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In Style: Back to the Future!

Updated: Feb 5, 2020

Call it meliorism. Call it modern. Just don’t call it a square box. And just what is it? Well, some call them spec mansions. Some, ‘tropicalism.’ Others, environmental modernism. We call them evolutionary—capable evoking as much impassioned discourse as their predecessor, the Sarasota, a style so inextricably tied to ‘good Florida living.’

But having the wherewithal to truly appreciate that ‘good Florida living’ is hardly a birthright. However, a select few, members of an unspoken nobility at the pinnacle of success, are giving us reason to pause, to contemplate and to contextualize some of the noise surrounding these modern masterpieces.

Perhaps reflections of their owners, these houses announce a divorce from the norm, a departure from tired expectations.

It was that departure from tradition that first give birth to a style so suited to South Florida and her tropical temperaments and peculiarities. And for that we have to thank an architect who lived outside the proverbial box. Love him or hate him, his is a legacy that continues to inspire, continues punctuate the local landscape.

Dubbed the “spiritual father” and de facto hero of the Sarasota ‘school’ of architecture, you may be more familiar with his style than his name, yet Paul Rudolph, for so many, helped make South Florida so very lovable, so very livable.

Yes, South Florida, perched at the gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean, is seen by many as America’s tropical oasis brimmed with gleaming waters under endless sun. A variant of houses skirting the water’s edge helps further define this take on paradise, lending titillation, curiosity, wonderment—envy even.

Perhaps the only thing better than its physical beauty is the come-hither climate. Indeed, get to know greater Miami and you’ll find it is well aware it cannot survive on façade alone; ingenuity is perhaps just as sexy. And when it comes to the ingenuity of its architecture, arguably few other places can boast such a veritable collection of form meeting function.

It follows then, that a new generation of architects including Ralph Choeff, Max Strang and Kobi Karp, are turning to the tenets of Sarasota, relying heavily on the principles of regionalism as a barometer in building for today’s discerning dwellers who outright reject convention.

Indeed, with the current pedigree of houses, replete with hallmark flat roofs, walls of glass, cutting-edge technology, openness and a seamless blending of the interior/exterior, today’s take on the classic 1950s Florida home offers a glimpse of a bygone glory when regionalism reigned.

Born out of the zeitgeist of postwar America, regionalism was the foundation of the Sarasota school. Just as architects looked to the landscape for how and what to build, they took cues, direction and inspiration from the climate and local materials to inform designs; they married building traditions with new technologies and innovative construction techniques.

“Modernism, if you will, is a new, different, perhaps better way of life, often transcending architecture to include everything from art to literature to furniture to politics,” said French transplant Jerome Soimaud, founder of the Biscayne Bay Directory. “It’s a lifestyle.”

It’s that lifestyle that is dictating a return to the basics of regionalism, albeit technologically amplified.

“Just as technology was a cornerstone of the Sarasota school,” added Soimaud, “we are now witness to some incredible advances that allow us to not only be stewards of the environment, but it also means we can enjoy our homes knowing we are in alignment with nature.”

The proof, you could say, is in the millions of dollars admirers spend to be in the ‘now’; to be on the upside of green; to enjoy that ‘good Florida living’ over which Rudolph so obsessed. And as far as that ‘good Florida living’ can be quantified, the new pedigree of modern mansions is a testament to ‘build it’ and it will resonate with progressive thinkers who crave individuality, modern conveniences and environmental acuity.

“I think he [Rudolph] can rest very well knowing that something he helped pioneer in the 1950s is still influencing how we live and how we build today,” Soimaud reflected. “It’s remarkable, really, that from its inception, the Sarasota has influenced so much of South Florida architecture. Many of what we call mid-century modern, for example, are direct descendants of the Sarasota.”

If, as Harwell Hamilton Harris posited in Regionalism and National Architecture, that “a region’s most important resources are its free minds, its imagination, its stake in the future, its energy, and last of all, its climate, its topography and the particular sticks and stones it has to build with…,” then greater Miami, a cradle of creativity, is a manifestation of these amazing ingredients—a quintessential product of regionalism.

"The true value of a place, a piece of land, a town, or our country, is not determined only by its “sticks and stone” nor by its raw goods, lakes and crates of oranges, but rather in tandem with its minds. Progressive thinkers breathe life into land, creating healthy inspiring homes which in turn inspire a new generation."

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