When architect Guy Peterson was just starting his career, his mentor gave him some advice he’s never forgotten.
“He told me, ‘Guy, in 20 years, I want you to have 20 years of experience and not one year’s experience repeated 20 times,’ Peterson said. “That always resonated with me, that no matter what I do, it is something new, taken to the next level.”
Peterson, now 62 and a fellow of the American Institute of Architects, has followed that advice all the way to the pinnacle of success for a Florida architect.
On July 23 in Palm Beach, he will receive AIA Florida/Caribbean’s highest honor, the Gold Medal. It is presented to an architect who has had “a profound impact on the profession over an extended period of time.”
“For me, it is a career achievement award,” said Peterson, the Sarasota architect who has designed some of the region’s most important modernist buildings, including many notable houses.
The AIA honored Peterson on the strengths of his design abilities (he has won more than 80 design awards in his 36-year career) as well as teaching at the University of Florida, pro bono work for nonprofits and for his role both in bringing to Sarasota the UF School of Architecture’s graduate satellite program, UF CityLab Sarasota, and the development of the Center for Architecture Sarasota, a community-based architecture/cultural organization.
The only other Sarasota architect to win the AIA Florida Gold Medal was the famed Paul Rudolph in 1989, about 30 years after he left Sarasota to build his career in the Northeast. The award was first presented in 1964. There have been 37 honorees in those 52 years; it is awarded only when the jury believes a candidate is worthy.
Peterson’s previous AIA Florida honor awards include the Presidential Millennium Award of Honor for Design in 2000, and Firm of the Year in 2013. He was elected into the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 2003.
“Guy represents the full scope of a citizen architect,” said University of Florida architecture professor Martin Gold, director of CityLab Sarasota. “He has a great practice and is a talented designer, for sure. He has carved out a niche; there is Guy Peterson’s work, and when you see it, you can recognize it. It has been copied by others, and I think that demonstrates the quality.”
“I am very flattered by this,” Peterson said. “It is a summation of all the things I have been doing, and hopefully making a difference in any way I can.”
Although projects like the Sarasota Memorial Hospital Emergency Care Center, the Theissen House, the Revere Quality House Addition and the Spencer House have boosted Peterson’s stature among the top tier of Florida architects, the Gold Medal is not just about design talent, said Fort Myers architect Joyce Owens, president-elect of AIA Florida/Caribbean.
“You have to show consistent commitment, not just to good design, but to the profession, as well,” Owens said. “And he has shown that commitment through the Center for Architecture, raising the public’s awareness of architecture.”
The Gold Medal typically “goes to someone who is more engaged in the long-term administration of the AIA and has invested a lot in the AIA,” Martin Gold said. “It is uncommon for someone to get it based on their designs and professional work in an office.
“His is a broad range of work across a range of scales. Even his projects that never got built are designs or concepts that form another outstanding body of work.”
The renovation of the Center for Architecture Sarasota’s headquarters is among Peterson’s pro bono projects that enhanced his qualifications for the Gold Medal. Other projects for which he donated design services include the Girl Scouts headquarters on Cattlemen Road, the SPARCC shelter and offices, the Finish Tower at Benderson Park and the Selby Memorial at Selby Gardens.
“I enjoy giving back where I can to my community,” Peterson said.
The architect also has taught for nine years as an adjunct professor of architecture at the University of Florida.
“Teaching has been very good to me in that it keeps me looking forward,” Peterson said, and learning that his way is not the only way to solve architectural challenges.
“Teaching has opened my eyes to not just jumping to the first conclusion, but always looking for a different strategy and attitude to how you are going to solve the problem,” he said. “When I am critiquing my students’ work ... I identify the problem that they might have, maybe the scale is not right or the entry is not working.
“In my mind, I’m thinking, ‘If they just did this, this would be a really powerful project.’ But when I come back, 99 out of 100 times they have solved the problem, and in a way I would never have thought of. It makes me realize there are so many other ways to approach problem-solving.”
Throughout his career, Peterson has solved problems in a straightforward way, relying on a foundation of rationalist modernism and his appreciation for the art and craft of 20th-century architectural giant Le Corbusier.
“It is almost poetic what he did with architecture; his use of concrete and form gives you a lot of freedom in how you think about space.”
He does not like his work to be labeled as modernist. Although he uses modern design elements, he prefers to simply create “good architecture” that meets client needs.
Peterson is not one to twist or disassemble the forms of a building for visual effect. He places a premium on consistency and quality, while at the same time making each building unique.
“Each project brings new requirements,” he said. “A new site, and the clients bring a new program. I always tell our clients that everything we do has never been built before and will never be built again.
“As I approach a new project, I want there to be a common thread in the level of quality and maybe an approach to rhythm, proportion and scale, and how I use materials, that people might recognize as part of our work, but also executed in a way that I haven’t done before.”
That certainly was the case with the Spencer House, on Prospect Street at Orange Avenue in Sarasota, which relased a shower of love-it/hate-it commentary on social media when it was built in 2013.
“I would rather design a building that people don’t like than one they don’t notice,” Peterson said at the time. But the majority of commenters liked it.
Peterson said his biggest design accomplishment is “consistency. I have never treated any project like it’s not the best that I can do.”
Peterson grew up in Sarasota and attended Riverview High School, where he was exposed to Rudolph’s modernism, before studying architecture at the University of Florida. Early in his career, he worked in Tallahassee, eventually forming a partnership with Ivan Johnson before moving back to Sarasota in the late 1980s.
That move, he said, was one of the most difficult decisions of his career.
But his most challenging experience came a decade ago when he was approached to design, and co-develop, an enclave of houses for a controversial project known as The Houses of Indian Beach. He is proud of his 23 house designs, but learned that architects should stick to designing and leave developing to others. The project was delayed by protests from neighbors and eventually failed when the real estate market collapsed, leaving only the infrastructure.
“It was one of the most disappointing projects I’ve ever done,” he said, “because I put so much into it. It was very frustrating. My lesson learned — do what you do best. I am an architect, not a developer. You take your lumps, learn from your mistakes, and don’t make that mistake again.”
In striving to take his work to “the next level,” Peterson has kept in mind what his Tallahassee mentor, architect Bouchie Barrett, told him about growing with experience.
“There are levels to my career, where you will hit a project like the Theissen House, the Freund, Revere Quality, the Spencer, that elevate to something new. I don’t repeat those, but I start to evolve new ideas based on new directions that come as you get older.”
Guy Peterson Office for Architecture, however, is not a one-man shop. He shares his success with his many employees over the years, including architects who now have their own offices, among them Michael Carlson, Michael Halflants and John Pichette, and Joe Kelly, the most recent of the Peterson alumni to start his own firm.
“There are many people I thank for being a part of this,” he said. “My clients, for giving me this platform to work from; a couple hundred employees, who have all contributed in meaningful ways.”
His wife, Cindy, whom he married in 1980 a few months before he received his Florida architectural license, “has been through all the wonderful experiences and all that challenges that you face as an architect.”
She has let him know when she thought he should pass on a proposal, or when his first design iterations were unsatisfactory.
“She has an amazing design sense. Without her support, and being an honest critic, and my muse ... the medal has my name on it, but I share it with so many people who have helped contribute to my career.”