Modernism celebrations and conferences are becoming more numerous. After such an event gains a certain amount of local awareness, the challenge for organizers is to make it continue to appeal to a range of interested parties, from docents in Pucci dresses to scholars in button-down shirts. How do you avoid devolving into a love of style over substance? How do you keep bringing back the style groupies, the design professionals, and the scholars? SarasotaMOD Weekend, an annual midcentury modern architecture festival in Sarasota, Florida, just held its fifth program this November and made a convincing case that it is taking the challenge seriously. Presented by the Sarasota Architectural Foundation, SarasotaMOD has twice centered the festival around Paul Rudolph, commonly referred to as the father of the Sarasota School of Architecture. In recent years, the festival has had programs on other architects who followed in his wake, including Victor Lundy and Tim Seibert. Given that 2018 is Rudolph’s centenary, it made sense to celebrate the legend once more. This year, high-priced trolley tours of Rudolph’s built legacy sold out. They offered opportunities to see some buildings that are rarely open to the public. But it was the thoughtful morning presentations, entitled "Paul Rudolph Legacy Morning," that suggested a way forward for this and other modernism conferences, like those in Palm Springs, Tucson, and Columbus, Indiana. These morning presentations included a documentary from 1983, entitled Spaces: The Architecture of Paul Rudolph, which offered rare footage of Rudolph being interviewed and throwing a fit over the shape of the altar design at Emory University’s Cannon Chapel. Made before Rudolph fell out of national favor, the film gave everybody the same starting place for understanding Rudolph. This was an excellent segue to "Reassessing Rudolph," a panel discussion. Rudolph scholar Timothy Rohan, the moderator, asked the panelists—architect Joseph King, coauthor of Paul Rudolph: The Florida Houses, and Rudolph scholars Brian Goldstein and Ken Oshima—about Rudolph and his place in modernist history. In his comments, King pointed out that at first glance, many Rudolph buildings suggested a singular idea, but once you enter the buildings, the variety of interlocking spaces reveals itself. Rohan described Rudolph’s innovative use of perspective sections and how these and other dramatic drawings made Rudolph’s reputation. Interestingly, other architects who veered from strict corporate modernism, folks like Saarinen, Stone, and Kahn, were not postmodernists per se, but were the harbingers of change. While Rudolph’s high-rises in Asia were not pure modernist, neither were they historicist. Rudolph’s reputation suffered after the 1969 fire at the Yale Art and Architecture building, but he persevered. And his legacy continues to be debated. Unlike other architects associated with modernism or Brutalism, he did not champion an orthodoxy. He relied on intuition and emotion. In that way, he reminds me of Bruce Goff without the whimsy. One important point raised during the conversation was that Rudolph was an example of the failure of joining modernism and urbanism. He is in good company there. The big draw for the morning was Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture writer Paul Goldberger. Goldberger gave a lively lecture that would appeal to the Rudolph novice or scholar. He fills the bill for this kind of meeting. He has enough depth on the subject to bring together unlikely strands, but he can relate those strands back to popular culture. For example, he talked about Rudolph’s ability to combine high and low culture, especially in his interiors projects. Early in his presentation, Goldberger said that Rudolph was “a difficult architect…not easy to like.” This notion contrasts with the sweet and often modest early houses he designed around Sarasota. Both the scholarly panel and Goldberger were able to link the early work to the larger and less sweet later work. In the Burkhardt House of 1957, many of the conference attendees were able to see up close the complexity and intriguing circulation that Rudolph was playing with in his early work. At a cocktail reception and subsequent tour, the Burkhardt House’s current owners told stories about meeting Rudolph after they bought it. He was relieved that they were removing an unsympathetic kidney-shaped pool that an earlier owner had added. However, Rudolph was not pleased that the owners were installing a rectangular pool more in keeping with his architecture. Apparently he suggested they just use the local YMCA instead. The current owners were clear about who owns the house, often a struggle with a unique architectural talent like Rudolph. At the end of the question and answer session, Goldberger responded to a question about what to look for on the tours by suggesting that people look at the beauty of the architecture and the banality of the strip we would all travel to get there. This is an issue that is especially relevant because of Rudolph’s deep interest in and failure with urbanism. The festival’s program cover features an illustration of the Cocoon House drawn by local graphic artist John Pirman. Rudolph’s modest rectangles on or near the water lend themselves to beautiful renderings and postcards. These houses are easy to love, especially in Ezra Stoller’s beautiful photos and Pirman’s other recent prints, but what about the urbanistic implications of his larger buildings, often made with ribbed concrete, or of his tree-like towers in Asia? The success of the conference was that these kinds of questions were raised, if not wholly answered. Next year’s focus for SarasotaMOD has not been decided. Christopher S. Wilson, the Sarasota Architectural Foundation’s chairman of the board and a professor at Ringling College of Art and Design, suggested it may focus on Carl Abbott, a living architect of the Sarasota School. If the festival can keep the balance of informed lectures, lively discussions, and tours, it will be worth returning to learn more about this slice of Florida.
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Sharp winter sunlight pours over the Umbrella House on Lido Key in Florida as a group of modern architecture enthusiasts begin their morning yoga class with a sun salutation. Shadow and light battle beneath the 3,000 square-foot wooden canopy of the house, casting a latticed reflection on the pool below. Built in 1953 by the modern architect Paul Rudolph while living and working in Sarasota, the Umbrella House would become a centerpiece of the Sarasota School of Architecture: a localized architectural movement that brought the aesthetic of midcentury modernism to the beach—and keeps the tourists coming every year for a Palm Springs–inspired Modernism Weekend. Sarasota today is a characteristic American town of some 50,000 year-round residents. Concentrated around a polished 9.5-square-mile built-up downtown area, it unfurls outward into an eclectic 25-square-mile collage of gated communities, strip malls, white sand beaches, marshy swampland, and rustic cow pastures. Unlike the Sarasota of Rudolph’s time, there is ample air conditioning (some would argue too much), a plethora of open-air campuses, and a constantly expanding cluster of high-rise condos dotting the shores of downtown and Siesta Key: the once-barren strip of fine quartz sand beach where Rudolph built several of his chic micro-cabin guest houses in the 1950s. Also unique to the present is a clear, defined interest in Sarasota’s modern architectural heritage. The Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF) was founded in 2002 to bring local and international awareness to the rich legacy of Sarasota Modern. Every November since 2013, a couple hundred tropical modernism buffs make a beeline for the Sunshine State or stir from their Sarasota siestas to attend Sarasota MOD. This year’s MOD Weekend marks Paul Rudolph’s centennial, for which SAF tapped Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger to deliver a keynote presentation on Rudolph, prefaced by a screening of Bob Eisenhardt’s short film Spaces: The Architecture of Paul Rudolph, and a panel discussion titled “Reassessing Rudolph” featuring Rudolph experts and academics Brian Goldstein, Eric Paul Mumford, Ken Tadashi, and moderated by local architect Timothy M. Rohan. As Goldberger emphasized in his keynote lecture, the '50s architecture culture in Sarasota was a “rare moment with an extraordinary meeting of minds”—minds that, conveniently enough, came to town with a lot of money. For Rudolph, fresh out of Harvard's GSD following a two-year intermission in the navy, this meant the opportunity for hands-on building experience in his 30s, when he designed several guest houses that helped anchor the Sarasota Modern style, including the iconic curving Cocoon House and yoga-friendly Umbrella House. He even pioneered a new building typology, the lamolithic house. Made from poured concrete slab walls and a steel-reinforced roof, key features of the lamolithic house were untempered (and certainly not hurricane-proof) glass windows, a roof encased in four to six inches of crushed coral that provided waterproof insulation, and a passive cooling sprinkling system on the roof. The open plan was designed to capture the cross-winds pouring in from the Gulf. Rudolph built four out of the five lamolithic houses he had planned on Siesta Key. At their public debut, over 100 visitors came and demanded he begin building identical structures for them. Following the success of these homes, Lamolithic Industries, Rudolph’s partner in the project, pioneered a prototype of a two-bedroom home costing $8,900 that never fully materialized. While touring the lamolithic and guest houses on a three-hour trolley bus tour of Paul Rudolph’s projects on Siesta Key, it became evident that this model was meant as a base that owners could pimp out at their discretion. Swanky circular pools and exotic cactus gardens materialize underneath the lanai: Florida’s unique netted cage of a semi-enclosed garden. The contemporary extensions hit an all-time absurd in Revere Quality House (c. 1948), whose owners added a three-story modernist mansion onto the humble dwelling in 2007, courtesy local architect Guy Peterson. Sarasota has always been one of the wealthiest counties in the Sunshine State; current residents of Siesta Key, one of the most expensive areas of the city and where many of Rudolph’s commissions were realized, earn an average income of $62,000 per resident (more than twice the national average). Rewind back to Rudolph’s stint in Sarasota and the story is much the same. The influx of new residents in postwar Florida melded with a burgeoning middle class that had money to burn, plus opportunistic property developers eager to turn Sarasota into a destination point, all while reaping the state’s status as a tax haven on investment properties. This placed a large demand for infrastructure and culture to fill up this sleepy town on the Gulf of Mexico—and fast. Key businessmen-cum-patrons like Lido Shores–developer Philip Hiss were instrumental in giving the cluster of Sarasota-based architects who would later be known as the Sarasota School their first shot at building. For Rudolph in particular, this was a total boon and laid the foundation for the future of his career. But for today’s architectural enthusiasts without such deep pockets (including students) this creates an area of friction in the SarasotaMOD festivities. For cultural interest events such as these, this translates into $250 dinners, $150 trolley tours, and $30 yoga classes—or a $6,000 overnight stay in Rudolph’s Umbrella House, if you’re feeling inclined—and precludes access to the Sarasota School from a much larger, and probably much younger, audience. It is true that when most people think of Paul Rudolph, they tend to think about the radiant play of light within his Interdenominational Chapel (1969) at Emory University, the menacing melancholia of the Art & Architecture building at Yale (its ugliness, it is said, led to the arson of 1969), or that overwhelming behemoth of Temple Street Parking Garage (1963), its shadowy mass swallowing up 6 blocks nearby in New Haven—and not so much his quaint beach houses dotting Siesta Key. But it is also true that Sarasota gave Rudolph the jump-start that electrified his tumultuous career. Where patrons and projects abound, the little town on the Gulf allowed Rudolph to become a principal at Ralph Twitchell’s firm in under four years (the same firm he interned at before Harvard). It enabled him to become an independent architect, ditching Twitchell in 1958 to build two major high schools in Sarasota where he grew into his own style. Sarasota was the springboard that catapulted Rudolph into the Chair of Yale University’s Department of Architecture in 1960, where he would experience another pivotal moment of divinity and fall from grace in the now-infamous Brutalist masterpiece of the Art & Architecture Building at Yale. Although Rudolph was later condemned by critics who predicted his conservative style would be left in the dust by slick and jazzy postmodernism, he always responded best when placed in the pressure cooker. Which is why what happened nearly seventy years ago in this sleepy Floridian town feels like such a special occurrence and the ultra-steep price tag of its discovery such a shame.
It's no Palace of Versailles, but the Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF) has reproduced Paul Rudolph's 1952 Walker Guest House on the grounds of the Ringling Museum of Art. Using Rudolph's plans and Ezra Stoller's interior photographs, the foundation commissioned a faithful replica, down to the magazines on the coffee table. The replica will cost SAF approximately $150,000. It will be faithful to the original, minus the bathroom, which will be supplanted by a wheelchair-accessible ramp. The house will welcome visitors starting November 6th, part of opening festivities for SAF's SarasotaMOD Weekend. The original Walker Guest House is a 24-foot-by-24-foot foot structure constructed from "off the shelf" materials for the Walker family on Sanibel Island, off the Gulf Coast. The house still stands. Why build a replica? As SAF board member Dan Snyder explained, unlike other cities tearing Rudolph's architecture down, Sarasota is a "city that loves Rudolph." The Walker Guest House is privately owned, and Sanibel Island is only accessible via boat. The Ringling has 250,000 annual visitors, so having the replica house on its grounds will introduce Rudolph's work, and the Sarasota School of Architecture, to a wider audience. Indigenous to Florida's west coast, the Sarasota School melded the international style with the organic school of Frank Lloyd Wright while responding to the demands of a subtropical climate. The Walker Guest house, Snyder noted, "blurs the distinction between inside and outside, stealing space from the outside so the house seems much larger." The house is calibrated to respond to the seasons. Its three, eight-foot-by-eight-foot panels are flanked by retractable exterior shades that shield the house from excessive summer sun, but allow light to penetrate in the winter, when the temperature drops into the 60s. Its exoskeleton functions as a wraparound porch and a support system for the pulleys, weighted with red concrete balls, that control the shades. Members of the SAF visited the original house to document the interior and exterior for the replica project. To many, "1950s Florida" means tacky pastels and a flock of lawn flamingos. In contrast (or perhaps in protest), Rudolph's interior color palette is subdued grey to "draw [your] eye to the outside," Snyder explained. Referencing Stoller's photographs, the Rudolph-designed coffee table, dining table, bookcase, and sofa were reproduced. Queens-based furniture designer Richard Wrightman was commissioned to recreate the living room's officer's chairs. Adhering strictly to their standards of authenticity, the team purchased Time, Fortune, and Playboy magazines from 1953, and placed them as they appear in Stoller's images. A parallel exhibition, Paul Rudolph: The Guest Houses, at the Ringling features photographs, models, drawings, and writings. The exhibition runs through December 6th.