Anne-Marie Russell

"Max Strang’s formal architecture training began earlier than most. While all of us, as children, were seeking and finding spaces scaled to our small bodies in a world designed for larger ones, Max was doing so in a house designed by his future mentor, Gene Leedy, FAIA."

There is a kind of play common to nearly every child; it is to get under a piece of furniture or some extemporized shelter of his own and to exclaim that he is in a ‘house’. Psychoanalysis interprets this kind of play in various ways. I am not, however,concerned with such interpretations except insofar as they show that this particular form of phantasy cannot be dismissed merely as mimicry of the widespread adult practice of living in houses. It is symbolism—of a fundamental kind, expressed in terms of play. This kind of play has much to do with the aesthetics of architecture.”

John Summerson, Heavenly Mansions: An Interpretation of the Gothic, 1946

Your house is your larger body.”

—Kahlil Gibran, On Houses, 1923

Max Strang’s formal architecture training began earlier than most. While all of us, as children, were seeking and finding spaces scaled to our small bodies in a world designed for larger ones, Max was doing so in a house designed by his future mentor, Gene Leedy, FAIA. Leedy was one of the key practitioners of the Sarasota School of Architecture, a group of architects and designers working in the Sarasota, Florida region from the 1940s through the 1970s (though some of the younger practitioners, notably Carl Abbott, are still practicing today). Leedy geographically expanded the tenets of the “School” to his adopted hometown of Winter Haven, Florida in the mid-1950s and spent the remaining years until his death in 2019 practicing from that locale, transforming the fabric and form of the community through his civic, commercial and residential architecture. While Strang certainly learned much from Leedy, both about design, and about how to simply be in the world, there are a few lessons that run as dominant through lines in the narrative of Strang’s practice that are indebted to the man who would be mentor, beloved patriarchal figure, employer and friend. Those lessons are seen in the interwoven threads of expressed structure, environmental sensitivity, a sense of intimacy within a greater frame of monumentality. And, always, a keen sense of humanism, grounding the architecture both physically and emotionally.

Strang acquired Gene Leedy’s own home on Drexel Avenue in Winter Haven, the epicenter of what was to be an experimental planned community of residential family homes based on core tenets of a regional Modern architectural ethos. Strang’s plan to use the home (and Leedy’s nearby studio) as both a scholarly study center and object lesson for how one might live today benefits from his having chosen to keep Leedy’s library intact. Even if one did not have the privilege of working or learning with Leedy, he can be apprehended, as many of us can, through his books. Common for the era, but at a greater depth than to be expected, Leedy’s library demonstrates a great commitment to a humanistic and holistic sense of environmental sensibility as it relates to both human comfort and enlightenment, as exemplified by Rudolfsky (lovingly well-worn copies of both Streets for People and Architecture Without Architects can be found, annotated in the library). This sensibility is at the core of the Sarasota School of Architecture ethos, and was embedded by the impresario of the group, designer, developer and patron, Philip Hanson Hiss. Hiss gathered knowledge having traveled the world to places considered remote, or at least “undeveloped” from a Western standpoint, at the time. He married his sense of national and civic duty with a strong critique of the exploitations of the colonial project and a deep belief that good design was the key to enlightened living.

The sense of “environment” for the Sarasota School practitioners wasn’t just the physical environment, it was the integrated political, social and creative environment that allowed for such a powerful impact in such a short span of time. A town of barely 34,000 at the time, in 1961,Time Magazine hailed Sarasota as the national model for public education due to Hiss’ leadership of the buildings program, which brought over a dozen architecturally significant institutional instruction buildings online in less than a decade. This commitment to education and design laid the groundwork for the future I.M. Pei campus at New College of Florida. As Leedy writes in his letter of support for Hiss for appointment as the head of the University of Florida Architecture Department, “I have known Philip Hiss for over 17 years, during which time I have observed and admired him as a friend, client, architectural patron, designer-developer, writer, photographer, educator, philosopher, critic and administrator. He is an exceptional individual and a practical idealist.” The “practical idealist” concept well articulates the role of the architect—practicing the highest art form, while subject to the shifting vicissitudes of building codes, client whims, “value engineering” and election cycles that can quickly destroy even the best laid plans. A regional Modernism in this sense requires not only a sense of climate, geology and history, it requires an understanding of how humans have used those conditions to manage, cultivate or police them through building codes, limitations on extractive technologies (in Florida, water as well as mineral), subsidies for certain industries, and community engagement.

Despite the Scale of Late-Capitalism, Intimacy within Monumentality

Max Strang learned a lot more from Leedy than simply how to design homes. Leedy taught Max how to navigate the world to ensure that great design had a place, and a place for everyone.

Strang has achieved renown for a certain type of HNW (high-net-worth) residential architecture, primarily in the subtropical and coastal environment of tax-haven Florida. But while the homes he designs are lauded in the global glossies, highly sought-after ciphers representing a certain level of success, their size belies a deep intimacy borne of his early and immersive training at the drafting table of Gene Leedy. At Strang’s core as a designer lay a deep commitment to the transformative possibilities of design, to a sustainable, holistic environmentally sensitive architecture, and to a practice that provides great design access for all. This is Leedy’s legacy. And that is what he taught Max Strang. Balancing Strang’s luxury practice, well-chronicled in this time, is a parallel practice of deep research regarding near-future climate driven survival design and a series of projects designed to widen the reach of good design through greater access, inspired by Leedy’s vision for Winter Haven.

Max Strang grew up in a 5,500 sq ft home that Gene Leedy designed for the Strang family. While the size of house was significant, owing to Leedy’s infatuation with the prestressed double “T”s that significantly scaled up his work, the house retained an intimate scale, proven repeatedly by the ability of a mere toddler to locate magical spaces seemingly designed with him in mind. It was in these spaces that Strang intuitively found the ability to play within, the encounter of which deeply marked his own sense of symbolic space-making.

“It is symbolism—of a fundamental kind, expressed in terms of play. This kind of play has much to do with the aesthetics of architecture.”

-John Summerson

Summerson’s point is that these spaces within a larger architectural context get called out for
purposeful, symbolic function. They are far more than merely “decorative tracery.” They in fact delimit space for conjuring, arguably the most powerful gift of architectural space, once our need for shelter has been met. Strang takes this early lesson into the process of every home he designs, ensuring the inhabitants have beautiful, functional shelter, but most importantly, a home where intimacy and joy can be experienced, wisdom and values cultivated, and the totality of the mnemonic blueprint can be created.

Liminality: Interior to Exterior

The innovation that marks the Sarasota School of Architecture and the success of their nationally celebrated public projects, is possibly only available in a developing community of a certain scale. The Current challenges posed by building codes and bureaucracy that have so constricted design opportunities, especially with Florida’s HighVelocity Hurricane Zone (HVHZ) condition, provide fewer options for architects to innovate. Technological advances can sometimes mitigate the accelerated pace of climate threats, but in the end, it is perhaps the ancient, passive systems and practices, promulgated byHiss, and at the core of the SSA ethos, that will allow us to prevail in a sustainable manner.

“Space is basically formed by the relationship between and object and a human being who perceives it. What, then, is exterior space in architecture? First of all, it is space created by delimiting nature.”

- Yoshinobu Ashihari, Exterior Architecture

Ashihara writes beautifully about how a simple brick partition can create a sunny spot “where lovers can engage in intimate conversation, leaning against the wall.” And how a family laying down a blanket in a field can instantly create a family dining room, and that as soon as the covering is packed up, the open field yet again is returned to nature. One of the most unfortunate challenges in residential design, for Strang, involves the widespread prohibition of courtyards, precisely the anchoring element of living space so prominent in the Drexel Avenue homes.

“There are so many wonderful examples of courtyard homes in the tropics and subtropics, however most local zoning laws restrict both the height and placement of walls to a degree that makes many courtyard solutions unachievable.”

Strang beautifully and functionally reconciles this challenge with deep overhangs and sliding glazed walls that allow for the constant reshaping of living space—capturing nature and then letting go of her again.

The Expression of Structure: Clarity and Authenticity

Strang cites Rock House, designed for his own family in Coconut Grove, as the project that is most significantly informed by Leedy’s influence.

“It’s the structural expression of that house that is directly from my growing up in a Leedy house. In that house, the clarity of purpose of the architecture is expressed in the structure in such a direct way. You see that in Rock House, with the exposed structural system. Those lessons were powerful, and they carry through in the Rock House.”

Leedy’s own house on Drexel has structural clarity that is profoundly elegant, and is powerful even at a much smaller scale.

The simplicity of the house is central to its success. Leedy designed the structure to be very legible. He painted it white to make sure everybody knew that the structural system is different from the enclosure system, which is glass and block. This is a work of architecture, the structure celebrates itself in a rational way, and the “art” of this house is the spatial sequence from inside to out.

Leedy was quite prescient in understanding the dynamics of a growing family, and created a system on Drexel that allowed the houses to expand in a logical way. This flexible modularity as a core system is embedded in Strang’s practice. As Max explains relative to the Drexel Avenue home:

“The house was designed on a four-foot module. He would take his drafting board and put out a big piece of paper and the first thing he would do is draw a grid of four feet, and then he would overlay the structural system on that. In the Drexel house, it’s every sixteen feet. Every four modules there was a column, and then he would align the walls and the perimeter to that as well. Finally, the roofing would fit in that module, the wood cladding for interior and exterior fit within that module. It was a very efficient way to build, but it was also a very efficient way to expand. The house started off at 1100 square feet, and over time, with a growing family, the house grew as well.”

What is most striking about the Drexel Avenue home is a sort of paradox expressed by the house—it is both intimate and monumental. This has to do with flexibility of spaces, the sliding doors, opening and closing like shoji and fusama, constantly shifting the scope, scale and flow of interior and exterior space. One can constantly reshape, and re-frame space, allowing the entire home to function as a sort of machine to modulate the environment and to accommodate different use functions.

As Max notes,

“The house was built before air conditioning, so it had to breathe, and you had to have cross ventilation. The house boasts the first sliding glass doors in Central Florida, it was very progressive and radical at the time to have moving walls of glass. Now, the energy codes have kind of kicked in to where they don’t want to see that much glass which poses a challenge, because we want to encourage people to have a lot of functional glass and a lot of cross ventilation. It is the glass that holds the secret, allowing for such a small footprint to feel like a much more spacious house.”

From Practical to Urgent: The Impetus of Environmental Sustainability

For the Sarasota School of Architecture practitioners, considerations of site and climate were practical, and thanks to Hiss’ cultivation and training, understood as pleasant alternatives to previous attempts to conquer, control or ignore climate realities. At this point, however, with the looming threat of domino triggering consequences from a 2º F global temperature change, and mass inertia preventing solutions, what was once practical and pleasant has become a matter of grave urgency. Strang, with roots in Leedy’s 70’s environmentalism, feels a profound responsibility as an architect to use his firm to literally design our way toward a solution.

“At the firm, we want to be grounded in the lessons of this generation of modernism. We want to be sustainable, we want to choose the right materials that recognize the impact that buildings and houses have on our planet. It’s significant—forty percent of carbon emissions are from buildings. Architects have a key role to play in the solution and it’s not all bells and whistles like solar panels and active systems. It is, at the root, in the passive design of the house. This is especially true in the tropics and subtropics, where you need houses that have deep overhangs to shade the glass and cross ventilation and daylighting. Those are the easy things and you should be doing those things, as a given, before you add new technologies, to make a home sustainable.”

There’s a sense of humanism in Gene’s architecture, similar to what comes through when Max and I discuss architecture. The human dimension is always the dominant force leading the discourse. And this being Florida, it usually presents in the form of the environmental-political-cultural nexus. Spending time with Leedy’s library, one gets a sense of how deeply politically and socially engaged he was. The books reveal this social dimension of architecture that I see in both Leedy and Strang. Design is not just about shaping space, it’s really about “How do human beings want to live in the world? How do we want to organize ourselves? How do we want to interact with each other?”—essentially about how and why architecture matters.

Architecture is front and center in everybody’s life whether they like it or not and whether they recognize it or not. Well-designed, well-thought out spaces can change your mood, they can change your health, they can change your life. I had the good fortune to absorb these types of spaces early on, absorb the influences of architecture and how it can affect other peoples’ lives. Since most of what we do is residential, I get a lot of pleasure through the design process in seeing how families strive to live. Their hopes, aspirations, desires, values—that’s one of the most rewarding aspects of what we do. We are not just designing buildings, we’re creating homes and helping shape the lives in them.”

“But you, children of space, you restless in rest, you shall not be trapped nor tamed. Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast.”

-Khalil Gibran On Houses 1923