The Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF) presented homeowner Dr. Barry LaClair with a framed poster of the Cocoon House, aka Healy Guest House, signed by the illustrator and designer John Pirman. This famous Sarasota School home was designed in 1950 by Ralph Twitchell and Paul Rudolph, and is on SAF’s Top Ten Must-See List of midcentury modern buildings in Sarasota, Florida. The house will be featured on trolley tours during SAF’s fourth annual architecture festival, SarasotaMOD, November 10-12, 2017. Event tickets go on sale August 15, 2017. SarasotaMOD.com
Proceeds from the Cocoon House poster benefit SAF’s ongoing programs and will be on sale at the MOD Shop during SarasotaMOD Weekend. For sales inquiries, please email info@SAF-SRQ.org.
Did You Know: In 1953, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City selected the Cocoon House as one of the 19 examples of houses built after World War II as a pioneer design of the future.
The cantilevered roof has steel straps fastened to flexible insulation boards that maintains its curved catenary shape with a sprayed on “cocoon” roofing material.
From sketchbook musings to inspired design, Lundy’s work showcased the genius of an eclectic thinker
“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
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.
The following article by Heather Corcoran with photos by Joshua McHugh, appeared in the February 2016 issue of Dwell Magazine. Congratulations to Sarasota FL homeowners and SAF members, John Pirman and Steve Tetreault, and architect Michael Epstein of Seibert Architects for an outstandingly fabulous project!
This Sparkling New Home Is a Perfect Remake of Classic Sarasota School Modernism
In a modernist seaside enclave, a couple calls in a pioneering architecture firm to build a new house rooted in midcentury style.
There’s more to Sarasota, Florida, than warm waters and white-sand beaches. The city also lures design lovers with its wealth of low-slung glass pavilions created by Paul Rudolph and the architects of the Sarasota School in the construction boom that followed World War II.
When hairstylist Steve Tetreault and illustrator John Pirman set out to build in Sarasota, they were well acquainted with Rudolph’s work. Tetreault owned a beach house by the architect, purchased some 30 years earlier on Siesta Key.
Over time, the 950-square-foot retreat began to feel cramped as its role shifted to a full-time residence for two. So, in 2008, Tetreault and Pirman called upon Michael Epstein of Seibert Architects—a firm opened in 1955 by Edward Seibert, who got his start working for Rudolph—to build a contemporary house in the modern style. But a half-century’s worth of building-code updates presented a new challenge: balancing midcentury aesthetics with today’s safety guidelines.
Steve Tetreault: Looking to the future, we decided it might be nice to build a modern home. The economy was in the tank, land was cheap, and builders were dying to do stuff. This neighborhood was established by John Ringling in the late 1920s, and empty lots are rarely available. But there was a house that burned down, so we were able to buy a long, skinny lot that nobody really wanted. Then we went to find one of the original Sarasota School architects left in town to design the house for us. The style originated with them, so they’re totally in sync with our thinking.
John Pirman: They used a lot of the concepts and proportions from the 1950s to build this house.
Tetreault: Our first meeting, we had a few specific things in mind. We have an art collection that we wanted to hang on walls. John needed to have a studio to work in, and it was important to me to have a place to just get away and be quiet. So the architect put John’s studio up front, and the master bedroom is at the opposite end of this long house.
Pirman: It’s pretty bare bones in its basic materials: concrete, steel, and glass. No frills, no adornments. The glazing systems are all storefront windows. The whole roofing system is a commercial application that you might find in an elementary school. They’re not necessarily that much less expensive than standard materials, but the labor costs are much lower.
Tetreault: The original modernists were using materials that came off the shelf. We thought if it was good for them then, it’s good for us now. The only trick about this is the application has to be done perfectly. Since there’s nothing decorative covering up seams or anything like that, it has to be done by a craftsman who knows what he’s doing.
Pirman: The house has a lot of integrity, because it’s Michael Epstein’s vision and he followed through. Every last corner detail was drawn on the paper. It drove the builders crazy, because they always wanted to cover something or change something. We all know that change orders equal dollars.
Tetreault: We pretty much stuck to the plan. And I’m really happy we did.
Pirman: Michael shared our aesthetic; he understood it. We worked intimately with him, but they were all his ideas. He listened to us, and we listened to him. That’s what I think made this house successful. It was a team effort.
Tetreault: The difference between building in 1948 and building today has to do with codes. What they were able to get away with, which we aesthetically like so much—sliding glass doors with very minimal frames around them, and low, flat roofs—you would never be able to get away with now. The challenge then is to design something that gives us a lot of those ideas but still complies with today’s codes. The benefit of today is that my little Paul Rudolph beach house cost more to air-condition than this new house does—it was 950 square feet, and this is 2,500 square feet. The differences are this is insulated, the glass is all low-E glass, and the HVAC systems are so much better than they were then—they’re more efficient, and they cost less to operate.
Pirman: Building the house was a roller-coaster ride. Now living here, it’s completely changed my life. I think this is the best thing that I’ve ever done.