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.”
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..
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.
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.
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 Victor 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