Guy Peterson: The bare essence of architecture


Photo gallery: Inside Guy Peterson OFA

Like his architecture, the cover of Guy Peterson’s new book, a monograph of his 35-year career, lacks the superfluous.

It simply has the title against a black background.

Guy Peterson with a copy of his new monograph, "Naked: The Architecture of Guy Peterson," in his office in downtown Sarasota. His firm was named "Firm of the Year" in 2013 by AIA-Florida/Caribbean. Staff photo / Harold Bubil; 7-7-2015.

Guy Peterson with a copy of his new monograph, "Naked: The Architecture of Guy Peterson," in his office in downtown Sarasota. His firm was named "Firm of the Year" in 2013 by AIA-Florida/Caribbean. Staff photo / Harold Bubil; 7-7-2015.

The sanserif type, “NAKED: The Architecture of Guy Peterson,” certainly grabs the eye.

Published by ORO Editions, the 208-page book “is not meant to be provocative,” said the award-winning Sarasota designer.

But rather, thought-provoking.

Peterson explains that the title represents the way he designs some of the region’s most noteworthy modernist houses.

“I was trying to think of a title,” he said, “and the publisher suggested ‘The Coastal Houses of Guy Peterson.’ I wanted something, not to be provocative, but that made people think about the architecture. One of the words I use is essentialism. What is essential? Removing everything that is not essential, so you are left with something that I call, instead of minimalism, essentialism.”

In the book’s introduction, renowned Los Angeles architect Larry Scarpa captures this in quoting French author (“The Little Prince") Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

“The idea of ‘Naked’ is, ‘let’s take off all the clothes, let’s take off all the stuff we don’t need,’ and we are left with the beautiful form itself,” Peterson said in an interview at his office/studio on First Street in downtown Sarasota. “That speaks to what I am trying to do with the architecture.

“And at the same time, the title does capture attention,” he said, noting that the word came to him in the middle of the night. “I put it out to the publisher, totally expecting them to say, ‘You gotta be crazy,’ and they absolutely loved it.”

Early influences

Peterson grew up in Sarasota, surrounded by midcentury modern buildings, and attended architecture school at the University of Florida after graduating from Riverview High School. “I was not part of the Sarasota School of architecture,” he writes, “but it was part of me.”

Soon after graduate school, in 1980, he formed a partnership with architect Ivan Johnson in Tallahassee that lasted 20 years. After nine years, he moved back to Sarasota to manage the branch office of Johnson Peterson Architects. In 1989, he was chosen to design the Emergency Care Center at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. He was the design architect; a larger firm handled the medically oriented interiors and the “heavy lifting” of the construction documents.

It turned out to be a career-changer. The building, since expanded, is on a heavily traveled stretch of U.S. 41. He couldn’t have asked for better visibility, and he created what has become a landmark.

At the same time, he designed a house for his parents; it is pictured in the Naked monograph. That set his career on the residential path. In 1998, he designed the Theisen House on Longbay Boulevard near the airport. That dramatic, white modern mansion is a bayfront landmark that has won several awards, and also is in the book.

His projects are separated into sections — Metropolitan, Edge, Arcadian and Shore — for structures built in urban, riverfront or bayfront, countryside and oceanfront settings.

As with any architecture book, the photography provides the backbone, and this book does not disappoint, with brilliant images by Ryan Gamma, The Greg Wilson Group, Steven Brooke Studios, Pix360, Robert H. Martin, Susan Fleck Photography, Barbara Banks Photography, Louise Henderson, Mary Brown, Steven C. Traves and SRQ360.

Peterson wrote two essays at the, beginning of the book, “The Journey” and “Space + Form + Light.”

“Of all the words I use, space and light are the most important,” he said in an interview. “It is through light that we experience space.”

Millennial modernism

The form of Peterson’s buildings, so defined by space and light, are rooted in International Style modernism, but have a beefier and more durable appearance, partly because of modern building codes, and partly because of market demands.

This millennial modernism is a departure from the “Sarasota School of architecture” houses Peterson encountered in his youth. Those structures, by Paul Rudolph, Victor Lundy, Tim Seibert and others, tread lightly on the sandy terrain of the barrier islands; most could not be built with the codes and flood-elevation requirements of today.

Still, the DNA of the buildings is the same, if the materials and connections are not. “At the core, Peterson shares with all of them a profound respect for the environment in which they work,” writes a University of Florida architecture professor, Alfonso Perez-Mendez, in the book’s first essay, “Guy Peterson’s Call for Undressing Architecture.”

Perez-Mendez continues, in the language of the layman and not the archi-speak so common to the profession, “None of Peterson’s significant houses seem to strive for lightness, but instead for the timeless solidarity, one would dare say, of Le Corbusier’s late brutalist work.

“In this aspect, I find most of Peterson’s buildings profoundly different to many Sarasota School structures. ... Neither Peterson, nor his clients — or most Floridians, for that matter — are particularly interested in lightness, but in permanence. Perhaps foolishly, we wish to think that we are here to stay.”

The reference to the Swiss-French modernist pioneer Le Corbusier (1887-1965) is relevant. “Corbu” is one of Peterson’s favorite architects and perhaps his biggest influence.

Peterson said his design philosophy “is based on the principles of modernism that came out of the International Style — about honesty and letting people understand how buildings work when you look at them. You hardly ever see a column touching a wall or glass, because I want the structure to read so people understand how it is held together.”

Peterson is not one to shock or entertain passers-by with gimmicks of form. The array of square openings on the south wall of the Spencer House is about as flashy as he gets. But, he said, “Every project needs to have an overriding, simple idea to it. There needs to be an underlying concept; that is something that Harry Merritt taught me when I was in school (at UF). Once you develop a defining concept for a building, everything starts to fall into space. You just start working off that idea.”

While in graduate school, an assignment was to design a monastery. The site had views of two mountain peaks. Peterson drew lines from each peak to the site, and put the altar at their intersection.

“From that, everything started to have triangular forms. That idea of a clearly defined, overriding principle to your work, matters. A lot of buildings — I am not sure what they are trying to do because there is no organizing principle.”

Then, he said, the design must be “reduced to its purest form.” His architecture is nothing like gluing and screwing trim to a box. “It is not like decorating a cake. The cake itself has to be really beautiful,” Peterson said. “There has to be perfect connections. That is harder to do; it is easy to cover things up.”

At 61, Peterson said he would like to ease his workload and spend more time traveling with his wife, Cindy. But “I don’t think I will ever quit,” he said. “I enjoy it.”

An exhibit of photographs and models of Guy Peterson's work will open Sept. 1 at the Center for Architecture Sarasota, 265 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota. He will give a gallery talk and book signing from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Sept. 10.

Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: July 11, 2015
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be published without permissions. Links are encouraged.