Going back to School

By staff October 1, 2001

There's a story architects love to tell about Ralph Twitchell, the ringleader of the young architects who came to Sarasota after World War II and began building clean-lined, modern structures that came to be known as the Sarasota School of Architecture. Constructed of such then-innovative materials as concrete, steel and aluminum, the buildings used sweeping expanses of glass to admit cooling breezes and tropical views; and reflecting the flat, Florida landscape, they were low to the ground and often had flat roofs.

But as beautifully as they blended into the sandy landscape, those roofs, built of still-experimental materials, were not entirely suited to the semi-tropics: When hit with Sarasota's torrential summer downpours, many of them started to leak. One day one of Twitchell's wealthy clients complained to him about her leaky roof.

"Madam," the elegant, silver-haired architect responded, "your house is unique and unprecedented. No one has ever built anything like it before. It is a marvelous, modern invention. Of course it leaks!"

The client, legend has it, went away happy; but though the story certainly shows what a consummate salesman Twitchell was, I think it also reveals how much this new architecture was about post-war confidence and a dazzling sense of possibility. Rejecting the dark, compartmentalized houses most Americans then lived in, these young architects embraced light and open space, creating a bold new regional modernism that gained international attention. One of the group, Paul Rudolph, went on to become one of the most important architects of the 20th century.

With changing times-including the invention of central air-conditioning, which did away with the need to design houses to catch tropical breezes-the Sarasota School faded from attention. But in recent years, there's been a resurgence of interest in this architecture; and next month, architects-including some of the Sarasota School founders-and design professionals from all over will gather in Sarasota for a five-day symposium and tour ("American Legacy: Sarasota School of Architecture").

In Palm Springs and some other California cities, houses like these are much sought-after; local codes encourage their preservation, and many have been lovingly restored. But in Sarasota, where many of the houses were built on choice waterfront lots, few remain. People who pay enormous sums for those lots often want enormous homes as well; they're usually more interested in showstopping kitchens equipped with wine cellars and double sets of appliances, multi-zone air conditioning, and powder rooms with marble floors and crystal chandeliers than spare, uncluttered structures that catch the breeze.

Consider the fate of a landmark Rudolph-Twitchell house on Casey Key. Visiting architects regularly swooned over the place, which had been expanded to nearly 8,000 square feet of living space and perched above the Gulf on a spectacular site, planted with a lush jungle of beautiful palms and exotic vegetation. Last year, the house was sold; the new owners razed it to the ground and scraped the lot clean before starting to erect their new 30,000-square-foot Mediterranean mansion.

There are a few families in Sarasota who cherish their Sarasota School houses and maintain their original spirit. But aside from this small cult of devotees, do these houses-increasingly out of step with today's taste and technology-have anything to say to the rest of us?

Absolutely, says Joseph King, a young architect who has co-authored a book about Paul Rudolph and lives in a Bradenton house built by the legendary architect. (See "Guiding Light," page 84.) King is also a developer, but there are no Sarasota School homes in his River Forest development in east Manatee County. King says they would look as "nostalgic" there as some of those Mediterranean mini-castles do in Sarasota's gated communities. Yes-and they probably wouldn't sell well, either. But King's homes, which have been selling well, are inspired by many of the principles of the Sarasota School.

First of all, they're sensitive to their environment. "If we're going to build in Florida, we should look at the landscape," he says. "We don't have to feel compelled to look at the Mediterranean Sea or Midwestern cornfields or Colonial America for how we should build houses." This means everything from designing a house that fits in with existing trees to choosing landscaping materials that flourish here.

And modern technology makes it easier than ever to live with the Florida landscape, King notes. "We can do a house with a lot of glass that's also mindful of the hot sun and how you handle air-conditioning." Houses can be designed to take advantage of views and to enjoy natural light. ("The inside of some of those new giant homes can be dark, nasty places unless you blast out a lot of artificial light," he notes.) King admires the "progressive" spirit that led Sarasota's post-war architects to experiment with new materials and technology, from concrete roofs cooled by water to enormous walls of glass (the Sarasota craftsman who figured out how to build those sliding glass doors is featured in a story on page 71.) That same spirit has created some of today's most exciting architecture, he points out, such as Frank Gehry's new titanium-clad museum in Bilbao, Spain.

But most of all, says King, the Sarasota School houses teach us about "beauty, clarity and intention." In those elegant, streamlined structures, where nothing is extraneous or arbitrary, design seems distilled to its essential elements. "In a house that's all glass with a flat roof," King explains, "there's very little to hide behind. If the design is clear and well-thought-out, that comes through." He and his wife have discovered that's the challenge-and the reward-of living in their Paul Rudolph house. "Everything has to matter-it has to be beautiful or useful or meaningful," he says. That keeps them busy carting stuff off to consignment stores. "But it also makes us look at things."

Beauty, clarity and intention-any house can embody those principles, whether it's a modernist box on the beach or a magnificent French chateau. Sarasota designer Wilson Stiles recently spent a week on a grand old summer estate in the Berkshires. The house had 12 servants' bedrooms, three different living rooms and an indoor squash court and was filled with antiques and art. Yet it was completely comfortable and welcoming, Stiles says; everything about it expressed the idea of a summer family retreat, where generations of children have romped through the rooms and adults have lingered over lively dinners long into the night.

Maybe what jars us about so many of the new trophy homes isn't really their size-it's their confusion. When they're wildly out of scale with their surroundings, or built in a mish-mash of architectural styles or seemingly designed to impress passers-by rather than to nurture the occupants inside, they come off as fake, even pathetic, rather than impressive. A house, like a human being, needs a sure sense of itself and its place in the world to be great. The Sarasota School architects understood that, and that's why the houses they built here are worth studying-and celebrating.

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