Architecture Sarasota explores tropical modernism in search of key lessons for addressing the climate crisis

Sarasota Schooling

Architecture Sarasota explores tropical modernism in search of key lessons for addressing the climate crisis

The Hiss Studio, designed by Tim Seibert in 1952 (Greg Wilson)

There’s no question that climate change is intensifying. If we’re not experiencing a record-breaking deep freeze in the winter, we’re dealing with scorching heat waves. One of the most serious outcomes of this ecological crisis is the growing number of powerful storms we’re witnessing.

Nowhere is this more evident—at least now—than in the low-lying coastal areas of southern Florida. Last September, Hurricane Ian wreaked havoc on the state’s western seaboard and left a whopping $50 billion of damage in its wake. Though predicted to sustain the worst of the impact, the midsize city of Sarasota was miraculously spared.

Situated between Tampa Bay and the Fort Myers–Naples metro area, the mini-metropolis serves as a cultural hub for the region. Made famous in the early 20th century for its connection to the circus industry, the city currently boasts a number of performance venues and museums that cater to a mostly, but not exclusively, retired population originating from the Midwest.

palm trees with low-lying house
Revere Quality House, designed in 1948 by Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell, with a restoration and addition by Guy Peterson Office for Architecture (Bryan Soderlind)

However, the coastal town is best known for having served as the center of what became known as the Sarasota School of Architecture. Renowned practitioners like Ralph Twitchell, Jack West, Victor Lundy, and perhaps most famously Paul Rudolph enacted their own versions of modernism within the city proper and its outlying barrier islands from the 1940s to the ’60s. Through various—and at times opposing—methodologies, these established and budding practitioners created buildings that translated International Style principles to a subtropical climate. Key to this output was the philosophy of industrial functionalism put forward by the Bauhaus but also the more place-based ideology demonstrated in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian typology.

Homes, schools, and even beach clubs were constructed with integrated overhangs for better shading, open layouts for more flexible use, and pilotis to safeguard against potential flooding. Arguably, the most critical characteristic of the 50 or so structures erected during this period was the concept of bringing the outdoors in. This overarching strategy ensured that buildings could not only facilitate ample ventilation—in a time before air condition- ing was widely accessible—but also remain permeable and, in turn, resilient to the unpredictable forces of nature.

Thanks to preservation efforts made in part by recently established not-for-profit Architecture Sarasota, iconic sites like Rudolph’s groundbreaking Healy Guest House (Cocoon House) remain intact today. Built in 1948, the bungalow first gained recognition for its innovative integration of an inverted catenary roof but also its seamless connection to the Bay Isle canal it abuts. Other exemplary properties he designed and that have since been restored include the model Revere Quality House and a monumental addition to Sarasota’s central high school. Real estate developer Philip Hanson Hiss III was instrumental in supporting the movement by establishing the Lido Shores development, a reclaimed sandbar that became a sort of canvas for many of the aforementioned architects’ revolutionary ideas. Some of their experimental designs are still standing in this tight-knit island community, albeit next to bulging Tuscan-style McMansions.

front elevation of gray building
Umbrella House, designed by Paul Rudolph in 1953 for the Lido Shores development in Sarasota (Nicholas Ferris)

Seated in the downtown Sarasota School–era McCulloch Pavilion, the organization hosts exhibitions, conferences, and the annual SarasotaMOD Weekend. Anchored by ticketed home, trolley, and kayak tours, the festival wraps up with a thought-driven conference that always draws back to this rich local heritage. The most recent edition—held from November 10 to 13, 2022—focused on the topic of tropical modernism and the relationship between climate and design. The theme was relevant not only given recent events but also the announcement of Morris Hylton III, the former Historic Architect for Climate Change at the National Park Service, as Architecture Sarasota’s new president.

“The organization’s purposefully bifurcated but interrelated mission resonates with who I am and the driving force of my 25-plus-year-old career: preserving the past and cultural heritage to inform the present and future,” he told AN. Though a Kentucky native like Rudolph, Hylton has taken this new appointment as a kind of homecoming. It was on a trip to Sarasota with his parents 40 years ago that he fell in love with architecture and its historical significance.

After studying at Columbia University, he became a strategic initiatives manager for the World Monuments Fund, an NGO tasked with saving endangered cultural heritage sites around the world. He helped create the Modernism at Risk project dedicated to addressing the specific challenges of preserving modernist architecture. He also spearheaded the Restoring a Sense of Place initiative in New Orleans and on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast to recover historic buildings and communities affected by Hurricane Katrina. “I experienced first- hand that the region’s shotgun houses, Creole or American cottages, and other coastal structures that retained their original designs and materials were the most resilient and more easily recovered.”

Hylton soon formed an interest in climate-responsive design as well as preservation. “I realized that regional movements of modernism like the Sarasota School of Architecture were inspired, at least in part, by the vernacular designs of the South,” he adds. “For example, Paul Rudolph’s Umbrella House (1953) in Lido Shores is a modern version of the dogtrot-type residence that has a central breezeway to promote cross-ventilation.”

After bringing this dynamic perspective to roles at the National Park Service and the University of Florida in recent years, taking on his new position at Architecture Sarasota has allowed Hylton to come full circle: “Our mission is to conserve the legacy of the Sarasota School while sustain-ing that continuum of innovative design and providing a forum that encourages for- ward-thinking architecture on a regional, national, and even global scale.”

Complementing a comprehensive exhibition on view through February 25, Hylton programmed the 2022 Sarasota MOD Weekend Tropical Modernism: Climate and Design symposium with this vision in mind. Looking at how shared environmental conditions across the Global South have influenced both aesthetic and functional design decisions, speakers like Dr. Vandana Baweja explored the implications that colonial constructs have had in this context. While Dr. Sonia Chao looked at the historical correlations between southern Florida and Cuba in addressing climate challenges, Dr. Daniel Barber explored the history of air-conditioning in defining our expectation of comfort and how cooling solutions for our interiors that emit less carbon could be derived from buildings constructed in Florida, West Africa, and Brazil.

trellis with pool
Umbrella House (Nicholas Ferris)

One of the main takeaways from the conference was that these practices could be introduced beyond the tropics and subtropics. As the climatic regions ultimately extend farther north and south, there will be a growing need for new cooling solutions. Overall, there was a consensus not only that tectonic strategies such as overhangs, raised volumes, and slatted windows could help alleviate extreme heat but also that the use of vernacular and Indigenous knowledge could play a significant role.

In a final audience Q&A session, Barber offered up an additional proposal. For him, as climate change and the migration it will undoubtedly induce worsen, architecture might become less concerned with creating structures anew and more focused on radical adaptive reuse through tasks like transforming existing structures into ones that can quickly accommodate displaced peoples. Hylton agreed: “The greenest buildings are the ones already standing.”

Adrian Madlener is a New York–based writer and curator.