Houses That Live In Harmony With Nature

“Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another,” wrote the Roman poet Juvenal.

Such was the guiding principle for the post-war modernists of the Sarasota School of architecture, named after the Florida city in which their designs were created. The Sarasota School was a movement comprised of some of America’s most prominent architects. Figures like Ralph Twitchell, Paul Rudolph, and Victor Lundy, who all gained a reputation for innovative approaches to aligning their work with the natural landscape.

The movement began in the late 1940s, first as a collective of artists, architects, and intellectuals responding to the global upheaval of The Second World War. They gave rise to an architectural style that would become world-renowned for its ability to accommodate the climate and distinct lifestyle of Southwest Florida. Blurring the lines between indoor and outdoor, The Sarasota School was influenced by the vistas, prevailing winds, and lush tropical landscapes of Florida’s Gulf Coast. A celebration of the relationship and connection between architecture and the environment.

Regional architecture is influenced by local needs, built with local materials, and designed to feature its environment, rather than obscure it—as if the structures sprouted from the same soil as its native vegetation. Think of the saltboxes of New England, the adobes of New Mexico and Arizona, or the log cabins of the Rockies and Appalachia. Florida’s widely celebrated legacy of regional modernism was actually conceived from one of its most unpretentious and overlooked cultures—that of the Florida “Cracker.” The moniker is derived from early pioneers and homesteaders of South Georgia and North Florida who cracked their corn to make corn meal. The simple farmhouses of these settlers remain prime examples of architecture that responded to the environment rather than fought it. “These houses, raised high off the ground and surrounded by shady porches, responded both to the warm and sultry climate and to the very idea of living side by side with nature in such a beautiful environment,” wrote architect and scholar Ronald Haase on Florida’s vernacular architecture in Classic Cracker.

A direct line can be drawn from the Cracker Architecture of Florida’s pioneers to the Sarasota School. Like the early pioneer farmhouses, many of the postwar structures attributed to the Sarasota School employed wood interiors to focus inhabitants on the outdoors. On the exteriors, locally sourced limestone brick blended into the sandy ground and appeared to rise out of it. This new school of architecture experimented with open floor plans, large sunshades, louvered windows, and natural ventilation systems to capture and manipulate wind flow—design plans that made the Florida summers tolerable, even pleasant, sans air-conditioning.

The movement’s most skilled practitioner was undoubtedly Paul Rudolph, who is also considered to be the most important architect of the 20th century by his contemporaries. Rudolph’s international practice was world-renowned, but his academic contributions at Yale University where he was the chair of the Architecture Department proved his most enduring contribution. (The Yale Art and Architecture Building, recently renamed Rudolph Hall, was built by the architect in 1963 and remains one of his most famous.) Of his myriad residential and commercial projects in Sarasota, two homes stand out: the Walker Guest House and the Healy Guest House, known also as the “Cocoon House.”

The Walker Guest House was built in 1953 and happened to be Rudolph’s breakthrough. The structure was built out of inexpensive local timber, with thin offset wood columns framing the exterior of the house like an exoskeleton, lightening the already limber appearance and assembly. The structure is raised 18 inches off of crushed shell, safe from incoming tides and seasonal flooding. It crouches “like a spider in the sand,” as Rudolph put it. The wooden frame supports the house’s pulley system which connects to large plywood flaps that can be adjusted using an iron weight from inside to cover or expose its floor-to-ceiling windows and screen walls. The walls slip into the outdoors, drawing the outside in—expanding, ventilating, and quite literally breathing in the Gulf breeze. This effect broadens its true dimension and creates an open pavilion resembling the shaded porches of a Cracker house. “With all the panels lowered, the house is a snug cottage, but when the panels are raised it becomes a large screened pavilion,” Rudolph once said.

Two years before the Walker Guest House was completed, Rudolph finished the “Cocoon House” with his partner Ralph Twitchell. The project was given the “Pioneer of Design” award by the Museum of Modern Art in 1953 and is now referred to as one of the greatest mid-century modern residences ever built. Prescient as he was, Rudolph said: “it had to do purely with the idea of using the least material possible and making it as light and efficient as possible.” The 760-square-foot, two-bedroom cottage is cantilevered over a narrow bayou that feeds Sarasota Bay, giving the impression that it is hovering over the water. The structure features a single open space with a floor-to-ceiling glass wall on one side and an entire wall of jalousie, or louvered windows on the other, allowing light and airflow. Rudolph and Twitchell implemented natural heating and cooling systems relying on steel roof panels and a cross-ventilation pattern borrowed from the dog-trot pens of the Florida Crackers. Similar to the Walker House, the Cocoon House is naturally air-conditioned by Gulf breezes. The sun, clouds, sand, and glassy inlet fills the south-facing window—a tableau of natural elements espousing a bright, open-ended lifestyle.

Of the many regional architectural movements in America, there was perhaps no better example of sustainability, attention to natural elements, and manipulation of climate than what Rudolph and his contemporaries achieved more than a half-century ago in Florida. These were design principles and aesthetics that still hold up. The mid-century modernists proved time and again that if our living space is thoughtfully designed and utilized, then we don’t need several thousand square feet or resources outside of our own backyard. They were solving environmental and architectural dilemmas not just of their generation but ours as well.