The visual associations may vary but the first reaction to the enormous, strange and wondrous something that suddenly appears just off Interstate 4 at a Lakeland exit is universal. You can't — and shouldn't — miss the spectacle sitting amid flat, nothing-special land in the Central Florida corridor.
Likened to many imaginative things — a giant sea creature! an alien spaceship! — it is in reality the signature building on the new campus of Florida Polytechnic University, which was created in 2012 after a withering political fight over its existence. Internationally famous architect Santiago Calatrava designed the $60 million, 162,000-square-foot Innovation, Science and Technology building for labs, classrooms, offices, library and common areas. The 170-acre campus is almost devoid of others. An admissions center sits near the campus entrance and a dormitory is under construction, all to be ready for an August opening. That Calatrava designed neither is obvious.
If Florida Polytechnic wants to come out of the gates with a roar and encourage people to think of its future rather than its politically charged past, its leaders couldn't have chosen a better person to design a representation of its mission and aspirations. Calatrava, 62, is one of a small group of architects who rose to worldwide prominence in the early 1990s. It was for this group that the name "starchitects" was coined. A structural engineer as well, Calatrava became admired in Europe for his elegant bridges and train stations, places of transit that became destinations. His Quadracci Pavilion, which opened in 2001 at the Milwaukee Art Museum, was his first design in the United States. It was, and remains, a jaw-dropper, resembling a ship's prow over which hovers what seems like a giant bird, its wings slowly folding and unfolding, providing shade, as the sun arcs across the sky.
Sixty million dollars is a lot of money but for the architect chosen to design the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, under construction with a reported cost of $4 billion, the FPU building might seem small potatoes.
Not at all, he said during a recent telephone conversation from his offices in New York. Calatrava doesn't grant many interviews but agreed to one with the Tampa Bay Times.
"I am the product of a polytechnical university (in Valencia, Spain)," he said. "This was a beautiful challenge, the delicacy of the budget question. It was also accepting the challenge and (using) inventiveness."
Calatrava designed the elliptical building and surrounded it with a "pergola" of metal arches that shades the second-floor terrace. The domed glass ceiling in the multipurpose central common area is outfitted with louvered panels that open and close according to the time of day and intensity of the sunlight, making the building energy-efficient. No artificial light will be needed in that space on most days. The panels will also be coated with solar film that will collect energy. Labs and classrooms take up the first floor; the second has faculty offices lining the perimeter around the common area. A broad terrace, about 20 feet wide, will be outfitted with outdoor furniture and plants.
"I dream that the students and professors will come out on the terrace for lectures," Calatrava said.
Instead of typical retention ponds, he added a series of pools at descending levels that are traversed by six bridges.
It may be a budget-conscious building, but it's sumptuous, with the architect's most famous design elements: lyrical curves, sweeping repetitive lines, biomorphic forms and technological innovations integrated seamlessly into the art forms. Light becomes another architectural element as it shines through the undulating pergola casting shadows, and through the louvers on the roof, creating different kinds of shadows in the enormous common area with colors that change throughout the day.
Lakeland may seem odd as the place boasting the first Calatrava-designed building in the southeastern United States. But the mid-size city is also the home of the largest concentration in the world of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, located at Florida Southern College. Their styles are different but both architects share a love of organic forms. Calatrava, as Wright did for Florida Southern, created a master plan for Florida Polytechnic, but whether any but this first building will become reality is undecided. Still, he loved the blank slate of the campus with no architectural context found in more common commissions in a city, for example.
"You understand the force of architecture to make a place," he said. "Frank Lloyd Wright was a master with his organic understanding, magically improving a place. I try to aim for that."
Calatrava has been the subject of controversy. A story in the New York Times in September 2013 quoted critics of some of his projects who voiced complaints about cost overruns and technically flawed designs. Pete Karamitsanis has nothing but praise. He's the "adviser to the owner," meaning the person who represents Florida Polytechnic and makes sure things go as scheduled. He works with both the construction company and the architect.
The first thing he said when we met on the construction site was, "This project is both buildable and affordable and shows that a building like this can be done without controversy. We're on time and on budget."
That means that the building will be mostly finished in June, faculty will move in July and students arrive in August for the university's first term.
Calatrava is thinking of those first students but, having attended, visited and worked with the old European universities, he takes the long view, "that it will remain in 200 years, last for many generations."
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.