Borrowed Light

For its latest addition of state schools, Florida looked to world-renowned architect Santiago Calatrava to design a college campus that would be set apart as an integral and innovative culture of learning … and frankly, one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.
Photography by Tina Sargeant

he master plan for Florida’s 12th and newest state university, Polytechnic University, was trusted in the hands of Santiago Calatrava for more than just his famed, artistic eye for design. Calatrava’s multifaceted abilities as an artist, an architect, and an engineer were the ideal fit for a building that would need to serve, as well as embody, a multifaceted academic mission.

Recently, the school completed its final legislative mandate and reached regional accreditation in June 2017, affirming a solid head start for the STEM University.

World-renowned for designs of global landmarks such as the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge in Dallas, Texas, Calatrava’s most recent works also includes the World Trade Center Transportation Hub. His architectural designs resemble a neo-futurism quality, a kind of grand-scale human life character.

“The greatest thing about Calatrava,” says Maggie Mariucci, director of external affairs and interim director of communications at Florida Polytechnic University, “is he’s an artist and an architect and an engineer. And it’s been said that is why he’s been able to create buildings such as this. The moving elements of the building are somewhat of a feat.”

Surrounded by metallic arched pergolas pooling in stately elements of light, its elliptical design paired with energy-efficiency, seems to rival anything Calatrava has touched before.

As it was being built, it was already hailed as “the modern marvel.”

MOVING ELEMENTS

“This being a new campus, a new university with the focus of STEM being the core curriculum, the study of the students, we have a unique opportunity for our buildings and facilities to represent some of the newest technology,” says David Calhoun, the director of facilities and safety services.

“I think it’s fair to say that, in the design, the approach for sustainable initiatives through the design, the incorporation of natural elements that are consistent with Florida — concrete being an architectural component in the building as well as a structural component, natural lighting — all of those things were taken into consideration through the design and through the construction. And I think that also lends itself to be what most would consider a technologically advanced building, through the air conditioning controls all the way down to water consumption, lighting components, etc. So the design really enhanced the idea that this is a STEM school.

“The facilities also have an opportunity to encompass that and be really high level with the most technologically advanced systems of its time.”

AWARDS AND RECOGNITIONS

The property, originally donated back in 2005, moved ahead with the completion of the institution and the design from 2007 to 2012. Upon completion, the campus and academic building quickly began to gain recognition for its sheer beauty and detail of design.

Since the building was raised, acclamation for its state-of-the-art design and execution continues to pour in, from the 2015 Innovative Design in Engineering and Architecture with Structural Steel (IDEAS2) Award, the 2015 International Architecture Award by The Chicago Athenaeum: Museum of Architecture and Design, The European Centre for Architecture, and most notably Engineer News-Record’s best of projects globally for 2015 and record for the state of Florida in 2015 as well as the SE region and nationally. And if that’s not convincing, for the past two years Business Insider has named it one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

AN ARCHITECTURAL ELEMENT

In terms of architectural design, we’re mostly accustomed to traditional buildings, walls and stairs, ceilings and floors, often presented as a blank canvas for interior additions to be the finishing component. Yet in Calatrava’s design for Florida Poly, the art lays within the very bone structure of the building.

“The structure of this building, as well as the structure of the causeways, is all an architectural element,” notes Calhoun. “When you go into this building, it doesn’t have colors, and that’s by design, because it wants to draw attention to the architect, the shadows cast on the walls, the craftsmanship in structure, whether concrete or steel. So when your structural components become architectural in nature, it is a big challenge in and of itself. But it also makes the building a piece of art, as opposed to bringing art to a building.”

Stepping into the academic facility is something like a heavenly ascent, the stairs cast in placed concrete, escalating toward streams of natural light. Within the first floor exist labs and classrooms, the second floor consisting of a large classroom surrounded by faculty offices. The beams are all uniquely shaped, leading the hallway. Even throughout the steel members supporting the operable louver arms, the shape isn’t typical. “Everything is atypical, because the structure is the architecture,” says Calhoun. “I think that was the idea of the design team early on, that the building itself would be a piece of art, because [through the design] the structure becomes the architecture.”

A GLASS HOUSE

The real challenge, Calhoun readily admits, is that everything on the building is on a radius. “With the structure being the architecture, that brings a challenge to a lot of different elements. The glass, the slope glazing, the operable louver arms.” There is not a straight piece of glass throughout the building. All of it had to be rounded out.

“The majority of the glass is done with a cold bent process, and that provides a radius of the glass that was done on site,” says Calhoun. “With some of the more drastic radiuses, it was a heat-bent process where they actually bend it off-site and bring it on. So there is no square to it.

“The requirement for perfection was very high,” Calhoun adds. “When construction teams see a design that is very unique, as this design was, I think it’s a compliment to a lot of great people working together and taking it head on to meet some of these challenges.”

Generally the operable louver arms remain about four to five inches apart, meaning the slightest change from the design can cause one arm to run into another. The louvers, those great white arms that continue to morph the building into new shapes by the hour, remain contingent upon the weather, making for an interesting relationship given that Florida is the lightning capital of the United States. The arms do not operate when weather isn’t ideal. “There are some primary movements,” says Calhoun. “We can adjust the arms with the sun.”

The louvers are programmed to reorientate about every 10 minutes. Adjusting a degree and a half with the sun throughout the day, the louvers create an All Up, taking to the similar shape of the school’s mascot, the Phoenix, then move to horizontal, and then to close.

“But there’s the possibility for us to operate them however we would like to,” says Calhoun. “Each arm is independent of an adjacent arm, so we could essentially do the wave if we wanted to. (But we’ve never done the wave.)”

“Plus,” inserts John White, Polytechnic’s campus architect, “it takes about 10 to 12 minutes from close to open.”

On a given day, the louvers are in sun tracker mode. Turned on in the morning, the louvers track the sun for the entire day. Since the roof consists of slope glazing (a roof system entirely made of glass) those inside can also track the hourly changes of the louvers. As the arms move while the sun moves, shadows cast on the ceiling constantly morph to new shapes. Shadows at 12 o’clock differ from those at 2 o’clock, even 3 o’clock. It never looks the same.

DAYLIGHT HARVESTING

Three levels of the building’s roof allow direct light to cascade onto the floor and grounds. Each element of design was placed to enhance the architecture and also stand as a direct reciprocator for energy efficiency.

“There is this whole concept of daylight harvesting that allows you to turn down your lights because you have natural light coming through the walls.” says Calhoun. “Again, with our air conditioning system, it’s kind of a state-of-the art, as well as an air displacement, system. It depends upon very slow-moving air moving in across the floor. As soon it hits an object, it goes up and begins to cool that object. And that enhances the architecture but also is a direct reciprocator for energy efficiency. The more natural light you have, the less lighting you need. So that element ties into the concept of sustainability as well as energy efficiency.”

Part of the multi-faceted purpose of the Florida Poly design, the very reason Calatrava was appointed to the task, was to create a building that would embody leading innovation and design, form a conducive setting for professor and student engagement, serve the educational mission of this STEM university, and set the precedent for the kind of work for which students and academics are drawn to the campus.

AN EDUCATIONAL MISSION

Reflective of Florida Poly’s model, classrooms remain very small. Holding only two lecture halls, called the Aula Magna, the building was designed to be hands-on between students and faculty. On average, a classroom holds 30. The design of the building was heavily influenced by what was clearly a core of the university’s vision of the school long before they broke ground.

Supporting the idea of project-based curriculum, architecture throughout supports this vision.

“The whole idea of the Florida Poly model is the idea that there’s a lot of interdisciplinary teaching,” explains White, “so that the engineering students and the information technology students are studying similar things and working together on projects. As the curriculum expands, the same kind of effort will be carried forward, that many different groups studying different things are coming together to learn. The professors there are not just dumping information on the students; the professors are helping the students find the information.”

Where a design can shed light on such a collaborative culture and progressive vision, truly stands a modern marvel.