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).

Modern Sarasota Looks to Its Roots

This Fall, The Groundbreaking Work of Paul Rudolph Comes Into Focus with an Exhibition and a Symposium Devoted to the Great Modernist’s Architecture

By Beth Dunlop, Editor in Chief, Modern Magazine

Riverview High School, completed in 1958 in Sarasota, Florida, was one of the architect Paul Rudolph’s great early achievements. Passively cooled and instinctively green, it was at once modern and tropical, and for all its size (a high school after all), it had a surprisingly delicate presence, the kind of open and airy architecture that is anathema to school boards thinking about building fortresses resistant to hurricanes and school shootings. Against considerable outcry, the school was demolished in 2009, an act that began to focus much-needed national and international attention on the remarkable modernist architectural legacy of Sarasota, of Rudolph, and of his colleagues and followers.

Unlike some of America’s other shrines of residential modernism (Palm Springs and New Canaan, to name two), Sarasota has largely stayed out of the limelight. The reasons are many: among them, that it is not on the main tourist trails of Florida, and historically, it was settled, largely, by affluent publicity-shunning Midwesterners, though one could hardly call its most famous residents—John and Mable Ringling of circus fame—avoiders of publicity.

And yet, this Florida Gulf Coast city is one of the most important enclaves of mid-century modernism in America. Starting in the years just after World War II, when Rudolph moved there to work with Ralph Twitchell, Sarasota became home to a remarkable group of architects who worked in an idiom that one might call part-Bauhaus, part-Neutra, and all Sarasota. Much later, it was dubbed the Sarasota School of Architecture, but one can be quite sure that at the time, the architects working there simply thought they were making modern buildings. And though he stayed in Sarasota the better part of a decade before he became dean of architecture at Yale University in 1958, Rudolph was really the linchpin of the movement.

Rudolph’s Sarasota comes into focus this fall with an exhibition and a three-day conference devoted to those years and his buildings. A small exhibition entitled “Paul Rudolph: The Guest Houses” will be on view at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art from September 25 to December 6, centering on the small guest houses for which he became best known in Florida. The Sarasota Architectural Foundation has worked tirelessly to raise the funds to erect a replica of one of these, the Walker Guest House, on the grounds of the museum for the show. The Walker Guest House, built in 1952 for Dr. Walter Walker, is still standing on Sanibel Island, some one hundred miles to the south of Sarasota, and has been in continuous family use by Walter’s widow, Elaine Walker.

The guest house reconstruction will also be the centerpiece of the second annual SarasotaMOD Weekend mounted by the Sarasota Architectural Foundation. The three-day event, running November 6–8, offers an opportunity to tour, study, and celebrate Sarasota’s fine collection of houses, beach clubs and pavilions, and civic and commercial buildings. “There’s no question that Rudolph was the key, but one can’t really talk about Rudolph and Sarasota alone,” says Carl Abbott, a Sarasota architect who studied under Rudolph at Yale. “It’s not just Sarasota but the fact that Sarasota led him to the world.”

A southerner by birth, the son of an itinerant preacher, Rudolph had worked briefly in Sarasota immediately after graduating from Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University). He then headed off to graduate school at Harvard, then home to Walter Gropius and ripe with the ideas of the Bauhaus. War intervened, but afterwards Rudolph completed his Harvard graduate degree in architecture and moved back to Sarasota to work with Twitchell, with whom he’d interned as a student.

With Twitchell, and later in his own practice, Rudolph began designing a remarkable body of work, focusing primarily on small, delicate buildings that stood like fragile pavilions in the landscape, open to the sun and breezes and yet shielded from both. The Walker Guest House was among the first of these, unpretentious and yet ingenious in the way it could open to the elements or close them out— and it is the only extant example of this early work that is not in, or near, Sarasota. Simple in both form (there were some exceptions, of course) and detail, his buildings made the most of rather basic materials, allowing the structure to become part of the landscape and not dominate it. He experimented with plywood and concrete, pushing building materials to their newest and most creative uses.

Later, Rudolph’s work would change dramatically, but in Sarasota it was delicate, light, and airy—and experimental. His Cocoon House (officially the Healy Guest House of 1950) has a concave (or catenary) roof made of a spray-on vinyl building material developed by the U.S. armed forces and called Cocoon (thus the house’s name), and jalousie walls that can open and close. Rudolph’s 1953 Umbrella House has a second roof suspended over both the structure and the backyard, again a response to light and heat. The Tampa architect John Howey, who wrote a major volume on Sarasota architecture (“The Sarasota School of Architecture”), looks to the beginnings of the movement citing “respect for the land and the climate, appreciation for what was good from the past, eye for local materials, and use of new construction techniques.” After Rudolph connected with Sarasota’s great design patron of the time, Philip Hiss, he went on to design the two high schools, the late and still lamented Riverview and the Sarasota High School, actually a large addition to a small existing building.

Those underlying ideas—both the philosophical and the pragmatic—would guide not just Twitchell and Rudolph but those who followed. Rudolph and Twitchell were joined in their modernist mission by a singular group of architects, including (and not limited to) Victor Lundy, Gene Leedy, Jack West, Tim Seibert, William Rupp, Bert Brosmith, Frank Folsom Smith, John Howey, Mark Hampton, and the aforementioned Carl Abbott. Some came and stayed, while others moved on but not without leaving a mark.

In a 1995 talk in Los Angeles given just two years before his death, Rudolph spoke of the driving forces behind his work; he called them “the DNA of architecture, the essences” that he said had guided his work since the early 1950s, his years in Sarasota. For Rudolph these principles were “consideration of site, of space, of scale, of structure, of function, and of spirit,” a list that provides enormous insight into his approach to architecture.

The legacy of the whole Sarasota school was explored at last year’s MOD Weekend, and is of course the overriding preoccupation of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation, but as Abbott has pointed out, Rudolph was the foundation. This year’s program features a line-up of speakers including Joe King and Christopher Domin, authors of “Paul Rudolph: The Florida Houses”, and Timothy Rohan, whose “Architecture of Paul Rudolph” was published last year. The Los Angeles architect Lawrence Scarpa will moderate a panel entitled “We Knew Rudolph” that will feature Abbott, as well as Roberto de Alba, author of “Paul Rudolph: The Late Work”.

SarasotaMOD’s biggest draw, however, is an almost full day of tours that will take in some of the city’s fine modernist houses and will include a visit to an immaculately restored Rudolph masterwork, the Umbrella House and the remarkable and also just-restored Sarasota High School, which was saved through the efforts of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation and others—and really is not a consolation prize for the loss of Riverview but a triumph on its own.

Sarasota Architectural Foundation Advocates for Sarasota’s Modern Buildings

by Nick Reichert, Observer Arts & Entertainment Editor
nreichert@yourobserver.com

Though Sarasota seems to be in a state of constant development, the Sarasota Architectural Foundation seeks to preserve and honor its historic modern homes.
SAF Advocates_Minker_Snyder_byReichert

Janet Minker and Dan Snyder in front of the Paul Rudolph-designed Umbrella House. Photo by Nick Reichert.

It all started with a phone call. In March, Dr. Larry R. Thompson, president of the Ringling College of Art and Design, left a message with the board of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF). He said the pedestrian canopy adjacent to the historic Sarasota High School, which was in the process of construction for the college’s new Sarasota Museum of Art/SMOA, would be demolished to make room for construction equipment. The canopy, which runs from the foot of the historic Sarasota High School to the middle of the campus of the current high school, isn’t your normal walkway — it was designed by mid-century modern architect Paul Rudolph. And, for SAF, that made all the difference.

Members of SAF’s board of directors, including Chairwoman Janet Minker and Dan Snyder, contacted their approximately 300 members and thousands of social media connections and sister organizations, such as Docomomo International (a European nonprofit dedicated to preserving modern-designed buildings) with a call to action: email Thompson or call his office. That spurred a wave of correspondence along with a protest by SAF members in front of the canopy. After discussion between Ringling and SAF, the canopy was saved and will serve as a part of the future of SMOA’s design.

“If you want to save buildings and other structures, you can’t do that unless people are aware of them and understand their value,” says Snyder. “We need to always create awareness and appreciation so that way if we need to save something like we did with the canopy, we have this body support.”

SAF and Ringling College remain on good terms, despite the incident. In fact, later that same week in March Thompson called Minker for a favor. He asked if she could give six art college presidents, who were visiting Sarasota for a conference, a tour of the Rudolph-designed buildings throughout Sarasota. Minker acquiesced, but what was originally six turned into a bus load of 20 college presidents, all of them ready to devour Sarasota’s plentiful examples of modern design.

SAF_Dan_Janet_Reichert article

Snyder and Minker help lead tours, talks and events dedicated to Sarasota’s style of modern design. Photo by Nick Reichert.

Modern movement

SAF seeks to preserve the Bauhaus-inspired structures built in the area in the 1940s to 1960s. The Sarasota School of Architecture, founded by Ralph Twitchell, counts among its scions as Rudolph,  Edward “Tim” Seibert, Phillip Hiss and Carl Abbott, among others. What makes Sarasota’s take on modernism unique is its incorporation of Southern architecture, such as patios, verandas and modular construction to allow for greater ventilation in the pre-air conditioning days. The style allowed for a play of light and shadow and softened the typical hard lines of the Bauhaus. The designs blurred the line between the indoors and outdoors, allowing each structure to blend in seamlessly with the Florida lifestyle.

The almost 300 members of SAF don’t just support modern design — they surround themselves with it. Both Minker and Snyder have extensive careers in design. Minker still works in graphic design, and Snyder, now retired, designed the iconic nutritional food pyramid that has been plastered on public school walls for decades.

The Lido Shores neighborhood in Sarasota plays host to modern residences with names such as the Umbrella House, Hiss Studio and the Martin Harkavy House that have been designed by influential mid-century architects such as Rudolph and his contemporaries.

Minker, who lives just down the street from many of the houses of which she gives tours, lives in a modern-designed, all-white house created by contemporary architect Jonathan Parks. Her walls and shelf space are dominated by modern art (a giant tapestry photograph of the model Kate Moss holds court in the living room) and books on Sarasota’s architectural history. Minker’s house is a recent addition to Lido Shores’ constellation of modern residences.

The Umbrella House (1300 Westway Drive) could be the face of the SAF. Built in 1953 and designed by Rudolph, it kicked off real estate developer Hiss’ mission to make Sarasota a modern getaway and destination for people to vacation and live. The two-bedroom home is a cube designed to feel open to Sarasota’s sun and breezes. The interior is a love letter to modern ideas of design with an emphasis on unorthodox arrangement and prolific use of lines. The dresser is built into an office wall and goes through that wall and becomes a table in the living room. The hearth and fireplace is a step down from the rest of the living room to encourage comfort and sitting. And, out back, though the titular umbrella (a sun canopy that extends from the roof to the backyard over the swimming pool) is no longer there, photos show a rectangular umbrella awning that leaves space open for the perimeter of the swimming pool just below it.

“I’m passionate about these buildings because I grew up in the 1950s, and it was a time when the war was over and people were optimistic about the future,” Snyder says. “Aesthetically, I think the people who walk into these houses feel like it was designed last week. It’s not at all what you think a Florida home will look like. It’s crisp and very cool. It’s timeless.”

Walker Guest House Replica_Snyder

Exterior of the almost complete Walker Guest House replica, whose grand opening is during SarasotaMOD Weekend, Nov. 6 through 8. The house will be exhibited on The Ringling Museum’s grounds through October 2016. Photo by Dan Snyder.

Preservation promotion

SAF’s roots can be traced to a symposium conducted almost 15 years ago. It was an offshoot of a five-day symposium in 2001 on Sarasota’s modern build aesthetic. Titled “An American Legacy: The Sarasota School of Architecture Tour and Symposium,” the design-driven event, sponsored by the Fine Arts Society of Sarasota, included lectures, bus and boat tours, a documentary screening, exhibitions and dinner and receptions. An estimated 1,000 design professionals and design-lovers attended the event. From the success of that event, Minker says design aficionados Martie Lieberman and Thomas Luzier helped form the nonprofit organization to continue the mission of the weeklong symposium. And even though Lieberman and Luzier are no longer a part of SAF’s leadership, board members actively fulfill their mission: preserve Sarasota’s midcentury modern homes for future generations.

And, now, Minker and Snyder along with their five other members and advisory board of registered or retired local architects organize several tours, meetings, seminars and social events that celebrate the love of Sarasota’s modern architectural heritage. The culmination is SAF’s own architectural and design summit: SarasotaMOD Weekend.

The piece de resistance at this year’s MOD weekend in November will be a home of SAF’s own. The organization found that many visitors wanted to see all of the mid-century buildings in Sarasota but many are private residences. So, the board decided to build a recreation of Rudolph’s Walker Guest House, known as the “Cannonball House,” built in 1952 in Sanibel. Constructed by architect Joe King, with Old Cypress Construction, the home is built in convertible pieces on King Ranch in Bradenton. King’s team of four started in March and are just now adding the final touches. Once completed the home will be disassembled and stored until the MOD festival, where it will be on display just behind the Searing Wing of The John and Mable Ringling Art Museum on the grounds of The Ringling. The exact replica (built at an estimated cost of $200,000) will also include modern furniture and magazines from the 1950s to give visitors and Rudolph-files an almost Disney-esque experience. Admission into the guest house will be free.

SAF plans to turn the model home into a traveling show at museums and festivals around the country, including the Walker Art Center, the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas and Art Basel Miami. The organization hopes that the house, the largest project it has undertaken in scope and finances, will inspire design- and art-lovers not only in Sarasota but also around the country.

“SAF is a connector for like-minded people,” says Minker. “A lot of these people were VIPs in their own communities and they came here to retire and that wasn’t just to play golf. Our members are passionate, curious, knowledgeable and educated, and Sarasota is so lucky to have this constant influx of new people coming in bringing new ideas and resources.”

Architectural Safari

One of the numerous roles that the Sarasota Architectural Foundation plays is tour guide to architecture-loving tourists. Though most of the modern-designed buildings are private property and closed to the public, there are a few that are public or whose owners are active members of SAF. Visit http://www.yourobserver.com/article/sarasota-architectural-foundation-advocates-sarasotas-modern-buildings.

IF YOU GO
SarasotaMOD Weekend

When: Nov. 6 through 9
Where: The Ringling, 5401 Bay Shore Road
Tickets: Available online August 14, 2015
Info: Call 364-2199 or visit sarasotamod.com

SarasotaMod Weekend Nov. 6 – 9

Umbrella House

The Umbrella House in Lido Shores, designed by architect Paul Rudolph in 1953. Photo by Bill Miller.

Sarasota High School

Sarasota High School designed by architect Paul Rudolph in 1958 and restored by the Sarasota School Board in 2015. Photo by Dan Snyder.

July 17, 2015
By Harold Bubil
harold.bubil@heraldtribune.com

It will be “all Paul, all the time” at the second SarasotaMOD, Sarasota Architectural Foundation’s celebration of midcentury modern architecture.

The focus of the Nov. 6-9 event is the architectural legacy of Paul Rudolph, who started his career here and designed such notable buildings as the Umbrella House, Riverview High School and an addition to Sarasota High School, all in the 1950s, before becoming dean of architecture at Yale University and expanding his influence globally.

Rudolph will be the subject of lectures, dinners, parties and tours on foot and by trolley.

Walker Guest House Replica

A replica of the 1952 Paul Rudolph designed Walker Guest House will be featured at SarasotaMOD Weekend. Illustration by John Pirman.

The highlight of the weekend is the opening of the Walker Guest House replica on the grounds of the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art. SAF, with the help of architect Joyce Owens of Fort Myers and builder-architect Joe King of Bradenton, has constructed a replica of Rudolph’s famous 1952 Sanibel Island beach cottage. It will be displayed for 11 months at The Ringling, and can be disassembled and shipped to other museums as an educational exhibit on midcentury living and design concepts.

Notable speakers include Los Angeles architect Larry Scarpa and Rudolph scholars and authors Joe King, Christopher Domin, Roberto de Alba and Timothy Rohan; the latter wrote a definitive book on Rudolph in 2014, “The Architecture of Paul Rudolph”. Also speaking is Erica Stoller, daughter of Ezra Stoller, whose large format, black- and- white photographs of Rudolph’s buildings in the 1950s brought both men worldwide acclaim.

SarasotaMOD_logo draftsC. Ford Peatross, founding director of the architectural archive at the Library of Congress, will moderate a panel discussion on Rudolph’s legacy. While the architect is known for his delicate beach houses on Lido and Siesta keys, he also was a leader in the use of raw concrete to monumental effect in public buildings,starting with Sarasota High, continuing with the Yale Art & Architecture building, and continuing in Southeast Asia with high rise residential buildings. This style is known as Brutalism.

Several houses designed by Rudolph will be open for dinners and cocktail parties. Walking tours of Lido Shores, where Rudolph drew a number of houses for developer Phil Hiss, will be conducted by Christopher Wilson, Architecture and Design History professor at Ringling College and SAF board member, and the Herald-Tribune’s Harold Bubil.

The event closes on Monday, Nov. 9, with a bus tour of St. Petersburg’s architectural highlights, led by Bubil. Other presenters include Sarasota architect Carl Abbott, Tampa architect and author of “The Sarasota School of Architecture” John Howey, architect Tim Seibert, Sean Khorsandi of the Paul Rudolph Foundation and Miami Herald architecture critic Alastair Gordon.

“It will be important to talk about architecture as an art form,” said King. “Rudolph’s work, as a leader in Sarasota modernism, is so strong that people will gain a good feeling of that. The cultural and historical context of Rudolph in Florida will help people, especially in Sarasota, know and understand more about the place they live, and that is always a good thing — to be engaged with the community.”

Tickets go on sale August 14 at SarasotaMod.com.

Design Tourist Visits Sarasota’s Architectural Mecca

Sarasota School Reunion

Veteran Sarasota architects reunite for inaugural mid-century design festival on Florida Modernism

By Mike Singer

Gene Leedy, FAIA, started his career as Paul Rudolph’s first employee in the mid-century master’s Sarasota office when it opened in the 1950s. Decades later, at the 1982 AIA Florida annual conference in Tampa, Leedy coined the phrase “Sarasota School” to frame a special sort of design ethos that Rudolph’s firm spearheaded.

“In those days, they used to refer to the architects in Chicago as the ‘Chicago School,’ so I called us the ‘Sarasota School,’ and it stuck,” he says.

Leedy, now 86, returned to Sarasota last month, joining four other AIA fellows, all now in their 70s and 80s, who recalled the Sarasota School’s bright lights—Victor Lundy, FAIA; Paul Rudolph, FAIA; Ralph Twitchell, FAIA; and other Modernist pioneers—and their impact on the subtropical Gulf Coast of Florida, as part of the city’s first-ever SarasotaMOD Weekend, a four-day celebration of mid-century design.

“During the 1950s, Sarasota was probably the greatest place in the world to be an architect,” Leedy said. “To me, it was like Paris after World War I.”

Tropical Modernism and Trying Times

Today, Sarasota’s community preservation leaders are capitalizing on the city’s rich architectural legacy with renewed vigor. The Sarasota Architectural Foundation, SarasotaMOD’s sponsor, hopes the festival will deepen public understanding of an important regional center of Modernism—this year and in subsequent years—and propel architectural tourism and preservation.

From an alfresco dinner at Rudolph’s Sanderling Beach Club (Image 1) to tours by trolley, boat, and foot around Siesta Key and Lido Shores, design enthusiasts got a rare chance to tour privately owned mid-century gems and learn how a town with fewer than 25,000 residents in the 1950s became a hot-bed of Modernism.

“A more informed, motivated and stimulated audience will ultimately result in a better built environment—one that is both respectful of our buildings and our history,” said Carl Carl Abbott Quote_SAF2Abbott, FAIA, chair of SarasotaMOD. “As lovely and architecturally significant as Sarasota is, many of our own mid-century buildings face enormous [preservation] challenges.”
If those challenges can be boiled down to some critical factors, certainly the long-term effects of climate on materials are on that list, as are the technical aspects of maintaining and restoring older Sarasota buildings. Above all, however, those things are made easier by widespread public awareness—not only of important local architectural legacies, but also stewardship of physical buildings and important design principles exemplified by those buildings.

SarasotaMOD panelist John Howey, FAIA, interviewed 22 architects active in the school, from 1941–1966, almost two decades ago for his book The Sarasota School of Architecture (MIT Press, 1997). In the book, he outlines five key principles advanced by Rudolph—largely adopted from Walter Gropius at Harvard—for what a regional school of architecture could mean.

“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 in structural connections,” recalls Howey, “are the guiding principles of the Sarasota School.” Howey, 88, continues to utilize those principles in his Tampa-based practice.

“What happened here in Sarasota was very unique,” says Abbott, 78, a former student of Rudolph’s at Yale University whose work such as the Putterman House (1986, Image 2) continues to draw from the native Kentuckian’s formal experiments in massing and in section.

For Abbott, though, the Sarasota School represents two distinct influences that made it a unique expression of modern architecture: Rudolph and that of Ralph Twitchell, an Ohioan who opened his Sarasota office in 1936 and hired a 23-year-old Rudolph, fresh out of Auburn University, in 1941.

“There were two places in the world where both the Bauhaus School and the Organic School took root together,” says Abbott. “One was in Los Angeles and the other was here in Sarasota. Rudolph studied under Gropius at Harvard, and Ralph Twitchell favored the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Together, Twitchell and Rudolph designed two important projects before Rudolph’s departure for graduate school at Harvard: their catenary-roofed Healy Guest House and the lattice-encased Umbrella House (Image 3, Image 4). Both projects received positive reviews in the architectural magazines of the day. Upon Rudolph’s return to Sarasota, the two architects formed Twitchell & Rudolph in 1946, a firm that had a productive five-year run before disbanding in 1951.

“Many people don’t know this, but Rudolph was a great merchant,” said Leedy. “He gave the magazines a little package with his beautiful drawings, a story, the whole ball of wax—all they had to do was sign their name to it. Paul made it so easy for all of them.”
Widespread publicity about the early Twitchell-Rudolph experiments attracted other young architects.

Frank Folsom Smith, FAIA, took a leave from his architectural studies at the University of Virginia in the late 1950s to apprentice with Sarasota’s other rising architectural star, Victor Lundy, FAIA, for $75 a week. But, as Smith reports, Lundy and Rudolph were never friendly, despite being classmates in graduate school.

“I always thought about Paul Rudolph and Victor Lundy as fire and ice—because Paul was cool and Victor was hot,” said Smith. “Victor was much more competitive [than Rudolph] and an excellent mentor. He could sit down and start a drawing on butcher paper, never miss a stroke, and end up with a design. He’d hand it to me and say ‘draw this.’”
For Smith, “this” included two landmark buildings: St. Paul’s Lutheran Church complex and the Waldman Building (Image 5, Image 6).

Edward “Tim” Seibert, FAIA, was just 25 in 1953, and a draftsman for Paul Rudolph, when he designed the stilt-raised Hiss Studio (Image 7). Philip Hiss, a visionary Sarasota developer and modern design advocate, sold Lido Shores properties from the office Seibert’s firm designed—including the speculative Umbrella House designed by Rudolph next door.

“I opened my own office in 1955, and for about a dozen years I lived in an architect’s paradise, although I didn’t realize this at the time,” Seibert, a panelist at SarasotaMOD, recalled. “I thought it must be like this everywhere. Sarasota abounded then in people who understood a new architecture, and wanted to be part of it.”

Today, however, the question is: How can preservationists encourage Sarasotans to see that once-new architecture as part of their futures?

Preservation and Expansion: Sarasota’s New Frontier

Sarasota has seen the same rapid growth and development as other Sun Belt cities, and preservation has not always been the rule of the land. Rudolph’s Riverview High School, completed in 1958 (the year he left to accept the deanship at the Yale School of Architecture) and the center of strong local preservation support, was razed in 2009 to make way for a parking lot (Image 8).

“The Building Itself Teaches,” the current exhibit at the Sarasota County Visitor Information Center and History Center Museum, tells the story of nine public schools constructed when Hiss served on the Sarasota Board of Public Instruction from 1953–1960. Hiss’s leadership transformed the county’s public educational environment, marrying modernist design with progressive pedagogy and setting a precedent for school design in postwar America.

Schools featured open floor plans and movable partitions and furniture that allowed for team teaching. “A lot of ideas that are common now about students working with other students, kids teaching kids, team teaching,” said Lorrie Muldowney, Assoc. AIA, manager of the Sarasota County History Center, in an opening-night speech at SarasotaMOD, “and these concepts informed the designs of schools such as Englewood Elementary by Jack West.”

Jack West, FAIA, who worked for Twitchell and Rudolph, started his own firm in 1951, and ultimately formed West and Conyers/Architects and Engineers in 1966, which he led through the 1990s.

Today, only four of the nine schools commissioned by Hiss still stand. However, in a major preservation victory, the façade of Rudolph’s Sarasota High School, 1958, is now undergoing restoration as part of a $42 million campus overhaul (Image 9). Jonathan Parks, AIA, principal and founder of Jonathan Parks Architect, an 11-person firm based in Sarasota, helped guide restoration efforts. Other pioneering schools on the other hand, such as Jack West’s Englewood Elementary School, have been demolished.

Elsewhere in Sarasota, the University of Florida recently launched CityLab-Sarasota, which is on track to offer an M.Arch degree program in the coming year. In a city that never had a school of architecture, Sarasota School examples will become a living lab for graduate students. The new academic program will be housed in a former 1960s furniture showroom designed by Sarasota School modernist William Rupp, AIA, and share the space with the Center for Architecture Sarasota, which opened in 2013.

Even Rudolph’s first solo commission, the Walker Guest House (Image 10), will live on in a new context. While the original, privately owned home still stands in nearby Sanibel Island, the Sarasota Architectural Foundation plans to reconstruct it on the grounds of Sarasota’s Ringling Museum of Art and ultimately take it on the road as a traveling kit of parts and mobile education studio.

“This is a very unusual ‘preservation’ project because we are building fresh from scratch, from the original drawings,” says Joe King, a Sarasota architect, co-author of Paul Rudolph: The Florida Houses (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), and construction manager for the Walker Guest House reconstruction.

Once completed, the 580-square-foot house will be installed on the grounds of the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, where attendees to SarasotaMOD in 2015 will have the opportunity to tour it, learn about Rudolph’s use of jalousie windows, and experience period furniture and fixings.

“[The client] Elaine Walker is very enthusiastic about the project and wants it to travel to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis after its run at the Ringling,” says Joyce Owens, AIA, who moderated a panel at this year’s event and helped guide the reconstruction plans based on Rudolph’s original drawings. “After all, it was always one of Paul Rudolph’s favorite buildings.”

Decades may have passed, but the legacy of Rudolph and his trailblazing contemporaries still shines brightly in this southwestern Florida city.

Mike Singer is a frequent contributor to AIArchitect.


Photos shown above:
Image 1: The Sanderling Beach Club cabanas, 1952, overlooking the Gulf 
of Mexico, were Paul Rudolph’s first major non-residential project. 
Photo by Jenny Acheson.
Image 2: Putterman House, 1986, designed by Carl Abbott. Abbott studied 
under Rudolph at Yale and used his mentor's guiding principles of 
“simple overall volumes penetrating vertically and horizontally” in 
this monolithic street façade. Photo by Steven Brooke.
Image 3: Healy Guest House, aka the Cocoon House, 1950, designed by Paul 
Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell. Notable for its cantilevered roof and water 
bank overhang, the house generated widespread national publicity for the 
two. Photo by Greg Wilson.
Image 4: Umbrella House, 1953, designed by Paul Rudolph. The home's 
original umbrella latticework was blown away in a 1996 hurricane and 
replaced in 2008. Photo by Bill Miller.
Image 5: St. Paul's Lutheran Church (Fellowship Hall 1959, Sanctuary 
1968), designed by Victor Lundy. With a soaring roof suspended by steel 
cables, the church's simple exterior encloses a sculpturally curved 
wooden ceiling. Photo by Greg Wilson.
Image 6: Waldman Building, 1958, designed by Victor Lundy. It once 
served as a studio in which the dancers appeared to roadside observers 
as suspended in space. Photo by Greg Wilson.
Image 7: Hiss Studio, 1953, designed by Edward J. "Tim" Seibert. A glass 
box raised on 14 slender steel columns, this was the 1950s sales office 
where developer Philip Hiss sold his Lido Shores modernist houses. Photo 
by Greg Wilson.
Image 8: Riverview High School, 1959, designed by Paul Rudolph. Designed 
in the International Style, Rudolph's first public high school building 
was torn down in 2009 following a highly contentious preservation battle. 
Courtesy of Sarasota County Historical Resources.
Image 9: Sarasota High School Addition, 1960, designed by Paul Rudolph. 
Rudolph's last project in Sarasota, the exterior of the building is 
being restored and the interior repurposed as part of a $42 million 
rebuild of the Sarasota High School campus. Photo by Greg Wilson.
Image 10: Walker Guest House, 1952, designed by Paul Rudolph. Rudolph's 
last project in Sarasota, the exterior of the building is being restored 
and the interior repurposed as part of a $42 million rebuild of the 
Sarasota High School campus. Photo by Greg Wilson.

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