Lessons of resiliency from Sarasota School of Architecture

By Max Strang

Practicality underpinned the architecture scene that unfolded in Sarasota in the 1950s and 60s. As the ‘Sarasota School of Architecture’ movement was taking shape upon the shifting sands and unforgiving summers of Florida’s gulf coast… Paul Rudolph, Ralph Twitchell, and a band of “twenty-something” architects were redefining how to live by the water in America’s subtropics. According to them, the prevailing style of Mediterranean Revival architecture had no place here. Instead, a new approach of “building light and building smart” took hold. Their specific responses to site and climate contributed to a progressive new era in American architecture. In fact, today the ‘Sarasota School’ movement is internationally recognized as a high point of ‘regional modernist’ architecture. Although, the original ‘Sarasota School’ movement ended over fifty years ago I am awed by its timelessness. Many of its lessons are informing the work of my firm as we face the challenges of a changing climate.

As the seas rise and threats of localized flooding increase, coastal homes must be prohibited from using traditional ‘slab-on-grade’ construction methodologies.

At that exciting time in Sarasota, a small number of homes were raised on stilts in search of breezes and views. As a side benefit, those homes were better equipped to handle the occasional hurricane storm surge. Fast forward to today and our coastal cities are confronting compounded and existential threats from rising sea levels, Houstonesque flooding and devastating storm surges from more powerful and more frequent hurricanes. Now is the time to apply those ‘Sarasota School’ lessons and equip our homes, buildings and cities with the strategies of resiliency.

Rudolph’s Walker Guest House, a diminutive powerhouse of architectural design, hints at the strategy of raising the home above the ground. This strategy was more boldly realized with the design of the Leavengood Residence and also the unbuilt design for the Walker Main House. The first takeaway of those latter designs is the simple response of ensuring homes are built higher above the ground. As the seas rise and threats of localized flooding increase, coastal homes must be prohibited from using traditional ‘slab-on-grade’ construction methodologies. Yes, it’s more expensive, but those cost pale in comparison to the long-term financial implications of not building with the future in mind.

 

Sarasota, Florida, map

 

Currently, the Army Corps of Engineers establishes requirements regarding the minimum elevations of new structures. An opportunity exists for local municipalities to go beyond these mandated minimums. The costs associated with raising existing homes will be difficult to overcome, however, it makes sense that new construction conforms to stricter standards. Coastal cities need to encourage their residents to build higher. In the long run, the savings on insurance premiums and costly repairs will be enormous. The rewards for building higher clearly outweigh upfront costs.

The second takeaway from the ‘Sarasota School’ is the prospect of using the area beneath the home as functional and aesthetically-inspiring spaces. Current building and zoning codes prevent the effective utilization of the areas beneath a raised home. I propose that such codes be refined to allow homeowners to enjoy the full potential of these covered, outdoor spaces. A home that exceeds the minimum required height above the ground provides a much greater opportunity to create enjoyable outdoor living spaces below.

A major driver of ‘climate change’ and ‘sea level rise’ is our culture’s reliance on fossil fuels to power inefficient buildings.

A major driver of ‘climate change’ and ‘sea level rise’ is our culture’s reliance on fossil fuels to power inefficient buildings. To mitigate this issue, new buildings must become more energy-efficient.Sarasota’s early modern homes offer wonderful examples of this. Thus, the final takeaway from the ‘Sarasota School’ is the consideration of ‘passive design ’ features such as deep overhangs, sun-shading devices, evaporative cooling, daylighting and cross-ventilation.

 

Sarasota house by Paul Rudolph
Drawing by Paul Rudolph, Library of Congress

The Healy Guest House was envisioned as a small structure protected by a protective spray-on “cocoon” roofing product and wrapped with sun-shading louvers. Similarly, the beloved “Umbrella House”, one of the 20th century’s most iconic houses, resides beneath its iconic umbrella of slats. Most of the early ‘Sarasota School’ buildings featured deep overhangs and a brise-soleil. The aim was simple: to reduce the ‘heat gain’ of a building by deflecting sunlight. Aside from their inherent environmental benefits, such features often provided the architectural identity to the building. Ultimately, these ‘regional modernist’ influences informed the identity of the ‘Sarasota School’ movement as a whole.

Another innovative passive design feature was pioneered by John Lambie, a local Sarasota builder who collaborated with Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell on some projects. His “lamolithic” homes had flat, concrete roofs which were covered with a layer of crushed shells. The shell membrane was kept damp and as the water evaporated under the hot Florida sun, a cooling effect permeated into home below.

While many will opt to strategically retreat from our shorelines, the allure of coastal living will continue to prove irresistible for others. Sarasota’s architectural history offers practical insights on how we must adapt for the future.

The concepts of the Sarasota School of Architecture remain the greatest influence upon me and my firm. Our work strives to incorporate the lessons of that essential modern movement and adapt them to a changed world. I suspect that these site-driven and climate-driven design responses have fueled our firm’s success. I am committed to the idea that the architectural identity of a home should be related to its relationship to its location and environment. Many of our designs feature vertical ‘fins’ that serve to reduce the home’s solar heat gain while also providing additional privacy for the occupants. As a result, these “fins” provide a striking identity for the home. The Tuckman Residence, scheduled for completion in 2018, is derived from Rudolph & Twitchell’s Leavengood Residence in which the main volume of the home is raised a full story above the existing ground. Similarly, our design for the Ballast Trail Residence in the Florida Keys is raised substantially above the ground, a move that proved crucial to its weathering of Hurricane Irma’s recent storm surge.

In 2018, my Miami-based firm will open a satellite office in Sarasota and my family will move into one of the few remaining “lamolithic’ homes on a nearby barrier island. At only five feet above sea level, that particular home is destined to succumb to the Gulf of Mexico. I remain inspired, however, by the opportunity and challenge of building new, building light, and building smart. While many will opt to strategically retreat from our shorelines, the allure of coastal living will continue to prove irresistible for others. Sarasota’s architectural history offers practical insights on how we must adapt for the future.

 

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Cocoon House on Bayou Louise

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

Cocoon House PosterProceeds 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.

Architect Max Strang interprets ‘old-school’ ideas for a new era

By Harold Bubil, real estate editor, Herald-Tribune

Max Strang, a Winter Haven native who made his architectural reputation in Miami,

Max Strang

Max Strang, FAIA, Photo ©Scott Rhea

turned some heads when he returned to his Polk County hometown to design an elegantly bold, contemporary downtown apartment building called Raingarden Lofts.

The town is known for the progressive modernism of architect Gene Leedy. But still, the lofts, completed in 2015, stand out. Winter Haven is not Miami.

The façade of the building evokes Paul Rudolph‘s 1958 Deering House on Casey Key. That is not by chance. In 1980, when he was 10, Strang’s parents bought a rundown house on Casey Key next to Leedy’s restored beach house, which was a few houses up the beach from the temple-like Deering House. Although now largely hidden from street view by a new house on the site, it has become an icon of the Sarasota School of architecture.

“My father purchased a decrepit old shack next door to a house Leedy had renovated for his own use,” said Strang, whose firm is known as [STRANG], complete with the brackets. “I used to go shelling there all the time.”

He also used to visit the Leedy-designed Syd Solomon House on the south end of Siesta. No longer standing because of beach erosion, it was “a powerful space, too,” Strang recalls.

These childhood experiences shaped the architect’s outlook. And he firmly believes Florida’s midcentury modern architecture still has plenty to teach the designers and clients of today.

Max Strang horizontal_600px
The Sarasota Architectural Foundation presented a lecture by Strang, titled “The Evolution of Florida Modernism,” on Wednesday in the Alfred Goldstein Library at Ringling College of Art + Design.

“A good Sarasota School of Architecture house blurs the indoor-outdoor (divide) so well – the walls of glass, the light coming in from different directions,” Strang said Monday in a telephone interview. “For me, it is a sense of peace when you are inside one of those homes.”

He should know. His childhood house in Winter Haven was designed by Leedy, who got his start in Sarasota in the early 1950s before heading to Polk County.

After graduating from the University of Florida, Strang worked for Leedy as an intern. “He sent me to Tampa as free labor for John Howey, doing drawings” for Howey’s 1995 book, “The Sarasota School of Architecture.” He later worked in the firm of the late Pritzker Prize-winner Zaha Hadid. His firm has offices in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Telluride, Colorado, where he lives.

Strang cropped

Raingarden Lofts, [STRANG] Architects, Winter Haven, Florida – Photo ©Claudio Manzoni


For the Raingarden Lofts (shown above) and the under-construction Tuckman House (shown below) in Fort Lauderdale, Strang and his bright young staff took some clues from Paul Rudolph in considering the site and climate. Both structures have vertical exterior “fins” that help control sunlight, without blocking it. Rudolph showed how this could be done at the Deering House (its beefy beachside columns cast shadows on the interior), Sarasota High School, the Umbrella House , the Milam House on Ponte Vedra Beach and other structures that sought to tame the sun without blocking it completely.

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Tuckman Residence, [STRANG] Architects, Ft Lauderdale, Florida, 2017

“The fins on the second floor, those are in response to climate and privacy in the same way Rudolph’s Milam House did with the staggered squares and the sunshades,” Strang said of the Tuckman House. “The architecture is performing a role to address the climate. The style just comes with it.”

Strang is often approached by clients who want the delicacy of the midcentury modern houses, but the luxury and size of today.

“All the time, I get a new commission to do a house, and the client will bring me reference images of Sarasota School houses, or (1940s) Case Study houses in Los Angeles, yet they are asking for an 8,000-square-foot house,” he said with a laugh. “I think there is a nostalgia for the smaller scale of these things,” a scale that is hard to achieve when flood-zone requirements mandate the elevation of waterfront homes.

“And, there are the strict product approvals in South Florida,” Strang said. “It is hard to get the sizes of the windows that we would prefer. The Florida Energy Code says you can only have so much glass in the house, too. So it is a struggle to match the delicacy and transparency of those early buildings.”

But, the ideas of Rudolph, Leedy, Tim Seibert, Victor Lundy and others endure, and can be reused, if not reproduced, he said. Those ideas include clarity of design concept, the honest and innovative use of materials, using structure to define space and not compete with it, and blending indoors with outdoors.

“It is the repurposing of the ideas, not repurposing the exact iteration of the building,” Strang said. “It underscores the timelessness of the Sarasota School. The modern movement probably got overtaken by schlocky modern buildings too quickly, and the good stuff wasn’t appreciated. Its time ended prematurely. So I am happy to help share the ongoing relevance of midcentury modernism.

“There can be very schlocky modern architecture, too. When someone does a traditional building poorly, it is not as bad as when someone does a modern building poorly.” SAF

SarasotaMOD Weekend Tickets on Sale

CelebratingLundy_MOD2016_StPaulsInside

Download MOD 2016 Schedule

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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