I was recently in Sarasota, FL for a brief get away. Besides the renowned balmy weather, sugar white sand beaches and clear, warm Gulf sea, Sarasota is also notable for it’s wealth of mid-century modern architecture, and even a few contemporary gems worth a visit. During the 1950’s, Sarasota was a center of creative energy for modernist architects testing out new ideas. Paul Rudolph, one of the masters of American modernism, got his start there. His expansion of Sarasota Senior High is an iconic example of the period. While the design was critically acclaimed, it was not well received by faculty and staff at the school who complained that the design was not well-suited for an educational complex. Recently renovated, it provides a reminder of the idealistic vision of the time.
Currently on display on the Ringling Museum grounds (a worthwhile destination in it’s own right), is a replica by the Sarasota Architectural Foundation of the 1952 Walker Guest House, designed by Paul Rudolph early in his notable career. Conceived specifically for the subtropical Florida climate on Sanibel Island, the original is still used as a guest house. The residence was named one of the most important houses of the twentieth century in a 1957 survey of "Architectural Record" readers, along with Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House and Philip Johnson's Glass House.
Large windows and screens on all four sides of the house allow air to flow throughout the dwelling. The glass panels are actually structural members bracing the open framework.
A series of ropes and pulleys, counterbalanced by large red concrete balls, control the external window shades. These shades enable the house to be either closed up and cave like, or an open pavilion, and provide the dwelling with security and shelter from the sun.
The display structure was built from the original Rudolph drawings, and working from vintage photos, furnished to replicate the original as closely as possible. Curators were even able to locate the manufacturer of some of the living room chairs, still in business 60 years later, who agreed to create duplicates for this exhibit. The compact interior would require a lifestyle free of clutter and too many possessions, a zen like retreat by the beach.
This reproduction was designed to be dis-assembled and be able to travel, but there is discussion about it becoming a permanent display on the lush grounds of the museum.
Recently completed, also at the museum complex, the Asian Art Study Center is an addition and 'gut renovation' to the Museum complex. The addition houses new gallery space and lecture hall, and is a striking object to behold. The addition's façade of deep-green, glazed and chiseled terra cotta tiles shimmer in the Florida sunshine. The architects, Machado Silvetti from Boston, collaborated closely with Boston Valley Terra Cotta to develop the color, form and installation technique for the panels. The over 3,000 tiles provide a high performance, visually striking building envelope.
This facade brought to mind the Provincetown Art Association and Museum addition designed by the same architects, where they used cedar siding in a unique way to create a textured wall surface. Fascinating to see an earlier concept developed here in such a bold new direction.
In case you were wondering, I didn’t really spend my vacation looking at architecture! It was just a few brief interludes between the beach and kayaking among the mangroves.
“International Style” architecture emerged in Europe during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The roots are traced to the Bauhaus School in Germany, where designers explored rational, functional, and sometimes standardized building types. In contrast to the prevalent styles of the day, simple forms, clean lines, no ornamentation, and the use of concrete, steel and glass as primary building materials defined the look. Although the principles were first adopted by architects and planners in Northern Europe, the term itself, International Style, was coined by Americans Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in 1932 when they curated MoMA’s first architectural show. The exhibition attracted much attention to the display of mostly foreign building models and drawings.
“The International Style is probably the first fundamentally original and widely distributed style since the Gothic,” Johnson argued. “Today the style has passed beyond the experimental stage. In almost every civilized country in the world it is reaching its full stride.”
The Bauhaus School was closed in 1933 under pressure from the Nazi regime, the school was seen as a center or communist intellectualism. The staff emigrated all over the world, many to the U.S., bringing their ideals with them. The modernist style was readily adapted to any climate zone, and since it is not beholden to historical and vernacular tradition, architects around the globe were able to implement this style in their home countries.
When I started architecture school, these International Style architects (Le Corbusier, Mies Van de Rohe, Alvar Aalto, Richard Neutra, and others) were the role models we learned from. It was just before Post Modernism swept the architectural world- my interest continued to be with the modernists. So, after many years of continuing to design in a modern style myself, it is both notable and gratifying to see how many of my clients are in fact themselves immigrants from around the world. Perhaps the interest in modern design is stronger among these adventurous emigres than for native born Americans.
Working with such a variety of foreign born clients has presented interesting opportunities and challenges. For a Chinese client, I was asked to incorporate Feng Shui principals into the design. The client had their own Feng Shui consultant who reviewed our plans and suggested some tweaks to the design. For an Indian family, we worked with Vastu principles (the traditional Hindu approach to harmony in home and architecture) to achieve a customized, unique home. Vastu principles of design were important in determining locations and layouts of the house; we collaborated closely with the client- they had a family member in India who is a Vaastu expert, who also reviewed our proposed design solutions. Working with these ancient principals provided a spiritual underpinning to the design that made itself felt throughout the process.
Recently I met with a prospective client at their house for an initial consultation. Arriving at the address, a corner property, I was confused how to enter; should I be entering on the street of the address, or go around the corner? The front of the house lookedlike the back, and from the direction I was coming, I couldn’t see an entry door. I continued driving towards the corner and finally saw the door, hidden in a corner setback of the house.
The clients, aware of the problem, stated that one of their priorities was to create more curb appeal and make clear where to enter. This moment of confusion reminded me the power and importance of that transition from street to dwelling.
Most commonly the home entrance faces directly onto some type of a public thoroughfare like a street or public path, and a visitor expectsthe entrance to be clearly signaled. Some entrances are scaled large and grand, signifying the owner’s desire for public prominence.Others might be more subtle, offering privacy for the comings and goings of the household.
Usually the entrance offers some kind of overhead protection from the elements, and whether the door is centered on the front facade or asymmetric, these type of entries make a clear statement about what might be expected when you walk through the door. There might be a double height foyer that creates a sense of having arrived somewhere special, and encourages the visitor to pause or a single story height that is more cozy.
The landscaping between street and house adds to the overall feel of the approach. A straight sidewalk with formal rows of plantings and paving focuses attention directly on the door and creates a very different feeling than a path that wanders through a more garden like design. There are however other factors that might require the front door to in fact not face the street. This was the case when I designed a house for a client who wanted to use Vastu principles, which required the entry to be oriented in a particular direction, in this case sideways to the street. (Vastu is an ancient Hindu approach to harmony in home and architecture, with some similarity to the more familiar Chinese Feng Shui.) And along with the use of a canopy and low retaining wall distinguishing the entry area, any visitor would find themselves comfortably ushered from street to this house.