Miami International

Miami International

Rendering of student club at University of Miami. Designed by Marion Manley in collaboration with Robert Law Reed.
Courtesy Historical Museum of Southern Florida

Marion Manley: Miami’s First Woman Architect
Catherine Lynn and Carie Penabad
University of Georgia Press, $34.95

Marion Manley: Miami’s First Woman Architect opens with a cinematic foreword by Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, co-founder of the Miami firm Arcquitectonica and acting dean of the University of Miami’s School of Architecture since 1995. The foreword establishes a critical position concerning Manley’s work from the physical perspective of Ms. Plater-Zyberk’s office window. This point of view subtly prioritizes the planning and architectural development of the University of Miami campus as not only being among Manley’s greatest achievements, but also most representative of the ideological concerns which govern her body of work as a whole, which include: low-tech sustainability (before it was fashionable); the synthesis of various local architectural styles into a pared-down, rational, International vernacular; and planning concepts that support convenient inter-city and thru-city travel, off-street parking, more parks and playgrounds, and slum clearance. While the descriptions of Manley’s early and late residential work by Lynn and Penabad that follow are made to seem relevant to unpacking the significance of Manley’s career, the authors suggest that it is the extraordinary vision Manley exhibits in her work at the University of Miami that has made her influence lasting. A rare collection of over three hundred drawings and clippings maintained by the Historical Museum of South Florida, in addition to University of Miami archives related to Manley and her work, serve as the basis of this comprehensive study.


Marion Manley.

From Lynn and Penabad we learn that Manley became a registered architect in the state of Florida in 1918, less than a year after her graduation at the University of Illinois, where she was more than likely exposed to the Mediterranean style through the writings of Rexford Newcomb, who was the Dean of Fine and Applied Arts at the time. Newcomb was, according to Lynn and Penabad, a “diligent and eloquent practitioner” of this style who described its melding of Spanish, Italian, Moorish, and Byzantine-Mediterranean sources in 1928 as "sunloving." While a direct influence by Newcomb can’t be confirmed in Lynn and Penabad’s text, it is suggested that Manley had a predisposed affinity for this style, which would play a major role in her work at the University of Miami, and, in combination with International ideals, form the basis of her sensibilities as an architect. This book hones in on Manley’s nexus of influences, decodes them historically and explains them in relation to Manley’s professional context.

Prior to registration, Manley acquired a significant internship in the Coconut Grove office of Walter De Garmo, a Cornell graduate also trained in the Beaux Arts tradition and, according to Lynn and Penabad, best known for his design of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington. De Garmo worked on the early development of Coral Gables with H. George Fink, who was one of its original architects. Fink’s travels in Spain, Italy, and France, as they were interpreted in the drawings he produced and sent back to De Garmo, were heavily influential in the development of Coral Gables. From De Garmo and her involvement in the design and construction of his civic projects, Manley assimilated this European-based architectural language.

When World War I disrupted the building boom in Florida, Manley accepted a temporary position designing ships for the Emergency Fleet Corporation of the U.S. Shipping Board in Philadelphia. Returning to Miami shortly after, Manley, now registered, began to design large-scale Mediterranean houses with a prominent Miami architect by the name of Gordon E. Mayer (who made her a partner in his firm), worked briefly in South Carolina, then set up her own practice back in Florida in 1924. From 1924 to 1941, Manley is characterized by Lynn and Penabad as being both successful and wracked by the economy of world war, frenetic interest rates, a prevaling post-war atmosphere of male dominance within the field and a potential client’s ability to secure a mortgage. Although Lynn and Penabad expend a lot of energy summarizing the details and relevance of Manley’s work and social commitments leading up to and after 1943 (when her practice was relocated onto the University of Miami campus), they also suggest that Manley’s exposure to the writings of Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, as well as her enrollment in a summer city planning course at MIT in 1942, had the most impact on her ideals as an architect and regional planner.

Following an introduction, Lynn and Penabad have organized Marion Manley: Miami’s First Woman Architect into three main chapters: “Practicing From the Outpost,” “Manley and The University of Miami,” and “Designing Post-World War II South Florida”; the chapters are followed by a catalogue and timeline of the architect’s work. The chronological framework illuminates the arc of Manley’s career in a compelling way, for in order to fully perceive Manley’s relevance, one must understand the dynamic nature of the influences that played upon her career and realize that she was capable of synthesizing them in a way that made her a leader in the field. What Lynn and Penabad are ultimately driving is an accurate diagram of the web of social and artistic forces that inevitably inspired Manley’s work at the University of Miami.

Courtyard of Manley’s Bell House in Coconut Grove, 1952 (left) and floor plans (right).
Courtesy University of Miami Libraries, Coral Gables [+ Click to enlarge.]

The first 70 pages of the book form the launch pad for the remainder, the bulk of which is devoted to Manley’s institutional work with an eloquent coda concerning the late residential and public work that exhibits a remarkable synthesis of International notions of form and economy and the Mediterranean style’s exotic vernacular. Lynn and Penabad assert that the first indication of Manley’s shift in ideals is best represented in her diagram for a proposed music auditorium for the university. The blueprint, comprised of a simple plan, longitudinal section and transverse section, is all "swoops, curves, and broad spans," centralized around a single gesture born of engineering calculations. While Lynn and Penabad (perhaps inappropriately) reference the shape of a household iron in their description of the plan, these drawings predate some of the most significant work of Saarinen and Niemeyer (with which it shares an unquestionable resemblance). Le Corbusier’s "Air Resistance of Various Forms" from Towards A New Architecture is openly referenced.

Some of most inspiring visual material included by Lynn and Penabad relates to Manley’s building designs for the University of Miami. Most of these renderings reside in the University of Miami Library in Coral Gables’ department of Special Collections. The strongest images include the preliminary design for a classroom building in multiple views, sketches for a marine lab that was never built, an amazing aerial perspective of the "Central Group" of campus buildings (which quite conceivably would have made an interesting book cover), a pencil rendering of a student dormitory and Fine Arts building group, and actual photos of temporary buildings, administration buildings and veterans’ housing. The most exciting building documented in the book, however, is Manley’s Memorial Classroom Building, which exemplifies institutional or university architecture’s essence of the bar building type and its modular counterparts.

This particular building, consistent with the International style, has a reinforced concrete frame finished with an exposed concrete scrim and cantilevered galleries. The siting conforms to an underlying grid which eventuates the morphology of the Central Group. The building’s major axis is oriented towards the prevailing winds, and the galleries and stairs are open to the air. The facades, harmonious in their individuation and defined by recessed and operable fenestration, are vertically expressive yet minimal concrete structural elements—a volumetric play of forms, rhythmic or syncopated tectonic features (such as vertical fins that scoop light), and a breathtaking guardrail. The outdoor lobby is indicative of Manley’s admiration of the South Florida landscape. Where this building is lifted off the ground, Manley successfully brings the classroom to the outside. Also significant, according to the authors, is the publicity this building achieved. Like the "campus-beauty-queen subjects" in the photos, Lynn and Penabad embrace Manley’s work at the University of Miami and elsewhere lovingly.