their individual stamp on the room.
We're also arranging the rooms in such a way that . . . we were able to create eddies of space in the hallways, so the hallways will seem a little more interesting and maybe a little more friendly.
And I want to have our design include a big roof to create south-facing porches, which will shade the windows from the sun but also create some kind of half-indoor, half-outdoor space. . . .
I love porches. Porches were once part of Florida, then with air conditioning, everybody closed them in and said nobody would go out there. And in the summer, maybe nobody will go out there. But from about October to May, it's beautiful.
Everything else is pretty simple: We have nice lounges for the students, and study rooms and places they can use their computers and so forth. We are trying to meet the needs of the early 21st century and also trying to anticipate the future, which is really hard because things change so quickly.
And we hope that on the top floor there will be a big terrace where everybody can come up and hang out, enjoy the view and the shade, have dorm parties.
Q. Obviously, you won't want to copy Wright's designs, but how do you make them meld?
A. We'll have some sort of connections. First of all, the plan of the college, with the diagonals and how they roll down to the lake, is a very solid plan for this campus. The buildings that will be torn down to make way for our new residence halls do exactly the opposite . . .
They're oriented the wrong way. You have here at the college something that's very unusual in Florida -- a cliff. There's hardly a hill in the whole state!
And see, Wright understood that -- that if you open the campus diagonally . . . and then drop away to the shore, it would be very dramatic. So we want to take advantage of that idea with the new buildings, which will be at right angles to the lake, as opposed to parallel to the lake.
And we're replacing five buildings with three, so there will be more open space between them. And the land, the grass and greenery, will be more dominant.
And then, Wright used concrete. Concrete is a wonderful material, but it is a very difficult one to use. It is very hard to retrofit these buildings with new wiring, air conditioning and so forth, and so we'll probably use a richer and more complicated palette of materials.
Q. We were talking about houses. What's the allure of building houses? I know you really like to do that, even though you've also taken on enormous projects such as Celebration and Times Square.
A. We didn't design any of the houses in Celebration. We were working with others to create the "controls." I'm really proud of what we've accomplished in Celebration.
But houses are wonderful because houses are a way to work with the people who are going to actually use the building. Typically, with other kinds of buildings, you work with administrators who are representing those who might use the building. . . .
People pour a lot of their own emotions and money into houses, which gives you a chance to explore different things.
More and more as I get older, as an architect, I think the design of the site, the treatment of the landscape, is as important as the building, and in some cases, maybe more important.
But I love houses. Many architects design very big buildings without ever having designed a house. That's why many very big buildings are very impersonal.
Q. I would think the impersonal nature of big buildings was a product of the modern school of architecture. You're credited with first using the word "postmodern," and yet more recently you've described yourself as a "modern traditionalist." What's the difference?
A. Well, postmodern got to be such a bad gig. Nobody wanted to have that 10-ton gorilla on his shoulder.
I am a modern traditionalist in that I come to a place like this campus and see Wright's architecture, which is very modern but is now the tradition of the place, and I would like to reinterpret that tradition for today and in the nearby future.
And also I think modernism, the style that dominated architecture in the 20th century, tended to ignore everything that went before it, and that's ridiculous. Architecture, like every other art, climbs on the shoulders of what went before. We take old ideas and we recycle them, and we remake them. And every creative enterprise does that, whether it's literature or whatever. People are writing books today in the manner of the early 19th century, in the manner of Jane Austen, and that's legitimate.
Q. Well, Jane Austen still holds great appeal. People still read her. They're still making movies about her books.
A. Exactly. And the great buildings of the past hold great appeal. People say, "Why do buildings today not have the same qualities as they have in the past?" Well, I think many architects wished the buildings of the past away, pretended they didn't exist and substituted a new language that was too stark, too brutal for most people.
Wright was not one of them. Wright used new technologies, like reinforced concrete, but he made wonderful ornaments . . . incredibly rich and engaging surfaces, as engaging as any style in any period in the history of architecture. But he made it in a new way. That's the trick.
So it's very traditional, but he's done it his way. He used colored glass -- the chapel here is so inspiring. It's beautiful.
Q. Yes, even on top. The top is just the coolest thing -- God's bicycle rack.
A. (Laughs.) Is that what it's called? Sometimes I shouldn't know these things.
Q. That's what I've always heard it called. I don't know if he called it that.
A. I am sure he didn't!
Q. What are some of the other things on campus that really stand out to you?
A. The old library, which is hard to appreciate now because it's sort of a museum, and there are too many people shoved into offices. Some of the buildings will really come alive if the college is able to finance their restoration and also to decamp them of so many activities that are not appropriate to the buildings. . . .
These buildings are 70 years old, some of them. They've just been filled up with stuff.
But I think the college is very interested in restoring and reviving this campus.
Q. It must be fascinating to look at what he intended the campus to look like and how it turned out.
A. Amazingly, a lot of it is there, as he intended it. Not every idea got built. But it's the only college campus or the only really coherent group of buildings that Wright designed and got to see built, so that makes it all the more interesting.
Of course, college campuses are very interesting places. There's a mini-community, and they have a hierarchy of spaces and buildings.
For instance, here at Florida Southern you have the chapel, which is important because it's a religious college. But you also have the library, and then you have these wonderful small pavilions, which were offices and seminar rooms.
And then you had the big classroom buildings, the arts and sciences buildings, and they were all arranged in the most interesting set of diagonal paths with these covered walkways.
Of course, Wright understood that in Florida, the covered walkway is both protection from the sun but more importantly, from the rain. People never think about Florida rains until they encounter one!
So Wright got that correct. And you can see the difference, the revolution that Wright created. Because the original red brick buildings -- from the old Methodist seminary -- are nice buildings, but they could be built anywhere in the United States.
Q. Thank you. I just wanted to ask you a little bit about building on a very cool architectural campus.
A. It is the coolest architectural campus. Seriously.
It's probably one of the most interesting campuses in the country. College campuses are not an international phenomenon; they're an American phenomenon. And so when you say that a college campus is one of the most interesting in America, you're basically talking about the whole world.