The architect's role is more than pretty facades


Architects have a keen sense of the world around them, and in Toshiko Mori, we find an excellent example.

The prominent New York architect has made a number of trips to Sarasota in the past 15 years, mostly in her role as the designer of two notable, although secluded, houses on Casey Key. She’ll make yet another trip in less than two weeks for her Oct. 16 lecture as part of the Center for Architecture Sarasota’s Architecture and Design Month.

The following day, she will present a CFAS members-only tour of her additions to the Burkhardt-Cohen estate on the private, limited-access section of North Casey Key Road.

Toshiko Mori designed this addition to Paul Rudolph's midcentury Burkhardt House on North Casey Key. Michael Walker built the structure. Photo by Paul Warchol.

Toshiko Mori designed this addition to Paul Rudolph's midcentury Burkhardt House on North Casey Key. Michael Walker built the structure. Photo by Paul Warchol.

During these trips, she has deduced the meteorological history of Sarasota simply by observing its built environment.

“Sarasota doesn’t look like it has been hit by a major hurricane in years,” Mori said, “because that is why all these very delicate modernist buildings are surviving. That is miraculous. Hurricanes head right for Sarasota and then veer east or west. I don’t know why.”

Neither do most Sarasotans, and meteorologists don’t have a good explanation either. Good fortune — near-misses, and more than a century since the last direct hit — is as good a reason as any. But fortunes change, and it falls to architects to plan for the inevitable disaster, especially architects who believe in forecasts of sea-level rise and frequent weather-related disasters.

Acknowledging the architect’s primary role as problem-solver, not sculptor, Mori notes that “the problems are getting bigger,” especially along the coasts and in flood plains. Yet that is where Florida developers and homeowners are spending most of their architectural budgets.

“Those areas are quite fragile and exposed to disaster, like hurricane and flood,” Mori said. “What you have to think about is, if you are exposing large amounts of people to create higher density, one is exposing more people to the danger. What would be the plan? You have to come up with evacuation routes, landscape plans and a more comprehensive way of dealing with potential disasters.”

Toshiko Mori, who speaks in Sarasota on Oct. 16 during CFAS' Architecture and Design Month, advocates for progression in design. Courtesy photo

Toshiko Mori, who speaks in Sarasota on Oct. 16 during CFAS' Architecture and Design Month, advocates for progression in design. Courtesy photo

On Casey Key, she did this, as legally mandated, by elevating her two houses. “It is a very good way to make sure the people are safe if they stay in the house. You have to come up with those measures.”

Elevating houses is a technical measure, but changing society for the better is one that architects often don’t have time to contemplate when developers are clamoring for cutting-edge designs that will help lease office space or sell condo units.

The biggest issue in architecture? “That is a big question,” she said. “I will answer with a big answer: It is thinking through the role of the architecture in society; the civic fabric of a society. Architects, by and large, do not get themselves involved with the larger issues and topics. Sometimes we lose relevance because of it. Architects can become proactive to promote some things. There are elements of serving society, and architecture can accelerate a difference.”

While many people feel architecture is, instead of an agent for change, simply “passive background, an object,” Mori said, “I come from an idealistic background, I have to admit. But if we think through the programming, there is a role it can play. It should play an important role in society — both architecture and architects.”

Mori founded her own practice in Manhattan in 1981 and is former chair of the department of architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Her long list of projects includes several that provide the basis for her Sarasota talk, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16 at the McCulloch Center, 265 S. Orange Ave. in Sarasota, titled “Dialogue in Details.” She will tell how she has, in effect, communicated with masters of architecture by adding to or renovating their projects of decades past. Mori will discuss “how to continue that legacy to today and beyond. The past is a precious object, but they want me to talk about how to make it apply to current culture, and providing evidence of continuity.”

One case in point is Ed and Betsy Cohen’s addition to the Burkhardt Residence, designed on North Casey Key by Paul Rudolph in the late 1950s. There, Mori added an elevated, and geometrically modernist, structure on concrete piers, under which a storm surge would pass. As the house is on a secluded, wooded estate and seldom seen by the public, and it is in the same modernist language as the original (if indeed a different dialect), context was not a big issue. It does not stir the surrounding built environment in the same way that new modernist houses have done in Sarasota’s vintage West of the Trail neighborhood, where many of the houses are 80 or 90 years old and built in the traditional architecture of the day. There, critics have questioned such projects as out of context, while others praise them as symbols of progression.

Toshiko Mori designed this Gulf-front house on Casey Key in 2002. Courtesy photo.

Toshiko Mori designed this Gulf-front house on Casey Key in 2002. Courtesy photo.

“Context is place and time,” Mori said. “It is really not possible to try to replicate what architects have done even 10 years, 25, 50 years ago. Architectural styles and aesthetics are in response to the culture of its own day. The idea of replicating styles is, in my opinion, quite dishonest, and perhaps even a lazy approach.”

It is then, she added, that “a style becomes historicized, which is not all that bad, but the only element left for us is an element of nostalgia. That doesn’t really seem to serve very well.”

Mori has avoided that problem with her projects. On several occasions, she has been called upon to design new buildings adjacent to those by legendary architects of the past — notably a visitors’ center next to the 1906 Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, New York, by Frank Lloyd Wright. A century later, her response was a pavilion that stands in “contrast rather than imitation.”

In an interview, she referred to such contrasts as “drastic intervention.” This is not new. I.M. Pei did it with his Pyramids at The Louvre a generation ago, and Paul Rudolph did it with his 1960 “New Building” addition to the 1927 collegiate gothic Sarasota High School.

“It provides a refreshing contrast against an historical background, which in turn makes the historical buildings look better than they did,” she said. “It enhances certain characteristics that people might not have looked at before.”

A case in point is her recent design of the first canopy for a New York City subway station to be built in 26 years. A modern glass canopy opened in August on 34th Street in Manhattan; it stands in contrast with the historical cast-iron canopies seen throughout the city.

“How to intervene in a historical context is a challenging task for architects, but also highly rewarding and very important,” Mori said, “because when you succeed, it really creates something quite new, and also quite in conversation with each other. That is the kind of theme I try to work on.”

And she is getting the opportunity, as modernist residences are all the rage among the kind of clients who might build on a lakeshore in Maine or a barrier island in Florida.

“Some modernist buildings have become historical, and part of the fabric of society,” she said. “It does take some time for the public to ... make it part of their own culture. Places like Sarasota, New Canaan, Palm Springs. In Los Angeles, the modernist houses have become very popular because of the Hollywood stars buying and renovating them, and the fashion ad campaigns using those houses to promote the aesthetics. In New Canaan, most of the value of the houses increased and became desirable. It works with the market force right now. It takes time.

“Modern architecture has a sensibility of usefulness. People in their 60s and 70s are still useful, and they want their lifestyle to be like that.”

But she is concerned that architects’ traditional role of using their talents for the betterment of society is being corrupted by real estate developers, who hire them to do striking-looking buildings as a way to sell condo units or rent office space.

“It is very regrettable because it is a commodification of our discipline. It is used for selling product,” Mori said. “If that is what we are catering to, what are we left with? Architecture has always been a guardian of civilization; that is why a historical building is a prize, because it expressed the civilization of its own time.

“If one doesn’t really work within a social context, it is quite dangerous for the future of architecture. We imbue in architecture value beyond its own price; it gains more value and has a role in society to provide social cohesion. It is a dangerous situation we are facing.

“But saying that, architects have always needed the clients, to pay for it. This is the way we work. If you think historically, the relationship between power, money and architecture have been challenging, to say the least.”


“Dialogue in Details,” 5 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16, McCulloch Center, 265 S. Orange Ave., Sarasota. Tickets, $25/$30, and registration (required):

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: October 1, 2015
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be published without permissions. Links are encouraged.