"The Sarasota School of modern architecture has played a major influence on Strang’s work. While highly inspired by the philosophies of the Bauhaus, the movement incorporated forms of regional architecture and Florida’s macro climate, using patios,terraces, modular construction, and raised floors to effectively open up buildings and provide for greater ventilation. The style also focused heavily on light and shadow, using brise-soleil, louvers,screens, and cantilevering to create an experiential harmony between indoor and outdoor spaces."
There is a particular nobility to the exclusive pursuit of residential architecture; an implied humanism that transcends simple functionality or aesthetics, exploring the very essence of the quotidian.
In modernism, this pursuit blends intention, philosophy, and history. Modernism, as originally conceptualized by the Bauhaus and De Stijl (neoplasticist) movements, was inextricably linked to their socially democratic politics (which would now more correctly be thought of as Communist). Even large-scale builds were conceptualized in relation to Werkbunder, or worker housing. The concept of housing people was central to all aspects of their revolution. And, while modernism was borne of the instinct to do away with all that came before; the crenellations, the cornices, the opulence of previous architectural output, it also led naturally into an aesthetic minimalism that lent itself readily to a fluid interaction with its environment; a harmonious subtlety that allowed its environs to shine.
Interestingly, residential modernism seemed to truly find itself not in 1930s Europe, but in warm weather climates in the southern United States, post-WWII. The minimalist colour palettes, subtle materiality, sharp geometries, and healthy manipulation of negative space, light, and shadow were perhaps best highlighted in the CaseStudy Houses of Los Angeles, the mid-century modernism of Palm Springs, and the Sarasota School of western Florida.
These architects expanded upon, and found great depth and soulfulness in the Cubist theories of Braque, which were defining principles for the Bauhauslers. Namely, his theory of flatness, which stipulated that a painting (here substitute design or aesthetic) was nothing more than a certain arrangement of colours and forms, and his theory of simultaneity, which explored notions of stereoptics that indicated that a person sees an object from two angles simultaneously. To wit, what something is and how a person sees it are not precisely the same thing.
These combined theories played a major part in influencing many of modernism’s warm weather hallmarks. Brise-soleil, louvers, single-depth and open floor plans, and banks of jalousie windows all play with notions of geometry and spatiality, creating experiential design that feels like more than the sum of its parts.
Residence as philosophy
In his 1945 announcement of Arts & Architecture Magazine’s seminal Case Study Houses programme, John Entenza called the home the ‘environment that is responsible for shaping the largest part of our living and thinking’. This programme’s philosophical implications, alongside the structural and sculptural experiments of these and other mid-century architects, particularly in the furtherance of Corbusian modernist tenets and investigations into the shifting quotidian and spatial dynamics sought by contemporary lifestyles, have played a large role in our evolving understanding of the ‘home’.
As we now embody it, the home must be as much free-form studio as isolationist private dwelling. It must accommodate the programmatic instincts of the owner’s lifestyle rather than the other way around; be interpretive of, rather than imposing upon, their chosen way of living. Provide comfort and solace for its inhabitants; allowing them the time and space to be free. A machine for living, yes, but also a machine for being.
Genesis of an Architect
Architecture has been a vital part of Max Strang’s life since an early age. He grew up in a house designed by the noted ‘Sarasota School’ architect Gene Leedy, who happened to be the father of his closest childhood friend. Many youthful days were spent tagging along to build sites, inspiring a love of design that only fully manifested years later.
After graduation Strang went back to Winter Haven, FL to work for his childhood motivator, before stents in New York and London at SHoP Architects and Zaha Hadid, respectively. The lessons of these experiences remain essential to Strang’s work to this day. From SHoP, a unique perspective on modularity in architectural design. From Hadid, an intuitive geospatial fluidity. But, as the young architect opened his eponymous firm, [Strang] architecture, the lessons of Sarasota Modern, and Leedy himself, resonated most.
Sarasota Modern is often defined by its warm-weather mid-century characteristics, and its ongoing use of louvers or sunshades, floating staircases, and repeating jalousie windows. However, the central tenets, and true importance, of the movement is in its steadfast adherence to incorporating the topography and characteristics of a site into the larger design of a building; creating a vital connection between architecture and environment.
From a philosophical perspective, residential architecture occupies a unique position amongst design pursuits. More than any other form of building, the residence imbues itself into the very fibre of its owner’s being. Architecture has the power to dramatically impose itself upon its utilizers. A well-programmed office fosters productivity. A well laid-out restaurant allows ease and efficiency. But residential architecture must transcend both form and function, even while embodying them both. It must be interactive, practicable, and comfortable; anticipating the needs and lifestyle of its residents. Brancusi may have referred to architecture as ‘inhabited sculpture’, but the edifices of [Strang] beg to differ. Despite the obvious aesthetic qualities, these are first and foremost vehicles for living; experiential entities crafted with a specific lifestyle modality in mind.
Many architects believe that ‘reading’ the site of a given building is of crucial importance. That landscape and environment must not only sustain a project, but inspire it. That a symbiosis between building and environment is paramount, and that the structure can and must become a part of its landscape.
This belief holds all the more true with regards to warm-weather modernism; a discipline that believes explicitly in the communication between structure and environment above all. As Strang says, ‘A good Sarasota School of Architecture house blurs the indoor-outdoor (divide) so well –the walls of glass, the light coming in from different directions. For me, it is a sense of peace when you are inside one of those homes’.
Strang has spoken at length about this subject. In an interview with Objekt International he discussed his essential motivations thusly: ‘Here, a lot of people have houses like air-conditioned boxes. We wanted to enjoy the climate and outdoor living. The house is a bit like a tree cabin and was inspired by some of the houses we saw on Bali. We translated that approach into the here and now. After all, it is a kind of jungle here, at least that’s what it feels like with the profusion of greenery all around.’
In exploring the lessons of the Sarasota School, Strang studied a variety of tropical and subtropical modernist styles and interpretations from across the globe, and saw great parallels between the works of his local heroes, and those of other great architects. A trip to Bali further clarified the broader cumulative lessons of tropical modernity, specifically through the works ofGeoffrey Bawa and Cheong Yew Kuan. Ultimately, this culminated in his building a house in a style foreign to his, demonstrating the similarities between various tropical architecture styles and his home base of Florida’s tropical nature.
RockHouse is based in the Southern Miami neighborhood of CoconutGrove, a veritable subtropical jungle. Palm trees, Mangrove, Royal Poincianas, and Strangler Figs intermingle in a symphony of luscious greenery. Directly across the street is the noted horticulturalist and plant collector David Fairchild’s iconic Kampong compound,which is now the National Tropical Botanical Garden.
Using Coconut Grove’s sprawling vegetation as an aesthetic jumping-off point, Strang has reinterpreted the South Florida area’s lushness and tropicality in the manner of warm weather vernacular architecture’s spiritual home: Southeast Asia. This manner of architecture isn’t distinguished simply by aesthetic properties,but also by a lifestyle it espouses. A rejection of the compartmentalization of indoor and outdoor spaces; an appreciation of, and interaction with, its surroundings. A direct relationship with nature.
RockHouse was Strang’s first major project at his eponymous firm, and, while its Balinese aesthetics are anomalous in his broader oeuvre, the lessons of warm-weather modernism and creating correlations between indoor and outdoor spaces remain constant. From a strictly aesthetic perspective, RockHouse is most reminiscent of the great Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, a driving force behind tropical modernist architecture (or vernacular architecture), a design movement in which sensitivity for local context is combined with modernist principles of form.We see in RockHouse echoes of Bawa’s Ena de Silva House, with its juxtaposition between the open floor plans and minimalist interior decoration of the Corbusians with iconic elements of South Asian courtyard houses, and his iconic Bentota Beach Hotel, with its overhanging roof and stone walls. Like Bawa, Strang prioritizes natural and local materials. He makes great use of oolitic limestone, which he compounds with fossilized remnants of coral found on-site. Polished concrete, ipe wood, and stone accents are used throughout the interior, creating a rich earthy palette of surfaces and textures. As with Bentota, myriad windows and terrace doors link the in and out of doors, creating the sensation of garden spaces less adjacent than interstitial.
As mentioned, the Sarasota School of modern architecture has played a major influence on Strang’s work. While highly inspired by the philosophies of the Bauhaus, the movement incorporated forms of regional architecture and Florida’s macro climate, using patios,terraces, modular construction, and raised floors to effectively open up buildings and provide for greater ventilation. The style also focused heavily on light and shadow, using brise-soleil, louvers,screens, and cantilevering to create an experiential harmony between indoor and outdoor spaces. RockHouse incorporates these strategies,albeit through the aesthetic lens of tropical modernism, with the combination of the wide, low-slung roof and the canopy of tree-tops providing a distinct interplay between light and shadow, in a cheeky environmental ode to Paul Rudolph’s immortal Umbrella House. Theinfluence of Rudolph’s magnum-opus is further evident in RockHouse’s almost temple-like quality, and its high roof over the lower building masses allowing for increased cooling and shading.Ground floor windows and doors exist on both long sides of the house,allowing for lateral air circulation.
Another major influence is Pierre Koenig’s Stahl House; a part of Arts & Architecture magazine’s Case Study Program, which aimed to both advance residential architectural aesthetics, but also explore and expand ways of living in, and interacting with, contemporary houses. The spatial layout of Koenig’s tour de force was delineated into public and private aspects, all the while remaining true to the modernist principles of open-plan layouts. The RockHouse echoes this juxtaposition of flow, organization, and program, creating pockets of private space at the axes, while retaining an overarching open concept.
Lessons of Vernacularity
Luis Barragán once said that ‘Any work of architecture which does not express serenity is a mistake’; a crystal clear expression of the essential tenets of tropical architecture. While traditional Balinese residences are typically built as a series of distinct pavilions, surrounding a central courtyard, the RockHouse is structurally more in keeping with the classic structure of the island of Borneo; the Longhouse.
Longhouses, in their original form, are long, proportionately narrow buildings, with one side delineated into distinct social or living spaces by virtue of interior design, and the other divided into private living quarters. The design of RockHouse is a sophisticated amalgamation of elements of both longhouses and the aforementioned Balinese compounds. The ground floor is laid out more or less as a single long structure, with one side occupied by large kitchen/dining rooms and a living room. These are separated by a staircase, concealed on both ends by storage spaces. The other side is comprised entirely of the master suite, incorporating bedroom, bathroom, closet, and WC. On the eastern elevation the structure juts outwards, giving space for two additional bedrooms. The first floor comprises nearly entirely of terrace spaces, clad in ipe wood decking. On opposing sides there is an enclosed den space, and a fourth bedroom. These are surrounded by outdoor living, dining, and kitchen spaces. The entire floor is protected by wood and steel railings at the exterior, and shielded from above by a wide, flat roof of industrial steel, which essentially functions as an umbrella, sheltering the house.
By combining the open internal structural elements of longhouses on the family’s ground floor living and private spaces with the indoor/outdoor coalescence of Balinese compound architecture on the first floor, Strang has rather ingeniously expanded the purview of tropical living. The ground floor is specifically designed to commune with nature; with myriad terrace doors opening to the grounds. The house itself is 24 feet wide, and is designed in such a way that inhabitants are nevermore than 12 feet from a door or window, furthering that sense of the continuity of indoor and outdoor spaces. In an era of indoor living, dominated small screens, RockHouse gently guides its inhabitants out of doors, constantly framing the simple sublimity of the sunset just outside. The first floor functions as a sort of high-concept treehouse, nestled below a wide, flat overhanging roof. The extended eaves, a hallmark of vernacular architecture, provide shade from the South Floridian sun, while allowing unfettered access to the sub-tropical vistas and gardens beyond.
On the western elevation, a geometric, zig-zagging swimming pool sits in the foundation of a smaller house that was originally on the property. Surrounded by lush vegetation, and centered around a sprawling banana tree, the pool area is a study in naturalized landscape architecture. Stone terraces of variegated elevations connect the pool, hot tub, and seating areas, wholly interspersed with the gardens and sheltered by the tree canopies and overgrowth along the property’s perimeters, creating a tranquil respite. The overall effect is transporting, a tropical villa that feels lightyears removed from its suburban location. A culmination of the ecologically-forward architecture that has defined Strang’s career, the tropical architecture that influenced him on his travels, and the Floridian design scene’s expansive history of landscape architecture, as seen in the work of the likes of Mario Nievera.
While, philosophically, the lessons of RockHouse are consistent with Strang’s overarching output, aesthetically the majority of the firm's prodigious output is much closer to that of Sarasota masterslike Paul Rudolph and Gene Leedy, as well as Miami-area mid-century modernists like Alfred Browning Parker, Rufus Nims, and Jorge Arango.A strong focus placed on the juxtaposition between indoor-outdoor space. A collectivist approach to the typical delineation between nature and enclosure. Ground floors echoing Corbusier’s preference for the internal open plan and the free façade bolstered with horizontal windows. Kitchen, dining room, and double-height living room are unconstricted, naturally progressing from ‘room’ to ‘room’ through perceived separations identified by furniture placement rather than structural impediments or implications.
His brilliant Tuckman Residence, in Ft Lauderdale, subtly referencesPaul Rudolph in exploration of both site and climate. Vertical Exterior ‘fins’ control sunlight without blocking it (as perRudolph’s iconic Deering House). Cantilevered concrete slab decks and wide, low-slung plan create an imposing and iconic silhouette.The Ballast Trail residence, in the Florida Keys, is a brilliant amalgam of subtly blended vernacular elements such as pitched metal roofs and wood porches with modern elements such as glass bridges and stark stone walls to manifest a distinct architectural vision; fusingthe old and the new, while celebrating the cultural, ecological, and physical environment of Key Largo. The bedrock of the island is a fossilized coral reef, which also serves as the primary cladding material for the home. Immense walls of Florida ‘keystone’ become the organizing elements of the overall design. An entry breezeway,punctuated with a louvered-glass bridge, separates the home’s two distinctive wings.
While the majority of [Strang]’s architecture is comprised of single-family dwellings, the firm is expanding into medium-volume residential architecture. The Fairchild, set within Coconut Grove’s leafy Glencoe neighborhood, is a 5-storey, mid-sized apartment complex hosting 26 individual units. [Strang] collaborated with NewYork-based Rafael de Cárdenas, handling the structural design whileCárdenas designed the interiors. Unlike the ubiquitous white condo towers populating Miami’s skyline, the Fairchild Grove incorporates a much warmer material palette that complements the lush landscape ofCoconut Grove. Specifically, local stone such as oolite and keystone are used to ground the building to its location. Many individual units offer panoramic views of Biscayne Bay and the surrounding tree canopy. Linear balconies incorporate sun-shading and privacy features that also give The Fairchild Grove a striking architectural identity,while remaining true to [Strang]’s mid-century leanings.
His Lake House Residence, in Winter Haven, FL, is, as Strang writes, ‘a confident expression of modern architecture that leaves behind any trace of vernacular influences. The home also departs from classical modernism and the tenets of the Sarasota School of Architecture through the act of minimizing overt structural expression. Shelter is shaped within a shell-like form that acts as both structure and enclosure. Although unlike many of Strang’s coastal designs in which the “shell” floats above the land and water, the Lake House is firmly grounded into its inland site through the use of a monumental plinth.
The eschewing of ‘vernacular influences’ with the Lake House Residence provides further insight into Strang’s thought process.Vernacularity is often mentioned with relation to warm-weather modern architecture, and, yet, it can mean a host of different things.Crucially, it’s reductive to consider the collective output of[Strang] as ‘of’ one particular aesthetic or set of influences.[Strang] specializes in warm-weather modernism, to be sure. However,in the firm’s continued exploration, and expansion, of the essential principles of sustainability, locality, and environment,they are achieving something far greater than the sum of their influences. A new vision of interpretive design, amalgamating the ethos’ of vernacular architecture and mid-century modernism to create something entirely new.