Hiss and Hers

World-Renowned Architect Toshiko Mori to Receive Architecture Sarasota Award

The architect, whose work is on display on Casey Key, is the first recipient of the Philip Hanson Hiss Award.

By Kim Doleatto March 8, 2023

Toshiko Mori

Image: Ralph Gibson

Bridging time and place, one can see that Toshiko Mori and Philip Hiss are stitched from a similar cloth. So it’s only fitting that Architecture Sarasota named Mori as the recipient of the inaugural Philip Hanson Hiss award, which recognizes people who share the core values of the Sarasota School of Architecture: adaptation to the climate and social-cultural traditions of South Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Although Hiss wasn’t an architect, the buildings he commissioned and helped design are now world-famous. He was part of the innovative crew who made up the Sarasota School of Architecture post-World War II. The group used new concepts that brought the outdoors in, taking care to respond to the climate and culture of the area.

Hiss was also civic-hearted. He joined the Sarasota County school board and designed nine new Sarasota schools between 1952 and 1960, which revolutionized the public school system. And most importantly, he understood the connection between learning, teaching and the built environment.

Born in Kobe, Japan, and educated at the Cooper Union in New York, Mori is a distinguished educator, too. In 1995, she became the first woman to receive tenure at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. An acclaimed architect, she also designed the buildings for various educational and public institutions, from the Fass School and Teachers’ Residence in Senegal to the Brooklyn Public Library. The Philip Hanson Hiss award recognizes her ecologically sensitive, site-responsive design philosophy and inventive use of materials.

In her work, Mori has also upheld a similar approach to that of the Sarasota School and Hiss’ innovations. This is perhaps most notably exemplified in the addition of two pavilions to the Burkhardt-Cohen House property, designed by Hiss’ colleague, friend and Sarasota School architect Paul Rudolph in 1957.

The Burkhardt-Cohen House.

Image: Paul Warchol

Mori designed home's new guest house, which is raised 17 feet above sea level and connected to the original building via an exterior stainless steel staircase that becomes the new center of the house. The home is included in the Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture, which identifies the world’s 1,000 most important buildings.

The Burkhardt-Cohen House.

Image: Paul Warchol

"One criterion for determining the recipient of this award was having interacted with Sarasota," says Architecture Sarasota president Marty Hylton. "She's connected to Paul Rudolph through her local projects, and her work on the school in Senegal illustrates her approach to climate. When you look at the Burkhardt-Cohen residence, it's clear she studied and was inspired by the Sarasota School." 

Mori's firm, based in New York City, is responsible for a broad range of work, including New York City theater and library projects, institutional projects for Brown and Syracuse universities, and the award-winning Visitor Center at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin D. Martin House compound in Buffalo, N.Y. 

We caught up with Mori ahead of the Philip Hanson Hiss award ceremony on March 11 to talk about architecture, climate change and her connection to Sarasota.

What were the biggest challenges of designing and building here? 

"All three projects were on Casey Key, which is really a sandbar. It's a great hub for live oaks, sea turtles, and other local wildlife. In a way, it’s very fragile, so we had to be careful to make a place for humans while staying sensitive to the natural environment—how to bond the life of humans with ecology without destroying it. That’s the biggest factor today between nature and man. We have destroyed so much. And building in Sarasota, I learned so much about that balance."

How is climate change impacting new architecture?

“Working in Florida is very different because you have hurricanes, but you do a great job with building codes. I won’t name them, but other states are really behind in that sense. We’re not always prepared, but the vigilance and updates are critical procedures." 

Do you think the concepts of the Sarasota School that Hiss adopted endure? 

"It’s not that they ‘endure,’ it’s that they're the future. No one [in the 1940s and '50s] had air conditioning, but with passive design, you didn't need it. Everyone built on fragile land in a fairly delicate way, but the sites are built well. [The Sarasota School] was very advanced. If you ask architects today, they might say it’s common sense, but humans do a lot of things that are not common sense.

"The Sarasota School builds on location and celebrates the amazing climate and light. There is a tropical optimism that is part of that Sarasota architecture. If it's too hot, we sit in the shade and take in how nice it is to feel the breeze. The lifestyle works with the rhythm of the water, the light and the climate."

What is your favorite Hiss building?

"I loved Riverview High School, which was unfortunately destroyed. All the common spaces and even the locker rooms were social spaces. It was light but shaded. I learned a lot walking through that building. I spoke to students who really liked the school and felt relaxed there.

"I also have to say the Hiss legacy does get involved in a controversy with Gov. Ron DeSantis. Hiss helped found New College and was a chairman for the school and helped find an architect to design it. New College started as a public project [of the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce], and it has a culture.

"If I was a resident of Sarasota, I’d be so upset [about what's going on there]. It makes the students unsafe. This is a great award, but [receiving it at New College's Sainer Pavilion] connects to this crisis situation. I'm also an educator, and a diversity of opinions and discourse on things like African American history and white supremacy is part of education. This suppression of knowledge from libraries and curricula is criminal. I feel like if it's happening to New College, it could happen in New York, too. We can't think it's far away."

On Sat. March 11, Architecture Sarasota president Marty Hylton will join Mori in a public conversation at the Mildred Sainer Pavilion at New College of Florida before honoring her that evening at an award ceremony and benefit gala. For tickets to the conversation and/or the gala, which include cocktails at the Hiss Studio and dinner at the Umbrella House, click here.

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