Victor Lundy, Modern Architecture’s Inspired Outsider

From sketchbook musings to inspired design, Lundy’s work showcased the genius of an eclectic thinker

By Patrick Sisson, Curbed

“When I think thoughts, I draw thoughts.”

The career of architectural iconoclast Victor Lundy took many shapes over decades of designing buildings: the grand, imposing rectangles of the United States Tax Court Building in Washington, D.C. (1974), a deconstructed cube that redefined the limits of government architecture; the tree-like columns clustered around the entrance of the Warm Mineral Springs Motel in Sarasota County, Florida (1958), concrete umbrellas beckoning travelers; and the bold, angular forms of the Church of the Resurrection in Harlem, New York (1966), a powerful collection of simple shapes. But no matter the creative solution or inspired design, any building usually started as an idea sketched on a piece of paper with an ebony pencil. Lundy was an inveterate artist and drawer, constantly creating and communicating his artistic and architectural visions on endless sheets of paper.

“When he traveled, he sketched buildings in order to figure them out,” says Donna Kacmar, an architect and architecture faculty member who is currently working on a book about Lundy. “He is really curious about the world, the way people live, and the buildings that he visits. He doesn’t sketch to record, but to understand, to grasp how the building was crafted.”

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United States Tax Court Building

Drawing, so central to Lundy’s creative process, also serves as a potent metaphor for his career. An adventurous believer in progressive architecture, Lundy had an artist’s bent for redefinition and exploration, rarely repeating himself, and always letting the site and situation determine his drawings and designs (he was even an early experimenter with pneumatics and inflatable architecture, before the avant-garde began popularizing the form). His vision, and desire to maintain a small, hands-on practice, has made him a lesser-known member of the Modernist canon, one without a signature aesthetic. But his versatility and vitality, which filled up stacks of “brain books” with idea and observations about the built and natural world, suggest a creative force worth studying and emulating.

“With every problem I make these images out the blue—initial responses—and then I fuss with them, refine, change, and discard,” Lundy told Dwell magazine. “I work towards the irreducible.”

Born in a New York City brownstone in 1923 to a Russian immigrant family, Lundy was recognized for his drawing talent early on, a gift which played a significant role throughout his life. Encouraged by his mother, he developed his artistic talents, and eventually attended New York University, where he would begin to study architecture and learn the Beaux Arts method. When he enlisted in the Army Special Training Program and was sent to the European front during WWII, a surgeon noticed his sketches while Lundy was getting treated for his war injuries (he filled up more than two dozen sketchbooks overseas, eight of which survived), and recruited him to sketch a new medical procedure he was developing, allowing him to miss eight dangerous months on the front..

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Drawings from Victor Lundy’s wartime sketchbooks (top row) and Rotch travels

But perhaps the most impactful drawing he made, at least early on in his career, was a watercolor that earned him one of his first commissions. After returning from WWII (with a Purple Heart for his wounds), Lundy attended the Harvard Graduate School of Design, learning from modernists such as Walter Gropius, then set out for Sarasota, Florida, to make a name for himself. A local group searching for a designer for a new chamber of commerce building saw one of Lundy’s pictures, a watercolor of Notre Dame Cathedral, and asked him to create a sketch. The resulting Blue Pagoda Building, topped with celadon blue roof tile, became one of his early classics.

Victor Lundy Blue Pagoda
Blue Pagoda Building, photo ©Jenny Acheson

Discussions of the Sarasota School of Modernism often focus on Paul Rudolph, another Modernist working in the Gulf Coast community. But Lundy’s varied body of work was hard to match. In addition to the Chamber of Commerce, he created a celebrated drive-in church for a congregation in nearby Nokomis that was featured in Life magazine. His playful Warm Mineral Springs Motel, while not a standout in his body of work, according to Lundy, provides a bit of personality on a drab roadside stop, as well as an experiment in precast concrete paraboloids. To Lundy, the unique shape symbolized the fountain of youth.

Where other modernist architect, who didn’t have an artistic or Beaux Arts background, would create stark, geometric blueprints, Lundy’s sketches leapt off the page, showing an inherent sense of color and creative expression.

“Sarasota was a great place for a young architect trying to get work, and do the best job he could with the projects that he had,” says Kacmar. “He found ways to do a lot with a little, but it also created a drive to innovate and figure out unorthodox ways to solve problems. He also has a great respect for structural engineers.”

Lundy experimentation also earned him church commissions, a type of building naturally imbued with symbolism, and perfect for his poetic approach to design. St. Paul Lutheran Church Fellowship Hall, a swooping grace note of laminated lumber, became one of a number of adventurous creations he made for congregations around the country. The Unitarian Meeting House in Hartford, Connecticut (1964), envisioned as a lotus blossom, contains a singular worship space separated by a series of concrete fins, and a roof held aloft by a unique system of steel cables. The First Unitarian Church in Westport, Connecticut (1965), was covered by a series of parabolic arches meant to symbolize a set of praying hands.

Victor Lundy St Paul Lutheran Church
St. Paul Lutheran Church Fellowship Hall, photo ©Jenny Acheson

“Lundy tended to work with younger congregations, and each building featured one idea done beautifully,” says Kacmar. “His religions is architecture and art.”

Lundy’s scrappy start in Sarasota set a tone for the rest of his career. He kept his practice small, hiring just a handful of employees, and focused on just a handful of projects. He also followed projects without just focusing on the bottom line. He went for a client meeting to submit a design a church in Harlem, and when he arrived, discovered he had won the job because no other architect bothered to show up. The result, his powerful Church of the Resurrection, has since been demolished, but offered a monumental, almost Brutalist interpretation of sacred space.

As architecture shifted in the late ‘60s and ‘70s away from the classic definitions of Modernism, Lundy would have appeared perfectly poised to seize more of the spotlight, with his knack for sculptural, unorthodox designs and experimentation. Lundy’s small office never produced the same volume of work as his some of his peers, and despite certified late-career masterpieces, including the bold United States Tax Court Building in Washington, D.C., and the Sri Lankan Embassy, his work isn’t as well known as it should be. A later position as design director at the firm HKS resulted in few built works.

Retired and living in Houston, Lundy still spends his days painting and sketching, continuing to fill up notebooks with ideas and thoughts, as he’s done his entire life. He’s disappointed that some of his built work hasn’t been as well preserved as it should be, that the end results of his inventive sketches haven’t been protected. It’s perhaps the unfortunate result of an eccentric creative career. Lundy’s life has been filled with a number of unique projects and career milestones—having his work features in an exhibit in Moscow during the Cold War or designing futuristic space flowers for the 1964 New York World’s Fair—that make him tough to pin down. While that diversity makes Lundy harder to classify, it often makes his work all the more striking.

“He didn’t spend time creating a marketing package,” says Kacmar. “He focused on his design work. Everything he did was singularly developed.”


The third annual SarasotaMOD Architecture Festival celebrating artist and architect SarasotaMOD WeekendVictor Lundy takes place in Sarasota, FL November 11-13, 2016. Featuring the opening party in the iconic Blue Pagoda building, Lundy art exhibition, legacy presentations and film documentary at Ringling College of Art + Design, trolley tours of Lundy and Sarasota landmarks and midcentury homes tours. SarasotaMOD is presented by Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF) in partnership with Sarasota Museum of Art, a division of Ringling College of Art + Design. Click to Buy Tickets

SarasotaMOD Weekend Tickets on Sale

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Mid-Century Perfection

Visit the Walker Guest House on the grounds of The 
Ringling Museum to see a tiny house with minimalist design.

By Louise Bolger | Anna Maria Sun Newspaper staff writer

Beach houses started out as a way to live simply, stay close to nature and block out the stressful world. But beach houses, like so many other mid-century concepts, have evolved and not necessarily in a good way.

The architect Paul Rudolph developed a reputation for designing mid-century modernist residential homes, many in Sarasota and the surrounding area, featuring geometric forms and dynamic interiors influenced by the Bauhaus School of Design. In 1952 he designed and built a true beach house for Dr. Walter Walker on a piece of property on Sanibel Island. The Walker Guest House, as it is known, is unique in many ways, and its tiny house minimalist design is a teaching moment in what relaxed living really is.

The house is 576 square feet and measures 24 by 24, with a combination of screens and glass walls that can be covered with plywood panels operated on a counterweight system fitting together like a puzzle. Rudolph was a naval architect who used that experience in the Walker house design; he even uses boat cleats inside the house to tie off the wood panels when they were in the raised position.

The interior of the house is a flow of space with one bedroom and one bath, an open living

Walker Guest House Replica

SAF’s Walker Guest House Replica is open daily, free admission on the grounds of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art with SAF Docent-led tours. Photo © Anton Grassl/Esto

area and galley kitchen. The structure is elevated off the ground and is compared to a crouching spider in the sand. Rudolph said, “With all of the panels lowered the house is a snug cottage, but when the panels are raised it becomes a large screened pavilion.”
I happen to know about this wonderful one of a kind house because I attended a lecture at the Ringling Museum regarding Paul Rudolph and specifically the Walker Guest House and subsequently toured a duplicate of the home on the museum grounds.

The duplicate at Ringling is the exact size and structure as the original, and except for a few interior modifications, is identical to the Walker property, which I believe still exists on Sanibel Island. I also learned at the lecture that this modern home was one of Paul Rudolph’s favorite projects.

I found this to be an educational experience and encourage anyone who is interested in home design to take a ride over to the Ringling and walk through the house. It is a fun and interactive experience that you can participate in through April of next year without paying an entrance fee to the museum. Paul Rudolph died in 1997, but thanks to the Sarasota Architectural Foundation and The Ringling Museum, one of his iconic projects continues to be an inspiration.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about mid-century design in homes, and indeed Anna Maria Island has many homes built in the 1950s. Hopefully some of these properties will survive and retain their beach house character and mid-century values. In the meantime, you can always check out the “crouching spider in the sand,” an elegant tiny house.

More information, visit SAF-SRQ.org/WalkerGuestHouse

The Mayan Connection

Carl Abbott brings an architect’s insight to the legacy of the Maya

May 4, 2016
By Marty Fugate, Your Observer

Carl Abbott is a thoroughly modern architect, a working practitioner of the Sarasota School of Architecture. He’s not a Luddite or the architectural equivalent of Indiana Jones. Abbott looks to architecture’s future. But he also sees surprising echoes of that future in the past.

Ancient architecture fascinates him — Maya structures most of all.

Abbott Maya to Modern

We speak about it at his north Sarasota offices, a low-slung complex on a sprawling tract of land off Whitaker Bayou. It looks like a jungle. It’s easy to imagine a Maya temple rising up in the distance.

I tell him that. Abbott smiles and says, “Sure.” He politely adds that, outside of the fakery of Disney World, a Maya structure wouldn’t really work in Florida. They exist in context. Specific buildings, designed for specific sites.

Well, by definition every building relates to its site. But some do it better than others. Frank Lloyd Wright was the modern architect who did it best. The relationship of structure to site was the foundation of his organic architecture. Abbott follows in Wright’s footsteps with his insistence that every building be “informed by the land.”

A very modern principle. And an ancient one, as Abbott discovered in 1976.

That’s when he and his two young sons traveled to the Yucatan to experience the architectural legacy of the Maya.

“I thought they’d be excited,” he says. “But I was more excited than they were. I could see that the Maya buildings were tied to the sun, to the stars, to the form of the land itself. There was a whole spatial vocabulary and set of connections.”

Abbott had detected a Mayan resonance with the principles of modernist architecture, and his own work. “I realized that what the Maya were doing was very close to what I was doing. Of course, they did it first, thousands of years ago.”

In the years that followed, Abbott explored the Mayan connection.

It started with research and occasional trips. About a decade ago, those trips became more frequent. The architect teamed up with archeologists and anthropologists. This dream team of Ph.D.s includes New College professor Tony Andrews; Millsaps professor George Bey; Davidson College professor Bill Ringle; Tomás Negrón, an archaeological researcher at Mexico’s National Institute of Archaeology and History; and Patricia Plunket, a professor at the University of the Americas (and Sarasota writer Bob Plunket’s sister).

They’re the top specialists in their fields. And far more likely to contribute to National Geographic than Architectural Digest. But Abbott has an architect’s eye. And he saw things they didn’t.

“I’d point something out,” he says. “The initial response was, ‘Abbott, you’re crazy.’ But they finally realized I was onto something.”

The architect has shared his insights at the Maya at the Playa international conference, and at slideshow lectures around Florida and the nation. He shared his insights with me—in a highly simplified form.

Here’s an overview of the Mayan/modernist connection:

Relate to the Land

Before designing for a site, Abbott always goes there in person. He’ll rent a bucket crane tocampeche see what it looks like from different elevations. Work out the permutations of sun, wind and view for a structure that doesn’t exist yet. It’s standard operating procedure. Or it should be.

Abbott lists examples of Western architects and city planners imposing Cartesian order whether the land likes it or not—and the disastrous results that followed.  The Maya were the opposite. “Each Maya structure was different,” he says. “They specifically designed each structure for the contours and orientations of its site. The land always came first. The Maya had organizing principles, but they adapted their sense of order, never imposed it.”

Sun and Shadow

According to Abbott, any decent architect thinks about a building’s relationship to the sun. A good architect thinks about that relationship over time. His latest work in progress is one example — a beachfront house on Casey Key. The structure has two wings, each oriented to tap into the sun’s heat in the winter and offer shade in the summer. The view sides face the water, naturally. The building’s largest overhang directly faces the sun during the summer solstice, he says. “The shadow effect will be very dramatic.”

Abbott adds that it pales in comparison to what the Maya did at Chichen Itza, where every equinox, the stairs cast an undulating shadow resembling a snake as a tribute to Kukulkan, the serpent God.

“The level of engineering and astronomical awareness is astonishing,” he says.

Secrets and Surprises

Abbott lists other parallels between his work and the Maya’s surprisingly high-tech techniques. His stairway at the Dolphin house on Siesta Key is wider at the bottom than the top, creating the illusion of greater height. It’s called forced perspective, and the Maya beat him to it. Another technique? Rotating an element off a building’s dominant axis to create a sense of surprise. Abbott often skews floors at different angles from the building’s main orientation. The Maya did it with stairways and walls.

What’s going on, exactly?

It’s probably the most modern technique of all … mind games. “Psychology,” says Abbott. He says Maya buildings play with one’s perception. “Essentially, the structure creates a set of expectations in your mind, and then it does the unexpected.”

It’s something Abbott does in his own work. It takes one to know one, as they say.

“A static building is dead,” he says. “A building that surprises and engages you is alive. That’s what Wright, myself and others try to do. That’s what the Maya did, and it flowed out of their animist belief system. Their buildings weren’t dead stones; they were alive. That’s what they thought, and, in a sense, they were right. Centuries after they were built, the Maya structures still have life.”


Carl’s Upcoming 2016 Talks: Carl Abbott will speak about the sacred architecture of the Maya at the Florida American Institute of Architects convention July 22, 2016 in West Palm Beach and at the Sarasota Architectural Foundation’s (SAF) talk on August 4, 2016 at Ringling College of Art + Design (Click to buy advance tickets online).

Like a spider crouching in the sand

WGHR Poster 20x30

May 20, 2016: Docent training session at The Ringling from 9 am to 1 pm
Interested? Contact Anne Marie Bergevin, docents@SAF-SRQ.org

Lido Shores Tour Day for the Cleveland Museum of Art

April 28, 2016: SAF led a tour of two important modernist homes in Lido Shores for the Cleveland Museum of Art Womens Council members. The Umbrella House was designed by architect Paul Rudolph in 1953 and restored in 2015 by Hall Architects. The Don Chapell House was designed by Don Chapell in 2000.

Zaha Hadid in Defense of Paul Rudolph

Excerpt from “Seven Leading Architects Defend the World’s Most Hated Buildings”
as told to Alexandra Lange, June 5, 2015
Read the complete article

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Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center in Goshen, N.Y., was already dilapidated when Hurricane Irene dealt it further damage in 2011. Since then, many have argued that, with its more than 80 roofs and scores of boxy windows, the Brutalist government building from 1970 is an eyesore and a financial drain. It is one State Supreme Court ruling away from being partly demolished. Credit Jeff Goldberg/Esto

Zaha Hadid – ON THE ORANGE COUNTY GOVERNMENT CENTER, GOSHEN, N.Y.

“The 1960s were a remarkable moment of social reform. The ideas of change, liberation and freedom were critical. Now people think public buildings should be more flowery, but these were times when people did tough projects. The complex is arranged as a sequence of interconnected indoor and outdoor public spaces that flow into each other. There is an integrity within the design that displays a commitment to engagement and connectivity. As a center for civic governance, it enacted democracy through spatial integration, not through the separation of elected representatives from their constituents. Many similar projects around the world have also suffered neglect; yet sensitive renovation and new programming reveal a profound lightness and generosity, creating exciting and popular spaces where people can connect. Rudolph’s work is pure, but the beauty is in its austerity. There are no additions to make it polite or cute. It is what it is.”

Zaha Hadid was widely regarded to be the greatest female architect in the world today. She died suddenly at the age of 65 on March 31, 2016.