Test of Time

SarasotaMOD Weekend Celebrates Architect Carl Abbott

This year's architecture festival will featuring self-guided driving tours of several Abbott buildings, virtual conversations with the architect and more.

By Ilene Denton September 24, 2020

Carl Abbott’s Butterfield Residence on Siesta Key

Abbott’s Butterfield Residence on Siesta Key

Image: Sean Harris

The last in a line of architects who hail all the way back to the heyday of the midcentury-modern Sarasota School of Architecture, Carl Abbott has been designing homes and public buildings that speak to our region’s natural beauty for more than 50 years.

Architect Carl Abbott

Architect Carl Abbott

Image: John Revisky

Abbott, 84, is the focus of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation’s seventh annual Sarasota MOD Weekend, taking place Nov. 6-8 with self-guided driving tours of several of his buildings, virtual conversations with the architect, exhibits at the Sarasota Art Museum and Art Center Sarasota and more. (Covid-19 has modified many of the usual MOD Weekend events; visit sarasotamod.com in mid-September for tickets and up-to-the-minute details.)

Abbott earned his master’s in architecture at Yale under Paul Rudolph, who had begun his own career in Sarasota and is considered the most famous member of the Sarasota School. Among his fellow classmates were the now internationally renowned architects Sir Richard Rogers and Sir Norman Foster, both of whom remain friends. But his first love was the natural environment, and he started out as a landscape architect major at the University of Florida. In a handsome monograph, In/Formed by the Land: The Architecture of Carl Abbott, published in 2013, his work is described as “modern architecture that springs from the nature of Florida’s Gulf Coast.”

Abbott has won some nine or 10 Test of Time Awards from the AIA Florida/Caribbean chapter, the most of any architect—so many that he can’t remember all of them—for “projects of enduring significance.” They include his curvilinear Women’s Resource Center on Tuttle Avenue, St. Thomas More Church in Gulf Gate, Casa del Cielo on Siesta Key (a triumphant design built for former New Hampshire Gov. Judd Gregg that sadly was demolished to make way for condominiums) and the Putterman Residence in Lido Shores. (“What are you, a psychologist?” he says homeowner Florence Putterman asked him at their first meeting.)

Beyond architecture, Abbott is a painter and sculptor—some of his work will be on exhibit at the Sarasota Art Museum and Art Center Sarasota—and he says those pursuits inform his architectural practice in their attention to light and space. (SAF board chair Anne Essner calls him “our Renaissance guy.”) And he has worked in Mexico with Mayan archaeologists and lectures on Mayan architecture, specifically how their buildings, like his, respond to the land and to the movement of the sun.

We recently talked with Abbott about the philosophy behind his designs and what the Sarasota MOD Weekend homage means to him.

The nautilus shell-inspired staircase in Abbott's new Casey Key project.

The nautilus shell-inspired staircase in Abbott's new Casey Key project.

Image: Sean Harris

What do you mean when you say in your book, “Architecture can enrich the quality of our lives”?

“Good architecture makes you see the world in a different way. It’s about making spaces that transcend. I talked with the new owners of the last two houses of mine that sold, and both told me they had the same reaction when they first walked in: ‘I can’t not buy this.’”

Nature plays a huge role in your work. Specifically, how has Florida’s semi-tropical environment influenced you?

“Every building we do is in effect a series of viewing platforms for nature. Whether it’s commercial, residential, institutional, whatever, if there’s not a great view, we make a courtyard that creates one. Landscape plays a huge amount in my architecture—the sun angles, the equinox, the way we face buildings and do openings in buildings. The Egyptians did this, the Mayans did this in an amazing way, tying buildings to nature.”

Casa del Cielo, which earned Abbott a Test of Time architecture award.

Casa del Cielo, which earned Abbott a Test of Time architecture award.

Image: Steven Brooke

You are not the most prolific architect.

“I haven’t done a lot of projects over my career; I would rather work closely with the client, and the process takes time. I’ve had really good clients. It doesn’t mean they let me do anything. We talk about the process, those feelings about the space and how they would function. I’m not through, though. I recently completed a project on Casey Key as design architect with Leo Lunardi as architect of record. And I’m working on a residence and on a civic building which I can’t talk about right now.”

What does this retrospective of your work mean to you?

“To work with this group of people at SAF, it’s a great honor and I feel very privileged that they’re respecting and honoring my work. It’s gotten me to re-evaluate my work of 40 and more years ago.”

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