Aaron Betsky

"Max Strang wants to give Florida architecture roots, or rather, reefs. Working with the arrangements of white planes that have become the building blocks of a certain manner of residential living along the coast, he grounds those abstractions with slabs of keystone or oolite, which are essentially blocks of the state’s geology, shades them with wood or concrete slats that mimic the semi-tropical vegetation of the area and builds them up to escape the sea that threatens to wash all human-made structures there away before too long."

Max Strang wants to give Florida architecture roots, or rather, reefs. Working with the arrangements of white planes that have become the building blocks of a certain manner of residential living along the coast, he grounds those abstractions with slabs of keystone or oolite, which are essentially blocks of the state’s geology, shades them with wood or concrete slats that mimic the semi-tropical vegetation of the area and builds them up to escape the sea that threatens to wash all human-made structures there away before too long. Within the resulting constructions, he opens views to the water and frames the lives of inhabitants with wood. Catering to wealthy clients while considering the nature of Florida’s culture, Strang seeks to build components for what might be the architecture of its seaside living.

What distinguishes Strang’s work in the particular environment in which he works is the combination of elemental forms or containers that encompass the major pieces of his programs, the thinness of the connective devices, and the manner in which these parts are rooted to place and climate through the addition of strong foundations, stone walls, and wood slats or screens.Woven together with details that balance these aspects of the architecture, his houses have the quality and finish his clients expect, while also responding to a wider context and tradition.

In that sense, Max Strang is particularly interested in finding ways to take the modernist monumentality and bravura hedonism of the so-called Sarasota School of Architecture, with which he grew up and to which he continues to have direct ties, forward into the 21st century and southward to the low-lying areas of Southern Florida – which, though he himself has moved back to Sarasota, is where most of his work is situated today.

Strang’s affiliation with one of the members of the Sarasota School, Gene Leedy, in his native Winter Haven, and the wider horizons that opened up to him with experience and his later training beyond Florida, have been particularly important for his development as an architect. The initial contact with Leedy was direct and two-pronged: Strang’s parents commissioned Leedy to design a house for their family, and it was in this concrete courtyard structure, much grander in its appearance than its relatively small square footage (5,000) would suggest, that the future architect spent his formative years. The combination of large structure and small spaces hidden within the crooks of these geometries, the play of volumes against each other in light and shadow, and the sequence of rooms, from private to family-oriented, that surrounded the captured landscape within the building, continue to resonate with him and in his work.

Moreover, Leedy’s son became Strang’s best friend and as a result he spent much of his youth visiting the architect’s own house. A structure that is more modest in scale and more reduced in its style than the place where he grew up, this house itself was part of a small community in which Leedy had designed all the homes, creating the sense of the extensive and modular nature of his approach to architecture. With a strong preference for expressive structure and light infill, and with a sense of rhythm developed over a long career of designing hundreds of structures in the same area, Leedy was able to imbue in Strang the importance of having a modernist discipline that had a similar combination of variety and drama.

It was a modernism of a particular kind, which responded to the site, climate, and somewhat ramshackle traditions of the Sarasota area with wood and later concrete frames. These established not just a system of support, but also a way of visually and spatially framing rooms so that they could be clearly defined, and yet open to both each other and the views of the water that were the raison d’etre for much of the residential work. Within those often-expansive grids, architects such as Gene Leedy kept the divisions as light and permeable as possible. What was particular to Leedy in his residential work was the emphasis on a contrast in scale and weight to the larger rooms, so that his houses had a layering that the more clearly expressive structures designed by the likes of Paul Rudolph lacked.

Equally important to Strang’s architecture, though he did not realize this until later, was the fact that Winter Haven is located near Florida’s highest point. This spine, which runs down only one part of the peninsula, creates not only different soil conditions and even climates, but also grounds its structures in a rock base that Strang went on to seek in Miami. When you drive around Southern Florida with the architect, he is always careful to point out the more modest ridges and ledges in what most of us think of as that generically low-lying coastal town, and he clearly loves the permanence, sense of distance, and prospect that such sites provide.

Ultimately, Strang believes, though, such low remains of reefs will not suffice as sea levels keep rising, and he sees the state’s destiny as leading back inevitably to the elevation where he grew up. A confluence of his love for Leedy and this belief has already led him to purchase his mentor’s house, and to develop other projects in the place he grew up – including plans for a redevelopment of the site where his childhood house is located. A final part of what came to make up Strang’s architecture was his experience in New York and London. After learning the basic lessons of architecture in Gainesville at the University of Florida, he decamped for Columbia University just as the digital revolution was being spearheaded there at the so-called “paperless studios” led by Greg Lynn and Hani Rashid in the early 1990s. Strang apprenticed with firms that took the introduction of digital modes of presentation and production in two directions: for the New York firm SHoP, headed by graduates of the paperless studios, and for Zaha Hadid, who taught at Columbia during this period. While the former’s early work explored modes of mass production, componentizing, and other extensions of abstraction and minimalism in an orthogonal mode, the latter helped him understand the expressive possibilities of architecture.

Returning to Florida (though he also lived in Colorado for several years), he moved to the then-booming town of Miami and, while working for local architects, gained important insights in how to respond to local conditions in a more legal and social sense by serving on a local planning commission. He also found himself in one of the rare places in the United States (and most of the world) that had a local tradition of streamlined, simplified, and boxy forms that eschewed references to styles imported from other sites in favor of a straightforward response to the openness of the sea, bay, or waterway in relationship to the tight sites that afforded views to that aqueous landscape. Though the majority of homes wealthy clients commissioned still sought to subsume modern building methods with Spanish or even French-derived decoration, there was enough of a desire among wealthy clients to continue the work of the 1920s and its revival in the 1950s and 1960s to give Strang the chance to begin to show what he could do in that mode.

With the design of his own house in Coconut Grove in 2004, Strang’s work took a leap forward.

As is the case for many young architects, this self-commission gave him a chance to experiment and push his ideas further in a manner that worked for others did not. His response was to subsume the white planes and simple geometries that then and now mark much of his work in favor of a rectangular block covered completely in oolite. By now completely subsumed by vegetation, the house appears as ancient and enigmatic, extending the ground on which it is built into a haven for family life. Out of this block then emerges not a smoother “piano nobile” or main floor, but a porch, shaded by rusted steel beams, that extends the length of the house and provides a sequence of outdoor spaces for family gatherings, retreat, and entertaining.

The effect is dramatic. It pulled Strang towards the introduction of more such weight and openness and gave him the confidence to assert spatial sequences that were at least as dramatic as those in which he had grown up. The house also became a perfect calling card, allowing him to advertise his abilities and vision. It is fitting that a neighbor has commissioned him to design a new version of the house next door, giving Strang the chance to begin to replicate Leedy’s creation of a neighborhood around his own house.

Equally important is the lush landscaping, designed by Raymond Jungles. With a penchant for clumping together layers of vegetation that is a lush as he can make it, while exploiting the presence of the stone right below the surface to create drama through the terracing of different areas in a pattern hopscotching around the gardens, Raymond’s work is the perfect extension of and sometimes counterpoint to Strang’s work. The oolite, which has become a hallmark of so much of Strang’s work, extends that sense of the presence of the ground into the houses itself.

Both here and in some of the related stone the architect also uses, you can see the presence of marine creatures in the material itself, while the color of the material, especially as it ages over time, brings a sense of the often-unseen ground from which structures rise in Southern Florida into the body of the home.

In many ways, though, the house is exceptional in Strang’s work not only in its massive appearance but also, and the two are clearly related, because of his site. In most of the architect’s other work, the condition in which he finds himself working is that of a restricted, often narrow lot whose front, or land side is dominated by a garage and restricted by local ordinances. By contrast, the side that faces the ocean, one of the bays on which he works, a canal or the Intracoastal Waterway, is where the architecture opens up and the structure dissolves as much as possible to the view. As a result, the recipe for his houses is a closed presentation of service and preliminary elements, with minimal windows, to the street, through which you slip into either a foyer or an introductory courtyard, before proceeding towards a living area facing the water.

That space and most of the remainder of the houses’ rooms are almost always lifted onto what Strang calls “the Miami first floor'': a datum high enough to be above what the U.S. Corps of

Engineers consider it to be the floodplain. Everything below that line could flood, and Strang (and other local architects) uses that fact as an excuse to create gardens punctuated by concrete and often sculpturally expressed support, as well as dramatic stairs that lead you up into the living areas. You thus find yourself moving through and up a zone of heavy supports and lush landscape, up a staircase, either stretching up in wood or spiraling through the space, and past the service areas. At the end of sequence, on the second, water-facing level, the architecture opens up, dissolves, and also becomes more formal in its organization. It is here that the public spaces, after all, are located, and it is also this façade (in a reversal of the traditional villa or chateau model, which presents the formal front to the street before becoming more informal to the rear) that more people will see.