A drawing of a spectacular house on a seaside cliff occupies the honored position above the fireplace in Friedrich St. Florian's living room -- a house within a house, a dream inside the dream come true.
The 64-year-old St. Florian, practically unknown outside Providence until January, when his competition-winning design for the World War II Memorial in Washington was unveiled, designed both the fictional house and the real one.
"House on the Rocks, for Livia Campanella" the drawing is called. It shows a spacious, abstract, barrel-vaulted mansion -- a geometrical machine set in a steep, rocky garden. Massive cliff stones come right up through the floor.
The Livia of the title is his wife of 30 years. St. Florian made the drawing for her in the mid-'70s, a time when he was doing nothing but imaginary projects.
Their real home on University Street here, built eight years ago, is a more modest affair. Still, it has its own startling charms. Its simple, severe geometrical form is unlike anything else in the neighborhood of century-old single-family homes. And the beautiful, much-lived-in living room has a ceiling 18 feet above the floor.
St. Florian is well regarded in comfortable Providence. In one capacity or another he has been associated with the architecture program at the Rhode Island School of Design since 1963. He also is well remembered in certain international architectural circles for his avant-garde work during the '60s and '70s.
But everything changed after the White House ceremony announcing his selection to design a new national icon on the Mall. Now, in restaurants, people parade to his table. Reporters call from all over the world. His architectural studio in a downtown loft is filling up with new computers and new employees.
St. Florian handles it all with a certain formal graciousness carried over from his European roots. "I'm a fugitive, so to speak," he says with a touch of humor, and a trace of Austria in the way he pronounces fugitive with a hard "g." "It's been quite fascinating. I had no idea that it would mushroom like this. It's so emotional."
What the emotion is all about, of course, is St. Florian's design for a memorial to the world's most devastating war, a memorial to be placed in the midst of the nation's most potent symbolic landscape.
His concept is this: On the prominent site between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, there would be a memorial plaza, 15 feet below grade and framed by two semicircular colonnades of 25 columns each. An existing fountain (called the Rainbow Pool) would remain and become the memorial's centerpiece. Behind the truncated 40-foot-high columns would be semicircular stone walls about 50 feet high. Behind the walls would be rooms for displays about the war. From the outside, the roofs of these rooms would appear as earthen berms planted with a carpet of white roses.
In a sense, however, design of the memorial has only just begun. The sole pictures released so far are three computer-generated images based on St. Florian's concept. They are strong images but cursory at best, showing none of the telling details that would bring a place alive.
Furthermore, they are incomplete, with no indication of sculpture or other symbolic elements, and they're out of date -- a 400-seat auditorium that was part of the competition program has since been dropped. Nor has the American Battle Monuments Commission, the official sponsor of the memorial, yet defined what is supposed to go into those enormous, museum-like rooms.
Most important, the process of design review has yet to begin. By law, every aspect of the memorial must be approved by the secretary of the interior -- with a strong say from the Mall's custodian, the National Park Service -- as well as the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission.
These reviews, slated to begin later in the spring, are where opponents will have their best chances to air objections, from the substantial to the nitpicking. There will be complaints, for example, about the destruction of mature elm trees on the site and arguments about whether there should be 48 rather than 50 columns. (In St. Florian's concept each column symbolizes a state. There were of course only 48 states at the time of World War II, but the states-to-be -- Hawaii and Alaska -- were affected by the war.)
Questions will be raised about all aspects of the design -- its height and breadth, materials, symbolic and educational elements. And there will be opposition to any such memorial at all at this important place on the Mall.
Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), for instance, is strongly opposed to the location, and has commissioned at his own expense a short, computer-generated video to demonstrate what he sees as this design's negative effects. Deborah Dietsch, editor of Architecture magazine, has editorialized against the location. Former senator and recent presidential candidate Bob Dole, on the other hand, used the site to announce he will become vice chairman of the drive to raise the $100 million needed to get the memorial built. President Clinton is behind it -- he dedicated the site on Veterans Day 1995.
St. Florian was getting his hair cut on the late December Saturday when the call came from Washington. His wife answered the phone and, though the message was noncommittal, she quickly telephoned the barbershop and told her husband to hurry home. St. Florian cannot put into words precisely how he felt when he learned his design had won. He had to step out into the winter air to catch his breath and corral his emotions: It was far and away the biggest moment of his architectural career. Ending & Beginnings
The irony is inescapable. Friedrich St. Florian Gartler was born in Graz, a mid-size medieval city in southwestern Austria, and his childhood was spent there and in the Alpine village of Kaprun. That is, he grew up in what was then, for Americans, enemy territory. St. Florian was 12 when the war ended, and for him it ended quite dramatically: An American soldier, rifle at the ready, burst into the luxury hotel room where, for war's own reasons, St. Florian and his classmates were learning their lessons. The relieved GI sent the children home.
St. Florian recalls being excited because school was out; his mother told him the real significance of the event -- for the people of Kaprun, the war was over. What he remembers in particular are the soldier's "wonderful smile and beautiful teeth."
To the inevitable question asked of his generation of Austrians -- what did your father do during the war? -- St. Florian explains that his dad, Friedrich Gartler, was not a Nazi party member and was exempted from military service because of his job as an engineer at hydroelectric power plants. St. Florian recalls that as a child he was always hanging around construction sites at such facilities; he'd "borrow" a little cement and head off into the woods, where he built many a miniature dam. He decided to be an architect when he was 10, he says, and after that he "never had any doubts."
Both the Gartlers and the Pressls (his mother's side) are old, old families from Graz. St. Florian's younger brother, Klaus Gartler, a city planner, still lives there. St. Florian got his architectural degree from Graz's 400-year-old university in 1958. Shortly thereafter he petitioned the Austrian government for permission to use his romantic middle name -- the original St. Florian was a Roman officer martyred by drowning in the River Inn -- as his official Kunstlername, or artist's name.
This proud gesture was intentionally modeled upon the example of the great Swiss architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, known to the world by his self-selected name, Le Corbusier. St. Florian admits that he was a "fairly arrogant" student at the university, apparently with some reason -- two years before graduating he and and classmate Raimund Abraham won third prize in an international design competition for a university in Saudi Arabia.
"No one ever heard again from the first- and second-prize winners," St. Florian recalls, "but the fourth prize went to Walter Gropius and his firm, the Architects Collaborative. It legitimized our standing, you might say."
Indeed, it was heady stuff. A couple of Austrian kids had beaten out a legendary figure -- Gropius had directed Germany's famous Bauhaus in the '20s and had gone on to revolutionize architectural education at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Entering competitions became part of St. Florian's architectural modus operandi. He and Abraham teamed up again to place first in another international competition, this one for a cultural center in what was then the Belgian Congo. A sort of last gasp by the Belgian crown to hold on to its colony, the center did not get built, but it further raised the spirits of the young architects.
"We were so romantic," St. Florian says. "After graduation, we rented a castle in the middle of nowhere and went furiously to work. We couldn't stand it for very long, of course. We were good friends, but we decided to move to Vienna." The pair actually got a few small buildings built in the Austrian capital, but St. Florian was feeling restless. For him, as for many of his generation, Europe seemed stale and slow-moving.
America beckoned. He came to Columbia University on a Fulbright Fellowship om 1961 and hardly ever looked back. (He became a U.S. citizen in 1973.) By the fall of 1963, graduate degree in hand, he was teaching at RISD. He was interested in teaching and architectural theory, but not actual practice.
"I felt I was not ready to build," he says. "I needed to search more, to investigate certain ideas. It was almost as if I wanted to gain some time."
Thanks to school president Albert Bush-Brown's ambitious efforts to assemble a cluster of young architectural hot shots, the Providence school was bubbling with new ideas by the late '60s. St. Florian was joined by his friend Abraham. Michael Webb of London's Archigram was there, spreading the word about "plug-in" cities made of ever-changeable parts. Adolfo Natalini brought along the design pizzazz of Florence's Superstudio. In close-by Boston was the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, Gyorgy Kepes' art-and-technology research outpost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Theory & Practice
St. Florian thrived in this lively academic environment. He played with ideas and recorded them in models, site plans and drawings that crossed art with architecture. He envisioned a "vertical city" in the form of a towering megastructure, exquisitely drawn by hand in pen and ink on a 10-foot sheet of paper. (Today, he intensely dislikes this particular vision.) He experimented with lasers at MIT to shape rooms that were fragile and evanescent, defined by beams of light. He noted how airplane holding patterns above airports resemble architecture in the abstract, and made a number of striking drawings to illustrate the point. He conceived of holography as a sort of a nexus of real and imaginary architecture. Clouds were his favorite holographic images, but he also perceived a potential political impact, as in a giant three-dimensional image of the Statue of Liberty projected above the South African plains.
During this "theoretical period," as St. Florian refers to it, there were a few near-misses at commissions for real-time, real-world architecture. By far the most dramatic was another competition entry. Teaming again with Abraham (and with John Thornley, another young RISD teacher), St. Florian took a pass at the competition of the decade -- for the Centre Pompidou, the museum-library-exhibition hall that was to replace the markets in central Paris. The Providence trio came oh-so-close, placing second to the soon-to-be-famous, let-it-all-hang-out design of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. His disappointment was cushioned, St. Florian says, by the fact that when he saw the first-place entry, he knew it was better.
Writing about St. Florian in a 1976 exhibition catalogue, British architect Peter Cook, a founder of Archigram, observed: "He is contained and mannered as a person. His drawing is exemplary and is also neat and mannered. Yet you can tell that there is a burning going on inside of him." This observation elucidates the combination of pragmatism and idealism that is a strong part of St. Florian's personality and work.
And it is as if Cook somehow sensed a change in St. Florian's life, for in 1978 St. Florian was offered the architecture deanship at the school of design. It was the beginning of what he calls his period as an "academic architect." Secure in his teaching and administrative duties, he opened an architectural office that ranged over the next decade or so from one to seven people.
"I guess I reached the age where I was ready to build," St. Florian reflects. "I didn't have to accept bread-and-butter jobs, to add a garage to somebody's house. I've always abhorred that concept of architecture. To me, architecture is a precinct that is quite sacred." He had become a family man, too. St. Florian met Livia Campanella, a painter and daughter of an Italian diplomatic family, during a teaching stint in Rome in 1965. The couple were married in 1967 and two daughters followed -- Alisia, now 28, and Ilaria, 26. Making regular forays to Italy, the family settled contentedly in Providence -- a Graz-size city, come to think of it. "Providence Proves That Great Cities Can Come in Small Packages," reads the headline of an affectionate city portrait St. Florian wrote for the Providence Journal-Bulletin.
The architectural jobs were mostly single-family homes -- a stripped-to-the-bone brick house in Providence's historic College Hill district; a more satisfying, vaguely Shingle style country house for an art dealer; a formal beach house starkly remindful of turn-of-the-century Vienna; a concise cut-away cube for a sculptor near a beach in Massachusetts. And, among others, his own house in Providence -- something St. Florian, like every architect, had always dreamed of doing.
In 1994 he was commissioned to design the basic layout and primary facades of Providence Place, a $360 million shopping mall to be next to the city's historic downtown. The commission signaled another major change in St. Florian's career -- from little to big, simple to complex, theoretical to very, very real. Though the project is in some ways questionable -- its relationship to the old downtown is ambiguous at best -- St. Florian's design is self-confident and sophisticated.
You would think he had been working at this scale all his life, and in a way he has been -- those airplane patterns in the sky, after all, are even bigger than this huge building. More important, perhaps, is another consistency in St. Florian's extremely varied work -- even at his most experimental, he never lost sight of the importance of the past.
Every year St. Florian begins his always-packed RISD studio for advanced architecture students with an ingenious lecture that encompasses the whole of Western architectural history, right up to the present. "The point," he tells the beginners, "is to understand that you are not the first person to make architecture . . . that you cannot reinvent the wheel every time." Both the Providence Place and World War II Memorial designs attest to the strength of St. Florian's belief in the need to reconcile the past with the present, the traditional with the modern, the conventional with the innovative.
You can see this, too, in that drawing of the "House on the Rocks," with its great vault and its piazza-like room open to the air. St. Florian hopes to build the house, someday. He and his wife have a cliffside site picked out, on the island of Elba in the Tyrrhenian Sea. CAPTION: The War Memorial DesignerFriedrich St. Florian and his wife, Livia, at their Providence home, with its 18-foot living room ceiling CAPTION: "House on the Rocks, for Livia Campanella," which St. Florian designed for his wife in the 1970s. CAPTION: St. Florian's concept for the World War II memorial on the Mall contains two semicircular colonnades flanking a central pool. Below left, his "New York Birdcage," inspired by aircraft holding patterns, is part of his earlier academic work; below right, St. Florian and his winning drawing.