Sunday, November 18, 2012

Searching for Center in Seminole County

In college my graphic design professor insisted that we develop our own concepts. My classmates protested that "in the real word, copywriters will write copy and we'll just have to do the artwork!" But "Jack", the toughest and most influential instructor I had in my 4 years at UF, was unwavering and I went on to develop such memorable headlines as "It's A-maizing" for Argo Corn Syrup. My classmates still tease me about that one.

In my professional career working at small in-house design departments, I was forced to not only create my own concepts but even write my own copy. I also wrote radio ads, TV commercials even the script for a promotional video. Yet I'm still more at home in the visual realm than in the world of words. This realization was made more apparent to me after a Nature Journaling Workshop with the brilliant Florida writer Bill Belleville sponsored by the Center for Earth Jurisprudence.

I've just recently discovered the CEJ, whose mission is to advance a legal system that recognizes that ecosystems have inherent rights to be healthy. Yes, they are lawyers for the earth!

I attended a lecture by Jacksonville artist Jim Draper and fell in love with the organization and their methods of blending environmental education and spirituality. I eagerly signed up for the journaling exercise held at the Lake Harney Wilderness Area in Seminole County.

Just the drive to Lake Harney where the workshop was held was eventful. Soon after crossing over the St. Johns River, I made my way down Osceola Road and passed a huge sow sauntering down the side of the road, not a sight often seen in my urban existence! A short time later I passed a Gopher Tortoise striding down the yellow line between lines of traffic. Had I not been following another car, I would have stopped and moved him, but I am happy to report when I passed that way on my return trip, I saw no evidence that he ended up as roadkill.

The Lake Harney Wilderness Area is 300 acre parcel that Seminole County bought through a land acquisition plan similar to the state's Florida Forever program. According to the Seminole County website, the site is "home to the historic railroad crossing of the Florida east Coast Railway, Native American Shell middens, several bald eagles nests, oak hammocks and mixed hardwood swamps." We strolled down the Flagler trail to a scenic overlook built on top of a shell mound. Rusting evidence of the railroad bridge crossing was apparent next to this archaeological site. This area had been occupied by generations of Timucua, Miakka and perhaps Seminole Indians before the white man came along. Prior to Henry Flagler's railroad bridge, this location was a ferry crossing. It also served home to the logging town of Osceola. When the loggers had harvested all the trees on the site, they simply picked up the town and moved it down near the Everglades, leaving only the brick bank vault behind. As I wandered the site, it was thrilling to know I shared the same space as some Florida's earliest human inhabitants. Belleville did a masterful job of explaining the cultural history and the pointing out obscure natural details. It was not long before the location came alive in my mind as much more than the obvious physical appearances; it is a culmination of centuries of human occupation. I saw the natural setting with new eyes as I explored the nearby paths.

The lonely bank vault of the former town of Osceola
The St. Johns River

After soaking up the natural beauty as I wandered around the woods, I forced myself to sit and attempted to center myself. My first try at closing my eyes was interrupted by a buzzing mosquito. After two recent cases of mosquito borne Dengue Fever reported in the area, I was committed to staying bite-free and quickly soaked myself in bug repellent. I heard the sounds of insects, birds and pesky squirrels rustling palm fronds. I also heard speed boats and airplanes pass by. I couldn't sit still for long.

The observation platform atop the shell midden

I know the feeling of oneness with nature that Bill Belleville described so eloquently. I often experience that kind of serenity sitting on my dock of the little lake behind my house. It's like an immense wave of gratitude, and the certain realization that I am part of something larger than myself. I fit into nature's perfection. The anxiety of maintaining a manicured yard diminishes and I realize that by allowing native "weeds" to grow unencumbered, I've actually created habitat for a plethora of critters both seen and unseen. But on this day, at this beautiful setting, I could not shut down my urge to explore and to see new things. My virgin journal captured no brilliant words. I have to take time to process my experience in order to write about it. But my eyes beheld enough beauty for me to want to return to this spot again, and it left a mark on my heart. I felt fed and fulfilled. I'm fairly certain that alone was a more than an adequate outcome for this Sunday afternoon.

Rusty relics of another time show man's continual use of the site

Shell midden detail

A gorgeous fall day on the St. Johns River

Interpretive signage details the incredible human history found here
Native Americans must have eaten a great deal of these fresh water snails

Bill Belleville suggested getting a good guidebook of Florida wildflowers

Note the eagle's nest in the pine tree

Great use of modern technology

Bill Belleville at a historical marker

Saturday, November 3, 2012

May the Circle be Unbroken

Frank Lloyd Wright's round Guggenhiem Museum in New York opened on October 21, 1959, instantly becoming one of the best known works of modern architecture in the United States. Three years later, in 1962, another round work of modern architecture was built in Orlando with much less fanfare. Today the American Federal Savings and Loan Building is known to many Orlandoans as simply "the Round Building." Perhaps downtown's best surviving piece of mid-century modern architecture, the commercial structure is slated for demolition because it is located on the site of the city's new Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Complex.

The building was completed in two stages – the first two stories were completed with wonderful pre-cast concrete screen wrapping the exterior. Designed to accommodate an expansion upward, the building was later enlarged with five additional stories surrounded by nondescript glass windows. When I moved to Orlando it was known as the Coral Gables Federal Building, and it was an icon before the "renaissance" of Orlando's downtown.

The Central Florida Modern group led by Kevin Schweizer, the son of Frank Lloyd Wright protege Nils Schweizer, has been working to preserve the pre-cast screen, also known as a bris soleil, since 2008.  They sponsored a design competition to find ways of re-using the trapezoidal shapes in a new context. This week they held an event at the round building allowing entry to the unique structure one last time. In addition to offering tours, the award winning designs for the panels were announced and the head of the Cosanti Foundation spoke about Archology, Paolo Saleri's philosophy that combines architecture and ecology.

I spoke with the wife of the round building's architect who shared that the design was influenced by her husband's love of all things nautical. She also said he didn't care for the addition of the glass cylinder to his original design, and I have to agree that it never quite looked cohesive. Originally the executives had offices on the second floor overlooking a central lobby where tellers where placed in the center of the room. A large round skylight overhead let in natural light. Details of the original building still intact were wonderful wood paneling, round ashtrays and small round tiles in the bathroom. The circle motif was carried throughout the building.

The winning concept

Image from the Daily City blog

Image of the expansion from the Orange County Regional History Center
I was glad to have the opportunity to see this building up close one last time, and I was impressed with the turn out. While it is disappointing that it will be demolished, I was assured by city employees that at least some of the bris soleil panels will be preserved for re-use. It will be interesting to see how they are utilized. I left with a new appreciation for this Space Age edifice, and a new awareness of the how manmade environments of the future may look. From today's point of view they look just as futuristic as the round building must have looked in 1962.

A skylight originally adorned the ceiling

Looking towards the new Dr. Phillips Center