Sarasota

Discovered: A Little-known Interview with Paul Rudolph

Paul Rudolph in Florida, on the upper deck of the lookout tower of a building he designed: the Sanderling Beach Club, Siesta Key (photo taken circa 1953).    Photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Paul Rudolph Archive

Paul Rudolph in Florida, on the upper deck of the lookout tower of a building he designed: the Sanderling Beach Club, Siesta Key (photo taken circa 1953).

Photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Paul Rudolph Archive

Little known? Well, to us—until we discovered it in the Winter 1983 issue of FLORIDA ARCHITECT, the journal of the Florida Association of the American Institute of Architects.

The magazine is still very much alive, and is full of fascinating content—and is now known as    Florida/Caribbean ARCHITECT   .

The magazine is still very much alive, and is full of fascinating content—and is now known as Florida/Caribbean ARCHITECT.

In 1982, Paul Rudolph was a member of the jury for the Florida Architect / AIA Design Awards—and, on that trip, also spoke in Tampa at the Fall Design Conference. His Florida visit was the occasion for the journal to have an interview with Rudolph, conducted by the Tampa-based architect Jan Abell.

That issue also included an article on the “Sarasota School”, illustrated with work by Rudolph (the Milam Residence), Jack West, Gene Leedy, William Rupp, Victor Lundy, and Mark Hampton (several of whom were “veterans” of Rudolph’s office.) It even included a photo of Rudolph with other members of the “school”, taken at the Design Conference.

Rudolph with other founders of the “Sarasota School,” at the 1982 FA/AIA DESIGN CONFERENCE in Tampa, Florida. From left-to-right: Victor Lundy, Gene Leedy, William Rupp, Tim Siebert, Bert Brosmith, and Paul Rudolph.    Image: courtesy of FLORIDA ARCHITECT, Winter 1983

Rudolph with other founders of the “Sarasota School,” at the 1982 FA/AIA DESIGN CONFERENCE in Tampa, Florida. From left-to-right: Victor Lundy, Gene Leedy, William Rupp, Tim Siebert, Bert Brosmith, and Paul Rudolph.

Image: courtesy of FLORIDA ARCHITECT, Winter 1983

As many of our readers know, Rudolph’s career can be divided—at least geographically—into 3 phases, each based on where his primary office and home was located:

·         FLORIDA, starting in the late 1940’s –to–  1958:  the opening phase of his career, and the period when he came to national prominence for his fresh and creative design work

·         NEW HAVEN, from 1958  –to– 1965:   the span when he was Chair of Yale’s architecture school—during which he also had a very active practice (which he had relocated from Florida to New Haven)

·         NEW YORK CITY, from 1965  –to– 1997:   where, after his time at Yale, he moved (and worked) for the rest of his life. Although Rudolph ultimately developed an international practice, he was based in NYC during all those years, until his passing.

This interview was conducted long after Rudolph’s Florida phase. The conversation starts by acknowledging that it had been some time since he had returned to Florida—but then it quickly moves on to the topics that really animated Rudolph: the nature of good urbanism, issues of scale, and the essentials of good architecture.

Rudolph FA Article.JPG

We are grateful to the AIA Florida, and especially to their Chief Operating officer, Becky Magdaleno, for permission to reproduce the full text of this interview—which we present here.

[Note: we have maintained the spelling, grammar, and punctuation, as it originally appeared in the article.]

FLORIDA ARCHITECT Interviews: Paul Rudolph

"The built environment is too important to leave to architects.”

October 10, 1982

Florida Architect:  It's been a long time since you've been back to Florida after working here for so long. Were you surprised by the way the State has changed?

Rudolph:  Well, it shouldn't be a surprise, but, of course, you do remember things in certain ways. The sheer volume of building, not just high rise, but everything, is very different and one has to be surprised.

FA:  I'd like to talk a little about building scale. One of the firms which won a design award this year was Arquitectonica. Their Overseas Tower was described by the jurors as a good piece of highway architecture. This highway network of ours is a relatively new growth area with a very different scale from that found in the city. It's a scale that many of us are not used to working with and think in some ways it is not as enjoyable a scale as the one you were working with in Sarasota.

Rudolph:  I wonder, when you make that statement, if you're not hiding under a bush. My thesis is that the population explosion isn't over yet. No one is going to give up his car or the public transportation system. The number of people living in our cities just hasn't reached its peak. There is no way, of course, that architects can determine such a thing. But, it does take architects to find solutions to the problems created by expanding cities and highway systems. In that way, society determines what architects do. Architects often think it's the other way around, but it isn't. So, with regard to your comment about the scale of the work in Sarasota being a more enjoyable scale than say, highway architecture, I don't agree. I don't think that bigness is bad or that small is beautiful,

FA:  When you left Florida, was it because you saw what was going on around the rest of the country and you wanted to contribute to a new scale that was being tried?

Rudolph:  No. The reason why I left Florida was extremely complicated and had nothing to do with that. I did then, and still do, want to work on very large projects. I think it's wrong, as is frequently done here, to deplore the fact that Siesta Key has lots of highrise buildings. The real question is what kind of highrise buildings and how are they placed in relationship to one another,

FA:  I certainly agree with that. And the reality of the fact, here in Florida at least, is that everyone wants to be on the beach. If we're going to put all those people on the beach, then our buildings have to go up higher and higher. Single-family bungalows just can't do it anymore. But I repeat my earlier question which is 'do I really have to accept that this is the way society should be going?

Rudolph:  I am giving the Walter Gropius lecture at Harvard next week and I am going to talk about essentially this very thing. I’m going to talk about urbanism, and my thesis about it has to do with a lack of understanding of scale. I think this is one of the dreadful things that architects have fallen into … thinking that it's big and therefore it's bad. I really don't agree with that.

FA:  I agree that a large building can be very human and urbanism very exciting and that together they create something that nothing else can. I am wondering though, if that is what's happening here in Tampa for example.

Rudolph:  The problem, in any city, is not whether the buildings are large or small. When you posed that question to me, you alluded to "a large building". What I am concerned about is groups of buildings, not single isolated structures. We build too many isolated structures which, whether big or small, sit all unto themselves. They are unrelated to the next building in any way. Since there is no real theory about how to interconnect these buildings, each remains isolated, a law unto itself. When I look at the great architecture of the past, I find that it wasn't that way at all. There was every much a professional assembly of buildings and I think that's what we need to get back to.

FA:  In a lot of ways what we're talking about is planning. Do you agree?

Rudolph:  Yes, but you can’t throw it all off on the planners, either. Just establishing a planning code or a set of rules doesn’t make an environment. What it takes is ideas and sensitivity and the lack of coordination within our cities is not exclusively the fault of the planners.

FA:  I don't think would try to blame it on the planners, but I think in any city you need a good planning basis.

Rudolph:  I see it this way. Say that a throughway is needed through the middle of a city. The project is essentially executed by transportation engineers. Frequently the project becomes a political hot potato concerning where the road can or cannot be put based on so-called "feasibility studies." All of this sort of thing takes its own toll and eventually the road takes it's own form. It may be well done or not so well done. But, what's left is for the people to react to the project and patch up whatever can be patched up. It’s a natural follow through. One of Michelangelo}s greatest buildings, the Campidoglio in Rome, is really a patch up—a remodeling. There were a lot of helter skelter medieval buildings all around and Michelangelo remodeled the Campidoglio into one of the world's great works of architecture. There is nothing wrong with that.

FA:  There was a kind of purity of structure that is very obvious to me in the early work in Sarasota. Do you think that it is almost an exercise that architects have to go through where they are totally fascinated with structure, and then with space and then with scale?

Rudolph:  The essence of architecture for me is the appropriate psychology of space. As a matter of fact, my definition of architecture is that it is used space modified to satisfy man's psychological needs. How you achieve that space can be done in a lot of different ways. And that, of course, has to do with structure. I don't want to say that structure isn't important, I am just saying that it is secondary to the impression the building creates. I do, however, agree with your statement to the extent that I think in the early days in Sarasota architects were more concerned with how to put things together, how to connect to a column and so forth.

FA:  Recently a forum was held in Tampa on the status of the arts. A panel of a dozen people was assembled, not one of which was an architect. I think that sums up the way a lot of people feel about architecture, that it isn’t an art form at all, it's a function. Many people seem to feel that architecture is little more than frivolous space … expensive frivolous space. If architects are now being relegated to the position of being little more than builders, because of the economy or whatever, then what is the point of being an architect?

Rudolph:  I don't agree with your assessment. Not at all. I think the built environment is too important to be left to the architects. History shows that vernacular buildings can rise to tremendous aesthetic heights. The medieval hill towns, the Ponte Vecchio, none of these had architects, and they were all great contributions to the environment. One problem is that architects don't understand their role in society and, admittedly, it’s complicated. I do have great faith in the people and I think that too many architects ignore what the people want and need from architecture. Architecture is a matter of imagination, intellect and will. I'm sad that we architects get confused by making great works of art rather than what the people need.

FA:  My response to that is that I do believe that as a city develops, we architects have a wonderful opportunity to create great space and wonderful scale.

Rudolph:  But, we have to find other ways of handling simple things like the space between the parked car and the entrance to the building. I feel very dismal that that sort of thing has been overlooked for too long and I sometimes feel that it would be better left to the engineers. The whole circulation system that is created in a city dictates the way people perceive their environment. If parking is a problem and it takes thirty minutes to get from the car to the building then that perception is not good. Kennedy Airport is a classic example. Here we have the gateway to this country and it is all out of scale and difficult to navigate. It's just unfortunate that for many people that is the first thing they see of this country.

FA:  I'd like to ask you about building ornament. Do today’s architects know how to decorate their buildings?

Rudolph:  There is something innate about people having a need to decorate. In my opinion, we really don't know how to decorate. And, again, that has to do with scale. Decoration, quite obviously, gives meaning to a building. All the great architects through history have used decoration, including Wright and Corbusier. I think that decoration is particularly important for public commemoration and that the people need to suggest what the ornament should be. Public ornament and public sculpture may be the solution to the very things that our cities need, i.e. a sense of scale and less isolation and loneliness of one building to another. Historically man has done much better with his cities and I don't know why we can't today.

Jan Abell is a principal in her own Architectural firm, Jan Abell Architects, Tampa, Florida and is currently involved in the organization of the Architecture Club of Tampa.

Paul Rudolph's 1953 Umbrella Residence is on the list of 'Florida Buildings I Love'

Paul Rudolph’s Umbrella residence in 2018. Photo: Kelvin Dickinson, Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation Archives

Paul Rudolph’s Umbrella residence in 2018. Photo: Kelvin Dickinson, Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation Archives

As with Paul Rudolph’s Cocoon House, Sarasota High School, and Sanderling Beach Club, Harold Bubil—the distinguished Real Estate Editor Emeritus for Sarasota’s Herald-Tribune—has put Rudolph’s Umbrella House on his list of “Florida Buildings I Love.”

And with good reason, as the 1953 building (which has been nominated to be on the National Register of Historic Places) embraces so many still fresh architectural ideas, and was executed with economical elegance.

An Amazing Client

Philip Hiss was an extraordinary and endlessly energic character: adventurer, writer, photographer, developer, educator, traveler (with an eye to anthropology and indigenous building solutions)—and a discerning patron of Modern architecture. His own library-studio, designed by Tim Siebert in 1953, was also a local (and very Modern) landmark: a cleanly rectilinear volume, using modern construction materials, raised on a steel structure. It even included the innovation of air conditioning (to protect Hiss’ book collection)—an unusual (and, for the time, pricey) feature.

The Architect

When developing the Lido Shores neighborhood in Sarasota, Hiss chose Paul Rudolph to design the flagship home: the Umbrella House.

Pearl Harbor happened very shortly after Rudolph began his graduate architecture studies at Harvard (under the famous former director of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius), and Rudolph (and his cohort of classmates) enlisted. Rudolph became a U.S. Navy officer, stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he learned important lessons on construction, materials, organization, and even the style of command—a body of knowledge that was to serve him for the rest of his career. Rudolph’s adventurous & innovative use of materials—perhaps seeded by his experience of maritime construction—can be repeatedly seen n his Florida work.

After the war, Rudolph returned to for his degree. Harvard was among a number of design programs which created accelerated programs for veterans, and Rudolph was able to graduate in less than a year. Moving to Florida (which he had been told was a place of opportunity for architects), his career really got started in the Sarasota area in the mid-1940’s (tho’ he eventually did work in several parts of Florida.)

Philp Hiss had good grounds for selecting Paul Rudolph as his architect:

  • in the approximate half-decade since starting practice in Florida, Rudolph had already built an impressive number of houses

  • even though the design of his houses had a fresh and Modern feel, such construction was not necessarily more expensive: Rudolph had shown the practical ability to build on a budget

  • Hiss, from his wide travels - especially to tropical environments - had developed definite ideas about how to build for hot climates - and Rudolph’s designs were simpatico to Hiss’ concerns and requirements

Modern Character (and Innovations) in the Umbrella House’s Design

Modern architecture has been much derided (sometimes with good reason) for its endless proliferation of banal & characterless container-like buildings - or as those productions are dubbed, the “Harvard Box.” Even though Rudolph was educated, at Harvard, by Gropius - the very fountainhead of that boxy approach - you could never say that a Rudolph building is boring! Here, at the Umbrella House, he brought his always inventive-yet-practical creativity to the design of this home.

Ground Floor Plan. Image: Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation Archives

Ground Floor Plan. Image: Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation Archives

First Floor Plan. Image: Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation Archives

First Floor Plan. Image: Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation Archives

Some of its design features include:

  • One of the most intractable problems of building design in hot and sunny climates is the solar heat-load on the roof. Covering the building’s entire area, the roof becomes a giant solar heat “magnet.” Even the best-insulated roof can only ameliorate the problem to a rather limited extent—and any mitigation is further reduced when the whole environment is hot (“Florida hot!”) day-after-day. One solution - very effective, but rarely tried - is a roof-over-a-roof: the upper roof blocks the sun, and a lower roof - well-separated by air-space, and shaded from above - is the actual enclosure of the house. Rudolph went far in the direction of this approach by erecting a large, trellis-like structure over the entire house (living volume, pool, and deck) - an “umbrella” - thus giving the house its famous name.

Side Elevation. Image: Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation Archives

Side Elevation. Image: Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation Archives

  • Rudolph raised the volume (enclosing the interior living spaces) above the ground plane. Not only did this separate the body of the house from ground-borne moisture, but it also reinforced the visual purity of the architecture: the main component of the house—the one that defined the interiors—seemed to float, and the volume’s edges were well-defined by the shadow-line at its bottom.

Pool-side Elevation. Image: Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation Archives

Pool-side Elevation. Image: Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation Archives

  • Most architects, when designing, primarily focus on the plan (and then the elevations). But Paul Rudolph thought in section—something that even his colleagues jealously admit is rare among architects. His orientation to sectional analysis led him to creating spaces with a profound variety of ceiling heights—and his ability to manipulate space allowed him to create the two major kinds of environments that people like to occupy:  large, open spaces (which Rudolph characterized as “the fishbowl”) and enclosed, snug spaces (which he called “the cave”). The height of the Umbrella House was the canvas within which he could compose such spatial experiences. The double-height living room was airy and commodious—but, tucked beneath the stairs, was the Florida incarnation of a fireplace inglenook for reading and cozy conversation.

  • Even though the entire house—including pool and its deck—was under the roof’s trellis-like shade, Rudolph provided a particularly protected sitting area (at the far end of the pool): this is a lowered, solid roof, which not only offered definitive blocking to the sun, but also fulfilled the occupants’ psychological needs for a well-defined seating area.

Preservation

In the mid-1960’s, the house suffered some hurricane damage, and in the subsequent decades it came into a state of disrepair. In 2005 it was partially restored---and then later sold, and restored by Hall Architects (for which it won several outstanding awards for preservation.)

Christopher J. Berger did an extensive thesis about the challenges of preserving works of the “Sarasota School”—and one of the buildings he focused-upon is the Umbrella house. You can see his full, well-researched thesis—which includes extensive historical context on building in Sarasota, and the fascinating cast-of-characters involved—here: http://etd.fcla.edu/UF/UFE0041751/berger_c.pdf

City Recognition—and National Register Nomination

The Umbrella House has been designated as an historic landmark of the City of Sarasota. 

Photo: Kelvin Dickinson, Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation Archives

Photo: Kelvin Dickinson, Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation Archives

David Conway—deputy managing editor of the Sarasota-based YourObserver.comwrites that the Umbrella House is a “a defining work of the Sarasota School of Architecture,” and reports:

Backed by the state Bureau of Historic Preservation, the Umbrella House has been nominated for a slot on the National Register of Historic Places. The two-story home in Lido Shores, designed by Paul Rudolph and built in 1953, is frequently cited as one of the standout works from the midcentury Sarasota School of Architecture movement.

Although dozens of structures within the city are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, most of them date to previous waves of development in the early 1900s. The Umbrella House is set to become one of the few Sarasota School works on the National Register, joining the Rudolph-designed Sarasota High School addition and the Scott Building at 265 S. Orange Ave.

The Umbrella House already has a local historic designation, which offers incentives for rehabilitation and requires city review of proposed changes to the home. In 2015, the Umbrella House was renovated to re-create its namesake “umbrella” structure, designed to shade the residence.

City Planner Cliff Smith said the national designation was another way the property owners are attempting to secure the Umbrella House’s historic legacy. On Tuesday, the city’s Historic Preservation Board voted unanimously to endorse the application, which a national committee will consider in August.

Smith said the designation would add to the significance of an architectural movement in which the community has taken great pride.

“The Sarasota School of Architecture, that unique form of building that’s indigenous to the city of Sarasota — we’re very happy that’s reached national status,” Smith said.

Rudolph's Cocoon House captured in new video

The exterior in 2017. Photo: Kelvin Dickinson, Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

The exterior in 2017. Photo: Kelvin Dickinson, Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

Paul Rudolph’s Healy Guest House, known as the ‘cocoon house’ for its unique roof construction, is featured in a new video by the Sarasota Architectural Foundation.

According to the video’s description,

Located on Bayou Louise Lane on Siesta Key, Cocoon House is a two-bedroom, one-bath, 760-square-foot cottage built as a guesthouse for Mr. and Mrs. W. R. Healy. The house gets its name from the technology used to build its roof: a polymer spray that Paul Rudolph saw being used at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on warships returning after WWII in order to "cocoon" or moth-ball them. Rudolph's creativity made him realize that this material could also be used in the construction industry. The Cocoon House was named “Best House Design of the Year” from the AIA in 1949; selected by MoMA New York in 1953 as one of 19 examples of houses built since WWII that were "pioneers of design;” and locally designated as a historic property by the City of Sarasota in 1985.

To watch the two-minute video, click below or follow the link here.

Paul Rudolph's 1950 Cocoon House is one of the 'Florida Buildings I Love'

The exterior in 2017. Photo: Kelvin Dickinson, Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

The exterior in 2017. Photo: Kelvin Dickinson, Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

Paul Rudolph’s rendering of the exterior. Image: Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

Paul Rudolph’s rendering of the exterior. Image: Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

Harold Bubil, Real Estate Editor Emeritus for the Herald-Tribune, writes in the newspaper that Paul Rudolph’s Healy guest house, known commonly as the Cocoon House, is one of his favorite buildings in Florida.

The exterior in 2017. Photo: Kelvin Dickinson, Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

The exterior in 2017. Photo: Kelvin Dickinson, Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

The reason for the name comes from the use of a technology - new at the time - to waterproof the roof. Writes Bubil:

During World War II, both Twitchell, who commanded an air base in South Carolina, and Rudolph, who was stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, learned about new technologies materials that could be applied to residential construction. Rudolph took note of the sprayed-on vinyl used to mothball ships, called “cocoon.”

Paul Rudolph’s rendering of the exterior. Image: Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

Paul Rudolph’s rendering of the exterior. Image: Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

While many see the house as a landmark of the Sarasota School of Architecture for its simple structure, use of glass and elevation above the surrounding landscape - Rudolph saw it as a failure. Writes Bubil,

It was “OK on the outside, but the interior space was not successful,” Rudolph, who died in 1997, once told architect Peter Blake in an interview. “The apparent instability of the sagging ceiling and the thrusting of space upward to the perimeter, inviting you to leave — this violated the essential nature of an intimate, domestic space. The Healy Cottage taught me that the physiological nature of the space in every building was really more important than the form of the structure.”

Paul Rudolph’s rendering of the interior. Image: Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

Paul Rudolph’s rendering of the interior. Image: Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

The psychological effect of space would continue to occupy the rest of Rudolph’s career - making this important building one that Rudolph fans and followers of modern architecture can share with similar appreciation.