Launching into architecture:

Experiencing life along the continuum of Florida modern.

img Max Strang Long read (15 min)

Around me, the windows and sliding glass doors shuddered violently as the noise of the rocket made itself known; an unforgettable experience for a five-year-old

The Cape was sixty miles away, but I had an unobstructed backyard view across Lake Otis to witness the launch. Perched upon my father’s shoulders, who was standing on an exterior balcony, we saw the intense-yet-tiny light appear on the horizon. It slowly ascended. About a minute later, a powerful sound wave rolled in from across the flat Florida landscape. The noise continued across the lake and our grassy lawn. The house shook. Around me, the windows and sliding glass doors shuddered violently as the noise of the rocket made itself known; an unforgettable experience for a five-year-old. Decades later I would figure out that I had witnessed the 1975 launch of an Apollo rocket. With public interest and dollars depleted, this rocket was not destined for the moon. Instead, it rendezvoused with a Soviet space capsule orbiting high overhead. The Apollo-Soyuz mission would be the final mission of the Apollo Program and America’s last manned spaceflight until the Space Shuttle program began in 1980. That event, however, instilled within me a lifelong appreciation for anything related to space. To this day I remain an avid fan of spaceflight, astronomy and space exploration. It would be a different type of ‘space’, however, that would soon gain my attention and inflect my trajectory in life.

The house that shook around me as I watched the lift-off was an architectural colussus. A few years earlier, my parents commissioned architect Gene Leedy to design our family home. I was the youngest of five children and I was born about year after the home was completed. Our house on Lake Otis was a structure of pre-cast concrete columns and beams with cantilevers, frighteningly long spans, internal courtyards, intimate nooks, walls of glass, soaring ceilings. From a very young age I was unknowingly set on a trajectory to become an architect.

Leedy was one of a handful of architects that comprised the Sarasota School of Architecture. The Sarasota School was a movement that advanced a regional style of post-war architecture that emerged on Florida’s barren west coast. Known for his exceptional gregariousness and his pioneering use of pre-cast concrete, Leedy would amass an impressive portfolio of projects across the state. In 1960 he moved his practice from Sarasota to Winter Haven, which at the time was a sleepy Central Florida town surrounded by pristine freshwater lakes and citrus groves.

Modernism now had a foothold in Winter Haven as Leedy’s designs began popping up across the area. Leedy eagerly adopted pre-cast concrete as his ‘material of choice’ and continued to refine his signature style. Most notably was his brazen use of the pre-cast “double tee” slab. This construction material is more commonly used by the industrial and transportation sectors. Leedy, however, perfected a sophisticated method to combine these raw structural elements with walls of glass to create exceptional buildings.

In addition to my childhood home, Leedy’s portfolio includes an impressive array of other private residences, office buildings, City Hall, the Police Station, the Fire Station, the Garden Club, and the Chamber of Commerce. From my perspective as a young child it appeared that he designed almost the entire town. One of his more expressive designs was the Lake Region Yacht and Country Club, which was designed in association with Paul Rudolph.

Paul Rudolph was considered the father figure of the Sarasota School of Architecture. His early work includes a treasure trove of early modernist homes set upon the undeveloped barrier islands protecting greater Sarasota. In 1952, The Architectural Review (London) declared that the most exciting architecture in the world was being done in Sarasota by a group of young architects. Rudolph’s bold experimentalism resulted in a unique collection of homes that were beautifully adapted to both their site and climate. Examples of these include the Umbrella House, Harkavy House, Deering Residence, Healy Guest House and many others. Rudolph also left behind a series of noteworthy unbuilt designs before eventually relocating his practice to New York where he took on much larger international commissions.

Being in that powerful space, surrounded by enormous canvases of abstract art created a very memorable moment in my youth.

Unquestionably, Rudolph’s and Leedy’s works impressed upon me the importance of regional modernist architecture. It is from these early influences that I attribute my appreciation for site-driven and climate-driven architecture. When I was about ten years old, my father purchased a beach house on Casey Key, a skinny barrier island just south of Sarasota. The home was located on a beautiful stretch of white sand beach along the Gulf of Mexico. Casey Key is one of the few islands in the area that consisted primarily of single-family homes. There were a few little ‘mom & pop’ motels on the island, but none of the large condo towers or any commercial stores that are typically associated with Florida coastal development. Casey Key was home to several notable mid-century modern homes, including few designed by Paul Rudolph. The well-documented Cohen Residence and Deering Residences were located on the island. The house that my father had purchased, however, was a decrepit, rat-infested structure of unremarkable provenance. Somewhat coincidentally, our immediate next-door neighbors were the Leedys, who had also purchased a little beach cottage several years prior. The adjacency of our little vacation beach shacks served to further the friendly bonds between our respective families. It also served to further my interest in architecture.

One night, Gene Leedy and his son Ingram invited me to accompany them on a social visit to meet the abstract-impressionist artist Syd Solomon on nearby Siesta Key. Leedy designed a home and art studio for Solomon just a couple years before he designed my family home in Winter Haven.

Both of our homes shared the same pre-cast concrete construction methodology and a similar courtyard layout. It had an extremely strong presence. After a tour of the house and studio, Syd autographed a print of one of his triptychs for me.

Being in that powerful space, surrounded by enormous canvases of abstract art created a very memorable moment in my youth.

About five years later, the Solomon Residence succumbed to the forces of nature. Midnight Pass, a natural waterway that separated Siesta Key from Casey Key, slowly migrated north and eroded the beach in front of the house. The Gulf of Mexico compromised the foundations. The home was condemned and eventually demolished.

Gene Leedy’s son, Ingram, and I became best friends and I was a regular guest at the Leedy Residence in Winter Haven. Their home is a masterpiece of mid-century modern architecture. It is a one-story, concrete block and wood home, built in the 1950s, with walls of glass that open out onto the central courtyard. It really is a jewel and is deserving of historic protection.

Much like Rudolph’s designs for the Revere Quality Homes development, Leedy designed a neighborhood of courtyard homes on a quiet street in Winter Haven. I recall one day when Gene Leedy returned home from work one afternoon and brought with him a few architectural scale models from the office. With his permission, we proceeded to blow them up with M80 firecrackers. Ingram had his own detached bedroom suite and we would often stay up late into the night programming our respective IBM and Apple computers. In the “morning”, Gene Leedy would always offer us a specially-prepared breakfast around one o’clock in the afternoon.

My early and continuous exposure to these very cool buildings in Sarasota and Winter Haven had already provided me with the early foundations of an architectural education. However, at the time of my enrollment at the University of Florida I did not immediately declare architecture as my field of study. It would take almost two years of pursing studies around other interests including business, political science and Russian language before realizing that I really wanted to be an architect.

The UF College of Architecture was a really remarkable building. Immense piers of exposed concrete support an arced, glass-enclosed studio level. Below, an open courtyard was balanced by additional studios that formed a terraced volume. Each studio had it’s own private balcony and all of the buildings circulation was on the exterior. It was a great climate-driven and site-driven design. My introduction to this particular building renewed and reawakened my interest in architecture. I now knew with an unwavering certainty that I would be an architect. I instinctively realized what an important, albeit subliminal, role that architecture had played in my life. My constant exposure to the works of Leedy and other Sarasota School architects had shaped my destiny.

Upon graduating from UF, I returned to Winter Haven and embarked on an internship with Gene Leedy. I was an intern with very little practical experience, however, I was able to create ‘pen and ink’ presentation drawings of Leedy’s projects.

During this internship, John Howey, a Tampa architect, was completing his book about the Sarasota School of Architecture. Leedy arranged for me to spend two weeks working on drawings for the book at Howey’s office in Tampa. During this time I gained further insight on the Sarasota School (a term, by the way, that Gene Leedy is credited with coining). Howey gave me drawing assignments that included a variety of homes designed by Leedy and Rudolph. It was especially rewarding to produce drawings of my childhood home on Lake Otis and have them published.

One of the best aspects of my internship was the instruction Leedy provided me in the field of architectural photography. Leedy customarily shot all of his own projects with his own camera and he convinced me to purchase a similar Sinar 4x5 ‘view camera’. It’s an imposing piece of engineering with a shiny armature and lots of knobs. Eventually, I was taking my own photos of Leedy’s work as practice assignments. Some of the most visually stunning images resulted from complicated time exposure shots. The aperture would intentionally be kept very small and the lens would remain open for several minutes. This strategy was particularly effective for capturing the cobalt skies at dusk.

I learned invaluable skills ranging from the artistry of composition to the technical aspects of actually getting the image onto the 4x5 transparency film. This was long before the digital era. It always involved an agonizing wait for the film to be developed. Hopefully, a few of the shots would be winners.

Ezra Stoller was considered one of the leading architectural photographers of the 1950s and 1960s. He photographed much of Paul Rudolph’s early work. One of his proteges, Alexander Georges, shot some of Leedy’s projects and eventually taught Leedy the basics of architectural photography. From that point forward, Leedy photographed his own work. At the beginning of my career, I photographed a few of my own projects including the Rock House and the Tanner Residence. But as the digital era advanced, my Sinar became more and more obsolete. Finding the appropriate film even became a challenge. Eventually I turned the photography over to the professionals. Whenever possible, I love being onsite during the shoots. I’ve been fortunate to have many talented photographers document my firm’s work including Claudia Uribe Touri, Claudio Manzoni, Robin Hill, Paul Warchol, Calder Wilson, Bruce Buck and others. The importance of enticing photography cannot be underestimated.

During my time at Leedy’s office I was involved with several of his current projects which included the Merrill Lynch Office Building (Winter Haven), McCormack Residence (Tallahassee) and the Garcia Residence (Anna Maria Island). His design of the President’s House at the University of South Florida, however, I recall with the most excitement. The President’s House is unmistakably Leedy with a pre-cast concrete structural system. Unlike his early buildings with a raw aesthetic, the entire structure is painted white. Against the advice of Leedy, I pursued my Masters of Architecture degree at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). Leedy was pushing me to attend graduate school at the University of Florida; they’ll screw up my head at Columbia,” he said. Nonethleless, I was thrilled to have been accepted by Columbia and was ready to embark upon a new adventure.

Not long after I got settled into my apartment on the Upper West Side, Leedy arranged for me to meet Paul Rudolph. Bert Brosmith, another architect from the Sarasota School era, was hosting a cocktail party at his home in Pound Ridge, New York. Gene recruited me to photograph Brosmith’s home and I was invited to stick around for drinks afterwards to meet Rudolph. Rudolph was legend. After so many years of hearing stories about him and admiring his work, I finally had the opportunity to meet him in person. After the party, Paul gave me a ride back into New York. During the drive we had plenty of time to converse about architecture in general. He was very skeptical about the advent of the computer and its impact on design. In particular, he was wary about a computer’s ability to create beautiful drawings.

Paul died about two years later and I’m convinced he would have been blown away by the emergence of advanced computer rendering technologies. The jury is still out, however, as to whether the computer renderings of today will be revered in the same way that Rudolph’s ink drawings are now celebrated.

Between my first and second years of graduate school at Columbia, I secured an internship in London with Zaha Hadid. Bill MacDonald was my professor during my first semester at Columbia. He had been a classmate of Zaha’s at the Architectural Association in London about a decade prior. Apparently my design work had impressed him and he recommended me to Zaha. Serendipity had stepped in and I unexpectedly found myself presented with an opportunity to work at one of the most progressive architecture firms in the world.

At the time, Zaha Hadid was widely regarded a paper architect. Her highly theoretical work had resulted in much acclaim, yet she suffered from the stigma of not having much “built” work. In fact, by 1996 only five of her designs had actually been built.

It was in this professional context that I arrived in London for my summer internship. My plan was to stay in a hotel near her office for a few days while I secured summer housing. That task was more difficult that I had anticipated. I was finally able to find a “flat” in the South Kensington area of London. In New York, it would have been described as a “third floor walkup”, as there was no elevator. With its abundant floral wallpaper and upholstery, I assumed it must have be owned by a little old lady. It wasn’t quite the hip bachelor pad I was hoping for but it felt safe and was in a nice neighborhood.

My daily commute took about forty-five minutes, but the novelty of the London Underground made it go quickly. Zaha’s office in Clerkenwell was located in an former school. In 1996 there were only about five or six people working in her office. I was told to bring my own computer so I schlepped my Macintosh 9500 across the Atlantic. I would be one the first to use the computer as a design tool at Zaha’s firm. I had only completed one semester of Intro to CAD at Columbia, but I was looking forward to introducing my newfound skill set to the office. At the time, a 3D modeling program called FormZ was my preferred software.

I was assigned to work on the Millennium Bridge competition which had just come into the office. The firm was invited to submit entries for the pedestrian bridge to cross the River Thames and link the Tate Modern Gallery with St. Paul’s Cathedral. Ultimately, the design by Sir Norman Foster would win the competition and be built.

During my first week I was also assigned to some manual labor. There was a storage warehouse on the south side of the Thames that housed Zaha’s archive of architectural paintings. They were enormous canvases that would fetch millions today if sold. I spent two days moving her artwork out of one storage unit and into another.

My internship with Zaha was very brief. It was only supposed to be for two or three months, however I quit after only a few weeks. I did not like the manner in which she interacted with her staff. She was always polite with me but there were some employees that regularly got an earful. Most of the staff had become immune to her demeanor and simply told me “Oh, that’s just Zaha.” But it began to wear on me. From a moral standpoint I decided that I did not want to be a part of that culture. My co-workers were shocked when I told them that I was going to leave. Apparently, nobody had quit before. I had made my decision, though, and the next day I called Zaha on the phone and informed her that it wasn’t working out for me.

I looked for a new employer for awhile until I realized that visa requirements would make that an impossibility on short notice. So, I remained in London for the next couple months and used it as my base of explorations for short jaunts to France, Wales and Scotland. In the fall I returned to New York and continued my studies at Columbia University.

During the next two years I learned as much from the city as I did from academia. Adapting to an urban life forced me to mature quickly and I developed a great deal of confidence along the way. I thoroughly enjoyed the studio culture at Columbia and took every opportunity to advance my design and presentation skills. The digital design skills that I acquired at Columbia were in high demand and I was honored with the GSAPP’s first-ever Electronic Media Prize. Looking back, I probably would have been hired by almost any firm that I chose to pursue.

During my third and final year at Columbia, Gregg Pasquarelli and I were enjoying some cocktails at a bar on Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side. He explained that he was starting his own firm with his wife and a few other friends as partners. The firm would be called SHoP as a creative derivation of the initials from the partners’ last names. The lowercase “o” was simply intended as a void. In fact, early iterations of their business cards had an actual hole in the card. Gregg further explained how one of their first projects would be the Manhattan Museum of Sex, or MOSEX.

MOSEX was to be a ‘high brow’ museum dedicated to the history, evolution and cultural significance of human sexuality. It was rumored that Monica Lewinsky’s dress would be the main attraction of the inaugural collection. The museum’s founders had already obtained a site on Fifth Avenue. It was a small, corner property with an existing five-story building. The plan was to renovate that building as a ‘temporary’ museum space while funding was raised for the new building.

Upon graduation, Gregg offered me a position at SHoP. I was torn. My intuition was guiding me back to Florida and towards the creation of my own firm, but Gregg’s offer was too good to pass up. I would be SHoP’s first employee and I would be working on MOSEX. Eventually we agreed upon an arrangement in which I would live in Miami and commute to New York every other week.

The SHoP partners had come up with the design concept for MOSEX and it was my task to advance the project using an advanced modeling software called SoftImage. A year prior I had traded in my Macintosh computer for a wonderful machine made by Silicon Graphics. My “SGI 02” was a powerhouse for advanced modeling. Over time, the design for MOSEX became more refined and received a prestigious Progressive Architecture award in 1999. Our design was never realized due to a falling out among the museum’s founders. Ultimately they simply renovated the existing building and opened a much smaller version of the museum which still exists today.

After about eighteen months of commuting between Miami and New York on a bimonthly basis, I decided to focus on the goal of establishing of my own firm. I resigned from SHoP and remained in Miami full-time while I completed my Architectural Registration Exams. Soon, with license in hand, I was ready to forge my own path within the profession of architecture.

Rockhouse Residence, Max Strang, Coconut Grove, FL 2003

My first projects were simple renovations, additions and small homes. One my first projects was the renovation of a “crack house” in an impoverished area of Coconut Grove. Through these relatively simple projects I was able to amass the experience necessary to accept larger and more complex commissions with confidence (and competence).

In 1999, while on an afternoon jog through the leafy streets of Coconut Grove, I discovered the site on which the Rock House would eventually be constructed. The one-acre site had a small two-bedroom cottage which was completely surrounded by an almost impenetrable landscape. I instantly fell in love with the site and its tropical foliage which included an impressive Florida Strangler Fig(Ficus aurea), Royal Poincianas, Royal Palms, Live Oaks, and exuberant stands of giant bamboo. In fact, a tree survey indicated over three hundred trees were jammed onto this one acre parcel. I purchased the property and not long afterwards I moved into the cottage with my soon-to-be wife, Tamara. We lived on the property for several years while we slowly cleared out the invasive trees and began to envision the designs for a new house.

The Rock House, which I designed for my own family, presented the first real opportunity to express my architectural creativity. The initial design for the Rock House was heavily influenced by my recent years at graduate school. Ultimately though, it was my exposure to the Sarasota School that resonated more strongly with me than the avant-garde designs of Columbia, Zaha and SHoP. Intuitively, I felt that the tenets of the Sarasota School offered a much more practical and authentic design strategy.

While Sarasota and Miami are technically located in the subtropical latitudes, the modernist architecture of each city hints at more equatorial locales. Both cities are more readily identified with heat and humidity rather than cool winter nights or the occasional freeze. The tropics conjure up opportunities for exotic living and Florida architects willingly inflect their designs accordingly.