Wednesday, April 05, 2006

"Sarasota Modernism and Its Origins"—A Study Tour Organized by the Society of Architectural Historians

In January I was awarded a fellowship by the Society of Architectural Historians to attend a study tour in Sarasota, Florida. For three days, participants visited residences, schools, and churches designed by some of the 20th century's most talented architects. This essay describes the places on the tour agenda.

If anybody wondered about jury deliberations in the case of the Philistines v. Mid-century Modernist Architecture, hints of a verdict were alarmingly clear to the 23 participants on the SAH study tour Sarasota Modernism and Its Origins in mid-February: The outlook for modernist buildings is bleak. Nowhere was this assessment more apparent than at Lido Shores and on Siesta and Casey Keys. In these exclusive residential districts, Tudor Revival mansions and Mediterranean-style stucco confections with thousands of square feet in living space all but cast shadows across the low roofs of neighboring seasonal homes designed in the mid-1950s by architects such as Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell. The ubiquitous “McMansions” lumbered over the grasses and dunes, giving the impression of consuming everything in their paths.

Richard Guy Wilson, in his introduction to John Howey’s book The Sarasota School of Architecture: 1941-1988, writes: “In its native haunt the Sarasota school now appears as an archaeological artifact overwhelmed by suburban boxes.” Under these circumstances, perhaps no structures are more endangered than the architectural legacies of the postwar modernist movement.

A year ago, in an issue devoted to modernist architecture, the New York Times Magazine asked: “Is it time for the Preservation of Modernism?” Among our group of architects, historians, preservationists, and lifelong architecture aficionados, the answer was unsurprising. As we made our way through private and public buildings that embody the spirit of Sarasota modernism, some restored to their former magnificence and others mere ghosts of past design perfection, the collective sense of urgency to preserve was palpable.

And so, throughout our three-day study tour, three themes informed our visits to residences, beach pavilions, schools, churches, and businesses: (1) preservation of architectural legacies, (2) restoration of neglected structures, and (3) recognition of the innovative design principles of architects with modernist sensibilities. Leader Joe King, a local architect, historian, preservationist, real-estate developer, and co-author with Christopher Domin of Paul Rudolph: The Florida Houses, organized the tour to trace the origins and development of a distinctive episode in the narrative of mid-century modernism, one whose heritage endures in buildings by contemporary Sarasota architects and in some of the restored period masterworks.

Joe’s tour included examples of extant works by Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell, and by several of their architectural progeny—living architects whose works embody many of their same principles. Late in his life, Rudolph articulated his and Twitchell’s early design philosophy. It included a short list of tenets that infused their works and became the foundation for Sarasota modernism: clarity of construction; maximum economy of means; simple overall volumes penetrating vertically and horizontally; clear geometry “floating” above the Florida landscape; and honesty in details and structural connections.

The tour began with an introduction to Sarasota that focused not only on the present but also the timeless features of the landscape—“the special magic of its water-lined environment with tropical skies, unique light, beaches, surf, and islands imbued with exotic plants, trees, and creatures,” as John Howey described it—that informed the work of the Sarasota modernists. Our first stop, which might strike some as an unlikely place to launch a study of modernist architecture, was Ca D’Zan, the sumptuous mansion of John and Mabel Ringling.

Ca D’Zan survives as an artifact of the boom years between the two World Wars of the 20th century. Along with estates of similarly imposing magnitude, it affirmed Sarasota’s emergent profile as a southern outpost for the country’s wealthiest businessmen and high society’s most elite members. Designed by Dwight James Baum, the magnificent ersatz Venetian palazzo is also a lesson in the elastic nature of the word “modern.” The reinvention of a place stripped of its time and context is, after all, a thoroughly modern concept.

For the Ringlings, Baum used luxurious materials to create a richly textured building reminiscent of palatial homes lining the narrow canals of Venice. Furnished with “spoils” from the couple’s grand tours of Europe, Ca D’Zan reflects the opulence of a bygone era and transports iconic features of Venetian architecture to a new context of tropical exoticism. Even the 16th-century Doge Andrea Gritti, cloistered in his ducal palace on the Piazza San Marco, could never have imagined such a place.

In 1926, construction of Ca D’Zan neared completion, and Ralph Twitchell, acting as Baum’s local representative during the final stages, became a key player in Sarasota’s rise as a tourist Mecca for the wealthy. New trends in architecture and design fueled his aspirations in an era notable for enormous financial capital, daring patrons and clients, and burgeoning land development. Through the late 1920s and 1930s, Twitchell established himself as a master builder.

Our next stop was about 60 miles inland, at Lakeland, where Twitchell and his contemporaries, including Paul Rudolph, watched as the campus for Southern Florida College grew out of a design by Frank Lloyd Wright. As we stepped onto the campus from our air-conditioned coach, key components of Wright’s lifelong site-specific design aesthetic were apparent. His master plan had acknowledged, deferred to, and enhanced the most prominent components of the landscape: an expansive sloping hill covered in citrus groves leading down to a wide lake.

Wright’s design includes a number of core buildings connected by esplanades and unified in their program by the use of local Ocala textile blocks. The focal point of the campus is Major Chapel, with an open central plan reminiscent of Wright’s Unity Church in Oak Park, Illinois. As light infused the structure through the modernist steeple, Joe King remarked on the highly sophisticated play of 30-60-90-degree relationships that enliven the interior, contributing to both a dynamic and serene sacred space. The overall effect is sublime.

Wright’s last building for the campus was Minor Chapel, a more modest place of worship. A diminutive companion to Major Chapel, it is discreet and humble, a temple for reflection and contemplation. Natural light enters from behind the altar and fills the small space, inspiring silence among admiring visitors.

Seminar buildings, a monumental library, industrial arts classrooms, an administration building, and the recently restored Science and Cosmography building contribute to a vision of structures dancing across the landscape. Again, water is integral to Wright’s master plan and is featured prominently not only in the natural lake formation but also in a grand fountain—Water Dome—at the top of the hill. Today, the fountain is nothing more than a circular plaza, and yet we found it easy to imagine the dramatic correspondence between soaring water jets above and the flat lake surface below.

With any Wright structure, preservation is a high priority, and the buildings composing the Southern Florida campus are no exception. Interventions have been extensive and executed with great care, precision, and expense. The Water Dome, once the central design element atop the hill, is expected to operate again, just as Wright envisioned it. The administration also hopes to restore other elements of Wright’s design for individual buildings, eliminating intrusive accretions and revealing exquisite hidden details.

One of the many enduring achievements of Wright’s master plan for Southern Florida College, transcending time and the erosion of age, is the overall sense of lightness and buoyancy. There is no questioning the substantial mass of buildings such as Major Chapel or the library. But other components, including the cascading esplanades, the grassy arenas, and the few remaining citrus trees, suggest volume amid the Ocala blocks and poured-concrete structures. This remarkable balance of mass and volume would be evident in nearly all of the buildings we visited over the next two days.

Our first day ended back in Sarasota with a tour of River Forest, a new neighborhood development built within an existing forest and spearheaded by our very own tour guide, Joe King. In a day, we had traversed nearly a century of architectural achievement along a small segment of Florida’s Gulf Coast.

It probably goes without saying that time transforms, edits, and erases many things. Perhaps what’s more remarkable, then, is the continuity of a theme that transcends time. While Ca D’Zan, Baum’s creation for the Ringlings, relied on Old World antecedents to inspire its form, the mansion —along with Wright’s Southern Florida College and Joe King’s plan for River Forest—also acknowledges and celebrates the features of the local environment. Baum used the “special magic” of Sarasota Bay as the focal point for Ca D’Zan. Wright placed his master plan for Southern Florida within the context of a confluence of earth and water. And King rejected the status quo of cookie-cutter houses and suburban sprawl in favor of home designs that defer to the idiosyncrasies and other characteristics of the landscape, continuing the legacy of his architectural forebears.

River Forest was also inspired by the successful development efforts of Mary Rockwell Hook, a Kansas City architect who retired to Sarasota. In the early 1950s, she created Sandy Hook, a residential development on Siesta Key where architects could explore their design concepts. Sandy Hook reflects the environmental sensitivities of the era, a time when architects respected the local topography and built on a scale that never dominated the landscape. King’s work at River Forest revives this philosophy and is a model for other residential developers.

The second day of our tour began with a visit to Ralph Twitchell and Paul Rudolph’s 1950 Cocoon House on Siesta Key, where we were reminded of the most important, if not the most immediate, skill required for understanding Sarasota’s regional modernism: the ability to imagine places out of time. When Cocoon House was built more than 50 years ago, it occupied a deserted stretch of beach interrupted only by scrub, palms, and pine trees. In this context the modest guest cottage, a retreat for Twitchell’s in-laws, didn’t so much dominate as dwell within the environment. Today, contemporary mansions of dubious architectural heritage surround the house, which, after nearly irreparable decay, was restored in the early 1990s.

The composition of Cocoon House is a kind of architectural haiku. Among the most striking elements of its radical design is the curved tensile roof originally made up of steel straps, flexible ceiling insulation panels, and a sprayed-on plastic roofing material. It’s almost as if a piece of gossamer fell from the sky and draped itself perfectly on four posts. Elevated on a platform and partly extending over the bayou, and with louvered walls and floor-to-ceiling glazing, the house was, in Rudolph’s words, “structural exhibitionism poised at the water's edge with breathing walls and a spirit of light-heartedness.”

On the other side of the bayou, and just a short distance from Cocoon House, are the remnants of Ralph Twitchell’s Revere Quality House. Sponsored by the Revere Quality House Institute, a cooperative venture of the Revere Copper Company, Twitchell’s design was a forum for the uses of copper in postwar housing. The house was built with self-preservation in mind, designed to be resistant to termites, rot, and hurricanes. Unfortunately, it still proved vulnerable to inattention and the vagaries of time, and over the years a gritty and incongruous patina of weathering and neglect enshrouded its innovative structural elements, including steel pipe columns, concrete floors, and glazing. Local architect Guy Peterson has designed a monumental, yet highly sympathetic, addition to the Revere house, which, with tremendous foresight by the current owner, is being restored to its former magnificence.

Paul Rudolph’s impeccably preserved Cohen House, a rectangular box from 1955, combines wood construction with steel and glass, evoking the stylish and fashionable mid-century modernist aesthetic. A conversation pit dominates the vast central living space; floor-to-ceiling glazing punctuates the south and east exterior walls. Gleaming terrazzo floors unify the interior rooms, and an expanse of glazed sliders opens onto a sunporch facing the bayou. Rudolph scholarship notes that the Cohen House went through many design iterations. During the various phases, air-conditioning became prominent in middle-class homes, and the Cohen House was no exception. The impact on the overall ambiance of the house was dramatic: No longer was the outdoor environment an integral part of the design program. The easy, fluid movement between the indoors and nature had ceased.

At this point in our study tour, Joe King, our guide, revealed yet another dimension to his architectural pursuits—passionate preservationist. Sometimes there seems to be a disconnect between architects and preservationists. Mostly it’s a matter of architects not being fully aware of the role preservationists play in the mix of design and history. Preservationists try to avoid hasty intervention by encouraging critical thought among communities, groups, or individuals involved in restoration projects, for example.

Recently, Joe purchased Ralph Twitchell’s 1941 home on Siesta Key overlooking Big Pass and the Gulf of Mexico. This house, the first collaboration between Ralph Twitchell and Paul Rudolph, demonstrates a dynamic and fully synchronized architectural pas de deux between the partners. It articulates their understanding of Frank Lloyd Wright’s aesthetic within a coastal context: local Ocala lime block, cypress, and glass in a composition that appears to emerge from the land itself.

Today, like so many other buildings of its time, the house faces numerous obstacles to its survival. Partially destroyed by fire, unsympathetically altered by previous owners, and showing the natural effects of time’s passing, the dilapidated house will undergo an extensive and meticulous restoration. Joe’s familiarity with Twitchell and Rudolph’s own working processes and design philosophy, and a thorough examination of extant materials, will guide his efforts to recapture the architects’ vision and bring the house back into harmony with its landscape.

Tim Seibert, a protégé of Rudolph and Philip Hiss, designed the 1959 Dickerson residence, another house situated on a bayou. Here Seibert also articulates the interplay between indoors and outdoors by way of screened courtyards and vast expanses of glazing. The polished concrete floors, glazing, and muscular block walls conflate mass and volume, resulting in a house that is both substantial and graceful. Restoration architect Michael Epstein described the ambitious addition planned for the house. While drawing a deliberate distinction between old and new, Epstein plans to adhere closely to the spirit of Seibert’s design.

Paul Rudolph’s 1952 Sanderling Beach Club was a good place for tour participants to enjoy a box lunch and get to know one another. It was also an appropriate commission for Rudolph, who had only recently started his independent practice, to explore a new economy of form and experiment with unfamiliar materials, including plywood. With Sanderling, his work reached new levels of purity and grace. In a series of vaulted private cabanas, Rudolph composed a visual rhythm that evokes the swaying of palm fronds and the undulating surface of the Gulf. The cabanas, as well as a central pavilion, are undergoing restoration work to return their surface luster, an essential component of the modernist vernacular.

The richly textured surfaces and complex program of the Beebe residence, by Ralph and William Zimmerman, make it the perfect foil for Rudolph’s pure aesthetic at Sanderling. Words and expressions like “organic,” “lyrical,” “romantic,” and “free form” are often used to describe the Zimmermans’ work. The Beebe residence was, in fact, an anomaly among the formalist designs of Twitchell, Rudolph, Seibert, and their purist brethren. It was one of the first residences where many of the tour participants felt at ease in both the interior and exterior spaces. If the living spaces, terraces, and dock were warm and inviting, the lush and abundant garden and landscape surrounding the house were equally accessible.

Back on the mainland, at the Darling residence designed by Carl Abbott in 2002, we were again in the presence of a design language descended from Twitchell and Rudolph. Concrete is the overriding design material, which might lead one to assume the overall effect conveys a sense of oppressive mass through muscular proportions. But that is not the case. Light bounces off the walls as it pours into the central living area. Abbott respected the site and its abundant reserves of oak trees, and his approach helped create the feeling of a New World country estate.

Before committing to a design, Abbott interviewed Ann Darling and her two sons to learn what was important to them in terms of living space. The result isn’t so much one house as a complex of three unified by common materials, where each person’s unique character is expressed in his or her arrangement of space. The common area features a large, outdoor, ground-level terrace with a seating-wall surround. This gathering place for family and friends is reminiscent of Rudolph’s conversation pit—a focal point that encourages community. Ann Darling and her sons live a charmed life in the house Abbott designed for them.

The Darling house is on the periphery of the 20-acre site of Carl Abbott’s St. Thomas More Church. The original church, built in 1984, is at the center of a dynamic building complex that includes a parish center, completed in 1996, and an administration building still under construction. After more than 20 years of gradual additions, the complex retains a sense of continuity of design and purpose.

As we saw at the Darling house, the site is integral to Abbott’s plan for the church. The complex is at the heart of a pine forest, and nature is the central theme of the buildings’ massive white planes. Shifting daylight enlivens the surfaces with nature’s shadows. The church itself is unconventional in plan, a testimony to the congregation’s willingness to depart from traditional forms for worship.

Churches and schools are cornerstones in any community and Joe organized the tour with this in mind. He selected the best of each building type to illustrate the breadth of achievement by architects who worked in the area. The last stop on our second day, Sarasota High School, served as a bookend of sorts to the previous day’s visit to Southern Florida College at Lakeland. Paul Rudolph’s 1958 design for the high school pays homage to many of Wright’s stylistic motifs at Lakeland. In the cascading esplanades—perhaps the school’s most graceful and expressive features—and economical utilitarian spaces, Rudolph acknowledges Wright as one of his primary sources of inspiration.

While Rudolph’s distinctive roofline has been compromised, most likely to conceal air-conditioning units and other unsightly mechanical devices, the building’s imposing profile is otherwise intact. The paradox of mass and volume, so typical of Sarasota’s modernist idiom, is again at play in the high school’s hulking form. Despite its substantial presence, expressed through the use of poured concrete, the building conveys a sense of lightness inherent in Rudolph’s work, combined with restraint and formal purity.

On Wednesday morning, after our last orientation meeting with Joe, we left the Ritz-Carleton campus and made our way across the bay to Lido Shores, an exclusive subdivision developed by Philip Hiss in the 1950s. Fifty years later, few of the homes designed, built, and furnished by Hiss remain. Again, we were struck by the degree of peril facing many of the modernist buildings we had toured over the past two days.

Two extant residences, one known as the Umbrella House, designed by Paul Rudolph in 1953, and the other Hiss’s studio and home on the adjacent lot, stand serenely among the construction chaos accompanying the rise of enormous stucco mansions. While many of the period’s houses no longer exist, these two buildings stand as modest monuments to a distinctive regional modernist aesthetic.

Today, two designers with an eye for detail and an appreciation for period craftsmanship own Umbrella House, a 2,000-square-foot rectangle composed of steel, wood, and glass. Their philosophy emphasizes stewardship over ownership. “It’s a matter of adapting our lives to the house and its unique character rather than forcing it to accommodate our needs,” they say. Although they have made certain updates, such as the addition of air-conditioning and other technological enhancements, the changes are discreet to the point of being invisible. It’s hard to imagine Hiss wouldn’t approve of today’s revitalized Umbrella House. The current owners even hope to restore the house’s namesake feature, an overhanging canopy that was removed shortly after construction.

Our in-depth examination of Sarasota’s modernist architecture revealed the influence of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe on its practitioners. Kinship with Wright is evident in the architects’ sensitivity to the environment and their use of local materials, such as Ocala block, in construction. Mies’s famous dictum “less is more” is at the core of the overall design aesthetic. This economy of means infuses the buildings with a transcendent elegance. Again and again, we were reminded of a design philosophy that prized leanness over excess.

These qualities express themselves in a wide range of building types, from the 1950s heyday of modernist enterprise to the present. Examples include Hiss’s early-1950s studio, a Miesian box hovering above the ground on steel piloti; Architectonica’s new headquarters for the Sarasota Herald Tribune, another glass box of more monumental proportions but also respectful in scale to its modest neighbors; Victor Lundy’s 1959 design for St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, with its distinctive sweeping roof; Guy Peterson’s recently completed Girl Scout Headquarters, a campus of buildings whose geometric forms invite the natural landscape to embrace them; and Paul Rudolph’s luxurious Burkhardt residence, sequestered between the Gulf and Blackburn Bay on Casey Key. In each case, the overriding principle is recognition of the environment as a guide for the expression of architectural form.

Perhaps this idea was articulated best at the home Ralph and Tollyn Twitchell designed in 1962 for Ralph’s daughter Sylva and her family. The Hutchins residence, as it is popularly known, sits at the end of a narrow and meandering dirt road, far from its nearest neighbors. Its modest scale underscores elegance and simplicity of form despite a sophisticated use of materials.

Of all the houses we visited, the Hutchins residence is nearest to its original condition. Emerging from a lush landscape on the water’s edge, the house defers to its surroundings. With an impeccable provenance, the Hutchinses have never instituted radical changes to Ralph and Tollyn’s design. The Hutchinses, too, are stewards of this modernist masterwork. They have allowed the house to evolve naturally and acquire a rich patina. Occupied continuously by Twitchell’s daughter and her family, the house retains an aura of authenticity. After three days of observing modernist experiments in various stages of deterioration, we appreciated the Hutchins residence as an enduring legacy of an increasingly rare architectural form.

At the tour’s closing dinner, several of us debated the merits of Sarasota’s modernist enterprise. Sympathetic to the aims of Twitchell, Rudolph, Hiss, and their contemporaries, as well as their architectural progeny, we discussed their achievements in the context of our 21st-century lifestyles. All of us agreed that the impulse guiding architects to develop new forms and explore experimental technologies endures, even if the work itself struggles for survival and relevance.

Across a wide swath of Sarasota and its environs, a transcendent quality typified the modernist forms we examined over three days. In general, mid-century modernist architecture is embattled. From an urban crossroads at Columbus Circle in Manhattan to a rural Civil War battlefield in Pennsylvania, modernist buildings are vulnerable to indifference, ridicule, and demolition. At least one member of our tour felt something akin to a spiritual transformation while contemplating Toshiko Mori’s innovative additions at Paul Rudolph’s Burkhardt residence. That kind of reawakening and renewal advocates survival and underscores the need for a diversity of architectural forms in all the places we inhabit.