Max Strang
Long read (15 min)

"To see one of Strang’s early designs erected was to see what contemporary living in South Florida was meant to be… what it could be. Already in these early homes, Strang’s works truly bonded with their locations through the use of materials like oolitic limestone, coral stone mixed knowingly with board-formed concrete as well as sun-cutting louvers and walls of glass, elegantly shaded from the relentless, Florida sun."

As Editor-In-Chief of HOME Miami, HOME Fort Lauderdale and finally Tropic magazines – publications that attempt to invite the public to the table to take a closer look at regional Modernism – I’ve been personally drawn to the work of Max Strang and his office for many years. Strang burst onto the scene at a time when many still equated Florida architecture – especially domestic architecture – with ersatz Mediterranean designs. Homes that pretended they knew what living in the tropics was all about in many cases were just giant, power-hogging boxes coated in extruded Styrofoam detailing, painted beige, and sealed off from the incredible nature that surrounded them.

To see one of Strang’s early designs erected was to see what contemporary living in South Florida was meant to be… what it could be. Already in these early homes, Strang’s works truly bonded with their locations through the use of materials like oolitic limestone, coral stone mixed knowingly with board-formed concrete as well as sun-cutting louvers and walls of glass, elegantly shaded from the relentless, Florida sun. Strang’s homes were exhilarating and seemed to usher in a new era unburdened by contrivance. It was as if, at some point in the creation of these homes, Strang sat down with his eraser – not pencil – and set to the task of subtraction. The question he seemed to ask: “How much can I remove from each of these plans to create a solution that celebrates each individual site best?” The results speak for themselves of course, but we thought it would be more informative to sit with the architect and have a conversation about the work and how it gets created.

John O’Connor: After studying your firm and its rapid rise, one thing that stands out to me is the way STRANG Architecture seems to operate as a unit. But instead of working in a solitary mode, with all your focus on one project, there is a certain amount of chaos or disorder… Don’t take this the wrong way. It reminds me of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where all the students work in an open-air environment, each student able to be right smack in each other’s business. Your office seems to thrive in this type of situation. Can you explain?

Max Strang:Yes, there’s a high degree of creative chaos within the firm… and that chaos breeds cool results! It’s exciting to watch the design processes of various projects collide with each other and generate new ideas. But, it’s important the we curate the chaos so that our projects all exhibit a common DNA. I think there needs to be some degree of continuity or commonality when reviewing the work of the firm collectively. Not only does this serve to differentiate our work from other firms, it also gives clients a bit of reassurance.

The firm is heavily stocked with architects and designers. We have an internal dialogue that enables the talents of the younger designers to merge with that DNA of the firm. In this respect, our work manages to be fresh yet familiar at the same time.

The idea of working on a single project for months at a time might seem enticing at first. But I think I would get bored. It’s rewarding to see the firm’s creative engines producing a variety of different designs at different scales and at different locations. While the bulk of our work is in Florida, we also have projects underway in the Rocky Mountains, the islands of The Bahamas, Dubai and the Dominican Republic.

Given what we’ve talked about in terms of how your office works, it seems like there may well be a lot more “cross-fertilization” between one project and another than at the typical firm, where one designer or a small team work solely on one specific project at a time. Can you speak to that?

I think it is important not to get bogged down with a singular task or singular design. When design becomes routine it is at risk of becoming boring. Thus I believe it is beneficial to be working on a variety of different projects at the same time. This approach generates the cross-fertilization that you were referring to.

It is not uncommon for us to borrow concepts from one project and adapt them to another. For example, several years ago we were designing a private home in Fort Lauderdale while we were also designing an apartment building in Winter Haven. The Fort Lauderdale design had a series of deep-set vertical fins that protected the home from its southern exposure. We were able to adapt this design solution, at a different scale, for the Winter Haven apartment building. However, due to specific site considerations and a northern exposure, the ‘fins’ acquired a substantially different role as they addressed issues of privacy and structure. By the way, these “fins” are representative of the design concepts that Paul Rudolph employed at the Deering House and the Milam House. These deeply sculpted sunscreens become the identifying character of the designs.

Raingarden Lofts, Max Strang, Winter Haven, FL 2015

Is this way of working – not necessarily going in a sequential manner from project to project – helpful in problem solving? Can you give me an example?

If we were only focused on one set of problems related to a single project, we would be limiting our ability to come up with broader solutions. By working across different sets of problems and solutions simultaneously, we increase the chances of generating unique responses.

The sea level rise issue comes to mind. This unfortunate challenge requires extreme ‘problem solving’ and some municipalities in South Florida have already begun to take steps to address it. Architects within our firm have been proactively working with the City of Miami Beach to find solutions.

This is interesting. Thinking about what you’ve just described, about how your firm operates, about how one project might inform another, let’s take it way back to the Sarasota School that influenced you so strongly. You grew up in a house that was designed by Gene Leedy, one of a group now recognized as a true pioneer in Florida’s Modernist movement, along with Paul Rudolph, Alfred Browning Parker and a handful of others. Try and travel back in time to that house and your experiences there. What were the aspects of that house that got you thinking or pulled you towards architecture as a field?

Without question I was destined to become an architect because of my childhood exposure to that house. Imagine being a toddler surrounded by all of that cantilevered concrete and glass! And it wasn’t just that house alone. Gene Leedy designed damn near the entire city of Winter Haven. He was the architect for City Hall, the Police Station, the Fire Station, the Chamber of Commerce and many cool office buildings and houses. Also, he partnered with Paul Rudolph on the design of the local country club.

Gene truly pioneered the use of ‘pre-stressed’ concrete elements in modern architecture. He really liked the long-spanning “double-tee” beams. The house that I grew up in was built with these “double-tees”. So, I think that the repetition of those structural elements really spoke to me and gave me comfort as a child. Today, you will find that many of my firm’s projects also exhibit some of that repetition.

But it did take me a while to realize that architecture was my path. In fact, when I arrived at the University of Florida in 1988 I was completely uncertain of any career. I bounced around several different options including business, political science and Russian language. Eventually I recognized that since moving away from Winter Haven, I had a longing for quality architecture. I put things together and decided that I should explore a career in design. As soon as I stepped foot into the architecture building at UF I realized that this field was my calling.

Does that close contact between firms still hold true with today’s practitioners of Florida Modern, or is that a vestige of an earlier time?

Keep in mind that the Sarasota School was comprised exclusively of a group of young male architects in their twenties and thirties. According to Gene Leedy, they were just as interested in “chasing pussy” as they were with being at the vanguard of modern design. Times are much different now. Most of my fellow architects don’t have the liberty to indulge in regular “three martini lunches” where undoubtedly a lot of that creative synergy occurred. Also, these days it’s much easier for us to keep informed of each other’s work via social media.

You’ve worked under Leedy, and then went on to work with the late Zaha Hadid, and finally with SHoP Architects, incredibly innovative in their own right, but your heart is really focused on living with nature and in furthering the language of Florida Modern or Tropical Modern architecture. Why do you think you’ve circled back to regional modernist design?

When I worked at Zaha in 1996 there were only seven or eight employees; yet I chose not to pursue a career there. I was SHoP’s first employee in 1998; but again, I chose to pursue my own track. Both of those firms were doing incredibly avant-garde work that pushed the boundaries of design. Nonetheless, I had this internal compass guiding me back to Florida and back to the idea of launching my own firm. I probably would have thrived if I had remained at either of those practices, however I was ultimately excited about the simple prospect of starting my own office and letting the future unfold for me.

There are countless ways in which to critique and practice architecture. I’m specifically attracted to Regional Modernism and particularly appreciate the way in which it balances local influences with universal ideals. Regional Modernism can act as a bridge between the old and the new. It has an obligation to convey character and climatic considerations; which I personally find more interesting than modernism served “straight-up”.

Let’s face it, the public outright rejected the concept of a “universal style” of architecture. Its failure of acceptance led to the rise of the downright awful “post-modernism” style and furthered an unfortunate renaissance of ersatz historical architecture such as Florida’s ‘Mediterranean Revival’. I believe strongly in historic architecture and I believe strongly in ‘cutting-edge’ modernist architecture. However, I believe that we should celebrate regional modernist design as the predominate contextual glue with regard to the challenges of this era.

Looking back at some of your work that is now seen as seminal to your career, one building that stands out as carrying the seeds for future projects is RockHouse, completed in 2004. That house took a post and beam design that harkens back to Leedy and brought it to an incredible new level. A steel frame is used instead of pre-stressed concrete, then mixed with natural coral stone, an unusual combination… and combinations like this have become STRANG Architecture hallmarks. Here is the important part: Like Wright’s Fallingwater or Neutra’s Kaufmann House, the home becomes one with the nature that surrounds it. It’s obvious this was a labor of love, but it has become in many ways the icon of your residential work. What can you tell us about this house and how it has affected your work?

The RockHouse effectively put me on the map as a young architect in Miami and, strangely, I’ve never been asked to do anything like it since. You have to consider the property on which this house was built. It was an acre of subtropical jungle near the heart of Coconut Grove. The riotous landscape of “the Grove” made it feel like it was situated near the middle of nowhere. In fact, this is why the RockHouse ended up being cast as the South American lair of the a drug lord in the film adaptation of Miami Vice.

I had only been living in The Grove for about a year or two before I stumbled across this property while jogging in the neighborhood. An enormous tree, a Florida strangler fig, dominated the site along with several royal poincianas and royal palms. I instantly fell in love with the land and was determined to design a cool house to complement the site.

The RockHouse was not the original home that I designed for that property. It is interesting to reflect back on this, but my original design was an extremely avant-garde house that was heavily influenced by my years at Columbia University. For some reason, though, I became increasingly uneasy about that particular design. My subconscious was tugging me back towards the design principles of the Sarasota School of Architecture.

Ever since I moved from New York to Miami a year earlier, I had fallen in love with the landscape of the tropics. I immediately recognized that Coconut Grove, from site and climate considerations, had more in common with Brazil and Bali than it did with Miami Beach. I continued to be amazed by the riotous landscape of Coconut Grove. It felt like a dense jungle. It was a dense jungle. I gained a newfound affinity towards tropical modernism that opened up new avenues of inspiration for me. I became aware of the work of landscape architects Made Wijawa, Roberto Burle Marx and Raymond Jungles. Through these avenues I became introduced to the architecture of the late Geoffrey Bawa, Marcio Kogan and Cheong Yew Kuan. Bawa’s work served as a direct influence upon my thinking for the RockHouse.

So it appears that you were poised to take some of tenets of the Sarasota School and give them a more tropical inflection. Is that right?

Exactly. It meant that the overhangs needed to be deeper and the cross-ventilation more robust. Keep in mind, however, that even though South Florida is technically in the subtropical latitudes, its climate does feel much more tropical. Coconut Grove feels especially tropical. This is partly due the abundance of tropical flowering and fruit trees which were introduced to the area by the famed botanist David Fairchild. The RockHouse is located across the street from Fairchild’s former home, named The Kampong, which is now part of the National Tropical Botanic Garden. This simply underscores the tropical context of Coconut Grove

For me, this meant that the passive design features found in Sarasota School projects needed to be further amplified.

Coconut Grove feels unmistakably tropical due in part to an amazing diversity of tropical plants and trees. There are immense banyan trees and flowering trees from all of the planet. It's located atop a ridge of oolitic limestone, also simply called “oolite”, which constitutes some of the highest land in Miami-Dade County. The stone we used on the house was actually quarried onsite.

The original group of Florida Modernists, whether you are talking about those on the state’s east or west coast, were driven to take our sub-tropical climate into account. In a time before air conditioning became standard, this meant devising ways to passively cool the home in an elegant manner, making the “living in Florida” experience one that reveled in the balmy climate with walls of operating jalousie windows and cool terrazzo floors. In the late 1960s and 1970s that all seemed to change as central A/C took over and architects designed sealed boxes that really paid no attention to the environment. The work that comes out of the STRANG offices is consistently focused on living with nature, not fighting it. Do your clients come to you specifically for your perspective on these things or do you sort of lure them into a better way of living through your design?

Breezeways, generous overhangs and deeply shaded balconies enable the outdoor lifestyle which I equate with a better way of living. By responding to the local climate and environment, our architecture gains character. It is this character that romances the prospective client and reminds them about the benefits of Florida living.

Many clients requests walls of sliding glass doors so that they can completely open up their house. However, in reality, I think it is only on rare occasions that they do this. People are generally lazy and don’t want to hassle with opening and closing all of those doors and windows. Also, most people don’t like bugs and they hate the aesthetics of screens. So, instead, I like to design exterior spaces and rooms that really are outdoors. These immersive spaces are great for the soul.

Most of our designs do incorporate a lot of glass, but it is really important not to overdo it. Glass houses are typically “hot” houses so it is essential to protect the glass from the sun. Visually, this is an easy way to make that indoor/outdoor connection. The RockHouse in Coconut Grove is likely the most extreme example of this.

Mountainlake Residence, Max Strang, Mountain Lake, Florida, 2016

What are some of the specific techniques and devices STRANG Architecture uses today to try and limit a home’s carbon footprint?

I am especially interested in the passive design features such as sun-shading, daylighting and cross-ventilation. Our homes incorporate these strategies while also prioritizing the use of local materials. These types of economical and practical solutions can reinforce the architectural identity of the home.

Only after these passive strategies are addressed do we explore things like solar photovoltaics, solar hot water, geo-exchange systems, water cisterns. It sounds boring, however, advanced insulation techniques are a must.

Resiliency is important too. The home must be strong enough to reasonably withstand hurricane force winds and storm surges. This reduces the chance that a home must be prematurely replaced.

Florida has proven especially frustrating in the last few years in regards to climate change and sea level rise, with the current Governor’s office dictating that no one even let these terms issue forth from their lips or be typed on a piece of paper. Yet, Florida, perhaps more than any other state, it going to be affected, and soon. This presents a challenge that requires more than just starting a conversation.

This is truly an enormous issue. I view Governor Rick Scott’s decision to simply ignore the existential threat facing Florida’s coastal cities as an impeachable offense… and I hope that future politicians offer real leadership. Rallying the state to confront sea level rise with actionable solutions that address resiliency would undoubtedly create tons of new jobs, not to mention save billions or trillions of dollars worth of assets. Some communities are not waiting for the governor to pull his head out of his ass. For example, Miami Beach has initiated an $800 million dollar project to combat rising seas. Biscayne Bay is regularly pouring into some urban areas and causing urban flooding. This occurs several times a year on sunny days during certain tidal cycles. South Florida residents could not wait any longer for support from the state and they voted to tax themselves to pay for these changes. Sea level rise is not a prediction for the future. It is already happening.

Anyhow, we must listen to the scientists and not the politicians. Any candidate that is afraid to utter the words “sea level rise” is an idiot.

So, how is your office addressing the challenges of sea level rise?

For starters, I encourage each new homeowner to build their house higher than the minimum flood requirements. I know it sounds like a simple solution, but in reality there are forces working against this. Many zoning regulations measure the maximum allowable height of a house or building from the minimum flood elevation. This means that if an owner wants to raise their bottom floor, they must be willing to sacrifice ceiling heights or sometimes an entire floor. Obviously, not everyone will be in a position to do this.

Another problem is that when we propose higher buildings, there are frequently objections from neighbors. These objections can be appropriate when considering the desire to preserve the scale of historic neighborhoods while at the same time appearing shortsighted with respect to the threat posed by rising seas.

We already know how to design buildings that respond to sea level rise. The real tricky part is the public realm. How do we raise entire cities and their roads, rights-of-way, sewers, utilities, transit, parks and other infrastructural components? It’s going to very expensive, inconvenient and messy. My office has worked with municipalities to help them sort through some of these issues and I serve on the Sea Level Rise Task Force which was formed by the Miami Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. There are lots of great ideas that we need to begin implementing now.

Are there specific things that you would like to see happen in Florida’s coastal areas sooner, rather than later?

Yes, we need to overhaul zoning regulations. I also want to see Florida’s inland communities begin to prepare for an onslaught of intrastate migrants. Taxes and skyrocketing insurance prices will likely send a lot of coastal Floridians towards the center of the state where land is high and dry… and relatively cheap. Not to mention the fact that all of the necessary public works improvements are going to exacerbate already stressed roadways.

Quite frankly, we must raise the urbanized areas of South Florida and likely abandon some of the far-flung suburbs. Adaptation is going to be messy and expensive. People are going to be pissed off by the ongoing inconveniences of what will seem like a never-ending construction projects. A simple “pardon my dust” sign isn’t going to cut it. Places like Sebring, Winter Haven, Auburndale, Lakeland, Orlando, Ocala and Gainesville need to get ready for this inland migration. There are countless freshwater lakes scattered across the middle of the state. “Lakefront” will be the new “oceanfront”.

Some South Floridians are already aware that certain coastal areas are experiencing ‘sunny day’ flooding when the “king tides” are in effect. This is no longer conjecture; this is reality. The City of Miami Beach is encouraging homeowners to build higher with a new zoning tool called “freeboarding”. Other municipalities should take note of these initiatives. Anyhow, we must listen to the scientists and not the politicians. Any candidate that is afraid to utter the words “sea level rise” is an idiot.