The Wright spirit
John McAslan & Partners is updating Frank Lloyd Wright's Florida Southern College to address inherent structural defects and to cater for changing needs John McAslan's American connections, both personal and professional, have always been strong, so his firm John McAslan & Partners' appointment to restore and extend a landmark complex of buildings designed by America's greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, is less surprising than it might seem.
It was on a Christmas visit to his in-laws in Florida about nine years ago that McAslan first discovered Florida Southern College (FSC) at Lakeland, near Orlando. He was impressed by the quality and scale ofWright's work there - FSC's West Campus is, in fact, the largest concentration anywhere of work by the master - but equally struck by its generally poor condition.
A subsequent meeting with college president Dr Robert Davis revealed the extent and apparent ineffectiveness of the campus' costly, ongoing repair programme. The meeting led to a masterplan for repair, reuse and expansion drawn up by Troughton McAslan - subsequently John McAslan & Partners (JMP) - with Arup's New York office and local practice Lunz Prebor Fowler.
The completion of the US$10 million (£6.8 million), three-phase overhaul of Polk County Science Center - at 5,574m 2, the largest of the Wright buildings at FSC and the last building designed by Wright before his death in 1959 - marks a watershed in the progress of the project and highlights key philosophical, as well as technical, issues raised by the need to adapt iconic modern buildings to changing practical requirements and address their inherent practical defects.
'One of the tragedies ofWright's life, 'wrote Peter Blake in 1960, 'is that technology never quite caught up with him in his own lifetime.'
Wright's preoccupation from the 1920s with reinforced concrete block construction was inseparable from his pursuit of a highly plastic architecture of space and place far removed from the universalism of the international style. In the case of FSC, it was also in tune with the relatively modest budget envisaged for a highly ambitious project. Yet the results were little short of disastrous.
In April 1938, Wright received a telegram from Dr Ludd Spivey, then president of FSC, asking for his advice 'concerning plans for a great education temple in Florida'. Spivey was determined to resuscitate what was seen as a failing institution - closure had been seriously considered - and raise its low profile.
Wright needed work. As Brendan Gill pointed out in Many Masks: 'He was living far beyond his means and enjoying the melodrama of near-catastrophe with his accustomed zest'. So Wright accepted the commission.
Founded in 1885 as a Methodist liberal arts college training preachers and teachers, FSC was to be greatly expanded on the lush, lakeside site which it had occupied since the 1920s.Wright was to design 16 new buildings (10 were realised) and reshape the entire campus. But FSC was a poor institution and funds had to be raised as the project proceeded and fee payments were often slow in arriving.
Nonetheless, construction work began in 1939. One of the first buildings to be completed was the masterly Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, with its extraordinary steel-framed spire (which partly collapsed during construction). The Polk County Science Building, as it was originally known, was completed in 1958. All the new buildings - including a library, a second chapel, administrative, teaching and laboratory blocks - were linked by a system of covered 'esplanades' cutting diagonally across the site and confidently superimposing Wright's new vision on the existing, Classical layout (a derivative of Jefferson's University of Virginia).
The whole project represented a triumph of faith and determination over commonsense - America's entry into the Second World War in 1941 threatened to derail it completely. It continued on a parlous budget and, despite materials shortages, only because it was a heroic instance of self-building.
College students, paid 10 cents an hour, constructed the first buildings, mixing the thousands of concrete blocks required on site and even collecting their urine as an application for copper roofs. Wright predicted that his 'textile blocks' would be good for 1,000 years, yet within a couple of decades they were crumbling and cracking, allowing damp to attack the steel reinforcing rods.
Ironically, the commercially made blocks used after the war deteriorated even more rapidly than the student-manufactured variety. Piecemeal repair and patching did nothing to solve the basic problems and threatened to destroy the aesthetic and historic integrity of the complex.
Enter McAslan, ably supported by John Figg and his colleagues at Arup. Within the masterplan for the West Campus the issue of concrete repair loomed large. The recommended strategy being applied across the campus involves extensive repair and replacement of defective blockwork. A new mix containing a rubber-polymer additive has been developed, to match the originals in appearance (see next page). The reinforcing system has been rethought, with stainless steel rods introduced.
The Polk Center, FSC's principal science teaching facility, was identified in 1995 as a priority for repair. Complex in plan, section and detail, it contained a series of grouped laboratories, classrooms and offices linked by external and internal walkways, with a planetarium tacked on at one end. The fabric was in very poor condition, with serious deterioration of concrete blockwork. The bitumen covered flat roofs leaked badly in many places - and had done for nearly 30 years.
The holes, cut (and poorly detailed) as service extracts and ducts which were added over the years, had accelerated their failure.
Services, out of tune with modern environmental and safety standards, were in need of total renewal. A clumsy, 1960s greenhouse masked part of the eastern facade, blocking an external walkway, and needed to be relocated. Finally, the compartmented plan of the building, which provided separate accommodation for four subject areas, was regarded as too rigid. More interaction and interdisciplinary discourse was the aim.
'It was clear, ' McAslan says, 'that the building could no longer be used as it stood.
There were two alternatives: upgrade it in its present function or seek another use, perhaps as offices. Demolition was ruled out. A detailed study by Arup suggested that rehabilitation would be far cheaper than a new science building of equivalent size.
The building's inclusion - along with virtually every other work by an architect who is a national icon - on the US National Register of Historic Places meant that any proposed alterations would have to be considered in the light of Federal guidelines. The design team's brief in 1996 was to transform it into a flexible, multi-purpose science teaching building.
McAslan believes that the American concept of 'adaptive reuse' offers a more explicit statement of the principles of rehabilitation than British historic buildings law. The Federal guidelines significantly define rehabilitation as 'the process of returning a property to a state of utility, through repair or alteration, which makes possible an efficient contemporary use, while preserving those portions and features of the property which are significant to its historic, architectural and cultural values'.
The repair of the external envelope, making the building watertight, inevitably formed the first phase of works and, in view of the dilapidated state of the building, was uncontentious. In two further phases, the internal layout was to be substantially amended, while the extensive new services required could not be 'buried' within the structure but would impact on the building's look.
The changed configuration of the interiors reflects a period of intense analysis and discussion with users. For example, on the first floor - the principal level of the building - the central block of accommodation, serving biology and chemistry teaching, has been radically reshaped to provide individual offices for staff and drop-in areas, while redundant areas have been removed and the western perimeter reformed to create a continuous run of laboratories along the building's edge.
The greenhouse has been relocated outside the building envelope. At second floor level, new internal bridges - a clear intervention into Wright spaces - assist in providing the requisite element of flexibility and easy access, with a further run of laboratories stacked above those on the first floor.
The basement level of the building had to be substantially extended to provide the space required for new services. All offices and classrooms are air-conditioned, while laboratories require energy-intensive ventilation.
Inside the building, service ducts are frankly exposed, as they must be, their gleaming casings contrasting with Wright's solid masonry. In places, the original floor slabs have been penetrated to accommodate them. Nor was there any alternative to the addition of new equipment at roof level - an array of Inmos-style ducts makes a strong impact on the external appearance of the building (though the removal of the previous ad hoc clutter is surely a major gain).
But the key to the new services is that they are reversible add-ons to the basic structure - the building is now equipped to cope with future change.
It is often claimed that Wright designed his buildings in proportion to his own diminutive frame, and the relatively low heights within the Polk Center did not make the task of re-equipping the building easier.
But the adoption of regular planning modules for the laboratories and offices, using Wright's original 1.8 x 1.8m grid, ensures that services and furnishings are neatly integrated and a vital element of flexibility provided to cater for future changes.
Wright, never one to underestimate the significance of his work, described the FSC project as 'an adventure in the realm of the human spirit'. More than 40 years after his death, Wright's presence is still felt on the Lakeland campus, yet the practical problems associated with his legacy are huge.
JMP's bold approach to its updating and adaptation is rooted in an understanding of, and respect for, the original, combined with a determination to make it work for the future. This project has generated new techniques of repair which have relevance to many other Wright buildings, but it is also an exercise in value-for-money - a new building, says McAslan, would have cost about 40 per cent more (and FSC would still have been left with a historic building to repair). The Polk Center may not last for 1,000 years but it is now equipped to serve many generations of students and teachers.
Custom-made 'textile'concrete blocks are a major building material at Florida Southern College, and have a key role to play in the appearance of the buildings.But, despite deep overhangs on the buildings, a large proportion of the textile blocks were deteriorating.At the Polk County Science Building, the principal type of failure was spalling caused by reinforcement corrosion and a significant number of new blocks were needed for refurbishment.
The blocks were originally hand made, using student labour, and subsequent problems have been blamed in part on poor workmanship.
There were further problems with blocks produced commercially after the Second World War, attributable to incorrect cement content.Previous attempts to replace blocks were unsuccessful - colour variations, untrue to Wright's brownish colour based on the local St Augustine sandstone, had occurred and weathering performance was unpredictable.
John McAslan took the problem to John Figg, then with Arup, and commissioned an in-depth study of the blocks with a view to producing a replacement that looked correct and would weather well.
Analysis of Wright's blocks yielded a mix of two shovels of Trinity white cement, one shovel of grey cement, .25 can of gold buff pigment, .25 can of yellow pigment, one level shovel of Coquina shell and 12 shovels of sand, with water to dampen. Arup found that in some blocks the shell was missing - allowing moisture movement - inadequate water had been used at times, there had been inadequate compaction and cement had not hydrated fully through not being kept moist during curing.
The replacement blocks were produced after extensive study and trials. New moulds were made, a new mix evolved which included a styrene-butadiene rubber additive, stainless steel reinforcing rods were introduced in place of the original steel and production was subjected to continuous quality control. The finished bricks were sandblasted to produce a texture that matched the originals.
CREDITS ARCHITECT John McAslan & Partners: Adam Brown, John McAslan, Andrew Hapgood, Martin Markcrow, Murray Smith, Roger Wu EXECUTIVE ARCHITECT Lunz Prebor Fowler, Lakeland RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT Arup MULTI-DISCIPLINARY ENGINEER Ove Arup & Partners, New York LABORATORY PLANNING Earl Walls Associates, San Diego GENERAL CONTRACTOR Kvaerner URBAN DESIGN AND CONSERVATION CONSULTANT Richard Coleman Consultancy WEBLINKS John McAslan & Partners www. mcaslan. co. uk Arup www. arup. com Kvaerner www. kvaerner. com