Starting 2019 with one of Paul Rudolph's best designs.
It is no secret that I'm a pretty big fan of Paul Rudolph. And though I appreciate his (sometimes controversial) concrete experiments of the 1950s and 60s and the reflective glass towers of his late career, it is his early work in Florida that I find most prophetic (not to mention visually appealing). In the warm, tropical climate of the Sunshine State, Rudolph combined modern design principles with regional forms and a dash of postwar optimism to create an airy and adaptable architecture well suited to local conditions. To put it simply- in Florida, Paul Rudolph gave Modernism a sense of place.
One of the best examples of Rudolph's (sub-) tropical modernism is the Sanderling Beach Club, a series of cabanas parading along the sand of Siesta Key (just south of Sarasota). During the early 1950s, developer Elbridge S. Boyd approached Rudolph to develop a cabana complex for the Sanderling Club, a residential community dating to 1946. The commission would be Rudolph's first major project after leaving his partnership with Ralph Twitchell, signaling a move by the young architect to take on larger and more complex projects. For the Sanderling Club, Rudolph designed a series of lightweight structures and exterior circulation systems that would provide beach access to property owners and function as a centerpiece of the residential development. Situated along a sandy stretch of shoreline, the site demanded structures both modest in size and minimal in impact. And Paul Rudolph proved to be the right man for the job.
With a number of radical (but always practical) projects under his belt (see Rudolph and Twitchell's Cocoon House), Rudolph was an ideal fit for a job requiring economy and innovation. His plan for the Sanderling Beach Club was deceptively simple. Lining the beach, the long cabanas (each 50 feet long and 25 feet deep with five individual units) crowned with shallow vaulted roofs stand facing the Gulf of Mexico, catching the ocean breeze and glimpses of the water. The vaulted shell roofs (formed by two overlapped, glued sheets of plywood) define each unit and extend beyond the enclosed cabanas to the support of simple 2x4 columns. Rudolph's distinctive barrel vaults command attention- the wave-like forms a nod to the rolling surf, while the modular repetition of arch and column recalls a more classical precedent. Underneath the vaulted roof lines, the simple geometry of the cabanas, all right angles and thoughtful proportions, is pleasing to the eye, a soothing march of minimal forms and light surfaces. Though each unit was identical, Rudolph kept the complex from slipping into monotony, layering the strip-like cabanas within the landscape.
Construction on the beach club began in 1952, with two of the cabanas, an observation tower (no long extant), a concrete patio space, and dressing rooms all completed rather quickly. Contractor John Innes built three additional cabanas in 1958, all to the specifications of Rudolph's design. Although the architect's plan would not be completed as he had intended, five cabanas and a shared patio following his design remain in place and are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. After Rudolph left Florida for Yale in 1958, architect John M. Crowell designed a clubhouse for the site, which was later remodeled.
Simple in form and straightforward in construction, Rudolph's design for the Sanderling Beach Club demonstrates the architect's early inclination for an economical, adaptable, and highly original modern architecture. In his design for the beach club, Rudolph's resourcefulness is on full display. He utilized standard materials and modular construction techniques, making the structures easy to execute and achieving a kind of practical modernism that suited the Florida climate. Sure, the system of barrel vaults, columns, and rectangular floor plans may seem modest, but in Rudolph's hands the overall effect of the linear cabanas is something much more novel, an imaginative architectural solution that still seems fresh all these decades later.
And if you're interested- you can find recent photographs of the Sanderling Beach Club here or take a look at Ezra Stoller's iconic views here.
Image at top: Paul Rudolph, on upper deck of the lookout tower, Sanderling Beach Club, Siesta Key, Florida. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, 2005687653.
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