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Sarasota’s been in the architectural news lately: DS+R, David Adjaye Associates, and Snøhetta, were among the globally acclaimed firms shortlisted this month for the Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation’s new $300 million USD cultural hub. But the starchitect turn is hardly a 21st century phenomenon for the Florida community of 55,000. Though its modernist legacy isn’t quite as well known as that of Columbus, Palm Springs or New Canaan, the gulf city boasts an impressive — and not-so-secret — mid-century design lineage all its own.

Architecture Sarasota — a non-profit formed in 2021 through the union of the Center for Architecture Sarasota and Sarasota Architectural Foundation — aims to promote and preserve the many modernist buildings throughout the city and the surrounding keys, which were designed in a regional style now known as the Sarasota School of Architecture. Beginning in the 1950s, a group of designers — including Paul Rudolph, Ralph Twitchell, Tim Seibert, and Jack West — transformed the city with dozens of notable structures. Among them were private homes, churches, and public schools, as well as the Willliam Rupp and Joseph Farrell–designed McCulloch Pavilion (1959), which the non-profit now operates from and hosts exhibitions in.

Victor Lundy’s St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (1959) is a dramatic local landmark. PHOTO: Greg Wilson

Often experimental, whether in form — with dramatic wood laminate arcs in Victor Lundy’s St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (1959), for example — or in material — as in Rudolph’s use of a novel military spray-on vinyl for Cocoon House (1950) — many of the era’s buildings were commissioned, or at least catalyzed, by Philip Hanson Hiss III. To honour the developer and education reformer, the organization inaugurated an eponymous award this March, given to New York–based architect and educator Toshiko Mori.

The Cocoon House (1950) by Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell embodies the regional style. PHOTO: Ryan Gamma

Marty Hylton, Architecture Sarasota’s recently appointed president, explained that Hiss “focused on climate responsive contextual design, experimentation and innovation and the importance of democracy and design.” Mori, he says, shares these values, noting that her work is “climate informed and geographically responsive, but also socioculturally responsive.” One project in this spirit that got particular attention during a Q+A hosted by the organization at Sarasota’s New College of Florida was Mori’s 2019 School and Teachers’ Residence in Fass, Senegal. Owing to its use of local materials and construction techniques and its commitment to bringing together varied stakeholders, Mori explained that the project resulted in more than a building — but a gender-integrated educational program that bridged faiths as well as secular learning.

Toshiko Mori in Sarasota. PHOTO: Ryan Lester

Mori also didn’t shy from noting the irony of speaking on this project at New College, where governor Ron DeSantis recently orchestrated a hard-right takeover as part of broader attacks on freedom of speech and education in the state. “This is opposite of what we did [the Fass School] when we got into a very closed, religious-oriented society and had to open them up,” she said. “This is very strange what’s happening here.” She further argued for the social responsibility of the architect not only as builder, but as educator. “John Hejduk always told us teaching for architects is our birthright, don’t give it up. He also said teaching for architects is a social contract. Because society gives you the opportunity to build, you have to give back to society.”

Reonvated by Mori, Sarasota’s Buckhardt-Cohen introduced the New York-based architect to the local design language. PHOTO: Paul Warchol

Recalling days when she and students “were gathering ideas and going in people’s backyards” to find then little known sites, she described Sarasota as “a treasure trove of architecture.” In the 1990s and early 2000s, Mori also had the opportunity to build in the city, including two pavilions on the grounds of a 1956–57 Rudolph home. While the guest house and addition (1999 and 2005, respectively) to the Buckhardt-Cohen residence were designed to be “autonomous” rather than strict extensions, they hold a conversation with Rudolph’s design, using the same modular forms yet in metal rather than wood, for example, or echoing the colours of stones once in common use in Floridian construction.

Mori’s Buckhardt-Cohen renovation maintains a thoughtful dialogue with Rudolph’s original design. PHOTO: Paul Warchol

Some of the biggest superficial departures between Mori’s and Rudolph’s designs respond to Florida’s shifting weather, climate, and ecology in the intervening decades. Glass and lights are chosen to not distract animals such as sea turtles, and unlike many of the 1950s modern homes, building on grade was no longer an option. “Tallahassee has a very advanced way of mapping different coastal zones and giving you habitable height,” explains Mori, referring to the state’s capital. While the requirements put the first new structure at eight feet, she explains the rationale for moving it higher. “It looks like it’s floating and it’s in a tree canopy, which is also helping to shade it. It’s an evolution from the typology that was on grade.” Other innovations include a fiberglass outdoor stairway made with master shipbuilders, a duplicate of which is in the Cooper Hewitt, the country’s national design museum.

Designed by Willliam Rupp and Joseph Farrell, the McCulloch Pavilion (1959) is now the headquarters for Architecture Sarasota. PHOTO: Architecttype (Wikimedia Commons).

Architecture Sarasota’s stated purpose goes beyond protecting these individual buildings, many of which are privately owned and conserved through partnerships between the organization and the owners. “I think of Sarasota, as a laboratory, if you will, for the organization to really help address challenges that a lot of communities are facing from coastal resilience to sustainable development to attainable housing,” says Hylton. “There’s a lot that we can do here locally that will resonate on a national and even global level.” New projects include a cultural resource survey to assess the 320-plus Sarasota School of Architecture buildings, updating a much older resource listings with new information, as well as with new technological fidelity: the Revere Quality House, a 1948 Rudolph and Twitchell home, for example, recently underwent a LIDAR scan among other analyses.

Paul Rudolph’s Umbrella House (1953) was recently renovated with a new aluminum structure to help withstand Florida’s increasingly violent storms. PHOTO: Nicholas Ferris

This being Florida, where speculative home real estate driven by constant transplants is a big industry, the homes once sited on open spaces with sea views now look onto Olive Garden–esque McMansions and mammoth concrete “modernist” knockoffs. These homes — old and new — are vulnerable to storms, flooding, coastal erosion, and other natural changes disasters. Already in 2015, restorations to the storm-damaged “umbrella” of Rudolph’s 1953 Umbrella House, were undertaken to realize a storm-protective aluminum structure mirroring the wood frame and tomato stake slatted original.

Paul Rudolph’s Umbrella House (1953) PHOTO: Nicholas Ferris

The target, when it comes to protecting coastal buildings, however, is always moving. Architecture Sarasota’s survey intends to look “through the lens of coastal resilience and more broadly, resilience when it comes to climate change impacts,” explains Hylton. “There are changes in humidity, precipitation, and other things that we’re experiencing now in a very compressed timeframe.”

Completed in 1957, Harkavy House is another Paul Rudolph design. PHOTO: Greg Wilson

Architecture Sarasota’s also hosting New College’s challenge to reimagine the university’s campus (which features several I.M. Pei designs) for its 2060 centennial with an eye to resilience. Students from Yale, Syracuse Kane University’s Michael Graves School of Architecture, the University of Florida, South Florida, and Miami, will present proposals this May, with Architecture Sarasota subsequently exhibiting them and developing programming around the challenge.

Designed by Tim Seibert, the Hiss Studio (1953) served as a workplace for the local impresario, Philip Hanson Hiss III. The studio is directly adjacent to the Paul Rudolph-designed Hiss residence. PHOTO: Greg Wilson

Turning to the Sarasota School, Hylton says, the organization can finds hints for future preservation and construction in the midcentury work. “We can be very rigorous in understanding the goals of architects like Paul Rudolph when it came to sustainability and resilience, even though they didn’t use those words, and learn lessons we can apply today.”

Florida Modern: Toshiko Mori Meets the Sarasota School

The New York-based architect is the inaugural winner of the Philip Hanson Hiss III Award, which celebrates the gulf city’s architectural heritage.

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