Visit the Walker Guest House on the grounds of The Ringling Museum to see a tiny house with minimalist design.
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
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
Carl Abbott brings an architect’s insight to the legacy of the Maya
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.
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 to 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).
May 20, 2016: Docent training session at The Ringling from 9 am to 1 pm
Interested? Contact Anne Marie Bergevin, docents@SAF-SRQ.org
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.
Excerpt from “Seven Leading Architects Defend the World’s Most Hated Buildings”
as told to Alexandra Lange, June 5, 2015
Read the complete article
“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.
March 29, 2011
Paul Rudolph’s mid-modern masterpiece on the Sanibel beach.
Take a ride down Sanibel Island’s West Gulf Drive and you will find, lining its exclusive beachfront, one McMansion after the next, a palisade of Classical, Victorian, and Spanish Colonials with multi-car garages set behind landscaped gates. There is but one exception: Paul Rudolph’s Walker Guest House, a simple wood-frame box built in the early 1950s, when Sanibel was a remote island redoubt accessible only by boat, and a stay on its beach occasioned no great ceremony or ostentation.
The beige house, perched on short stilts and tucked in the vegetation, could easily pass for a shed belonging to one of its neighbors. Unlike those behemoths, it is closer to the road than the beach, protected behind a shrub-covered dune. It may not look particularly sturdy in comparison to those much larger houses, but thanks to its judicious siting it has survived a series of destructive hurricanes. In plan it is square, with each side divided into three sections. One of these sections is glazed, the other two have panels that can be raised by a rope-and-counterweight system so that the entire house is open to the elements. When they are up, the panels serve also as a shade-giving lanai. The compact interior design and the pulley system betray Rudolph’s wartime experience in the navy.
The obvious precedent for the house is Mies’s Farnsworth House, but I’d say it is just as much a progeny of Philip Johnson’s Glass House (itself a child of the Farnsworth). Johnson and Rudolph were good friends, close since their days studying architecture at Harvard. Johnson visited Rudolph in Sarasota not long after this house was completed. Like the Glass House, it is classical in its symmetry, with the box-frame forming a kind of diagrammatic, low-end peristyle. The whole thing was built with off-the-rack parts on a tight budget. In this it is the antithesis of the very effete Glass House, but it shares the idea of creating a space open to nature in every direction.
It would be nice if this and other modest vacation houses of the same spirit (Andew Geller’s wonderful beach houses come to mind) were a precedent for more of today’s clients. On Sanibel, there are unfortunately few examples of the kind of project you’d find in illustrated in a magazine like Dwell. That is to say, relatively modest (to the extent that a vacation house can be), environmentally sensitive homes built with a modern sensibility.
For more on the Walker beach house and Rudolph’s other wonderful Sarasota work, Christopher Domin and Joseph King’s Paul Rudolph: The Florida Houses is indispensable.