The true value of a place, a piece of land, a town, or our country, is not determined only by its “sticks and stones” nor by its raw goods, lakes, and crates of oranges, but rather in tandem with its minds. Progressive thinkers breathe life into land, creating healthy, inspiring homes which in turn inspire a new generation.
Here we introduce you to Max Strang’s new monograph. As we turn towards energy-efficient, healthy, site-connected building practices, Strang builds on established precedents set by Florida’s post-war modernist architects.
written by JOHNNY LADERER + photos courtesy of [Strang] Architecture
Lake Otis and downtown Winter Haven are dominated by Gene Leedy buildings. Max Strang grew up in Winter Haven, specifically on Lake Otis in a Gene Leedy house. Leedy largely shaped the identity of a community, and if spaces shape people, it would follow that Max Strang has indelibly been shaped by Leedy’s work. A new monograph from Strang, titled Environmental Modernism, The Architecture of [STRANG], establishes this background for the reader quickly.
In exploring the topic of Gene Leedy for the last WH article, I had the pleasure of connecting with Max Strang. Strang and his team, being stewards of their craft and the ideals behind Florida modernism, rushed over a copy. The book, a beaming-white brick, is full of images that transport you to sun-specked moments framed by native materials, textures, and long lines. The architectural monograph is an interesting topic of conversation in itself. A time-honored platform for theory, documentation, and dissemination, the monograph serves as the voice of the architect. At its best a monograph explores values and moves the ball forward in terms of the way we think about the places that shape our lives. At their worst they are simply high-ticket PR devices.
Living in Miami, where Strang’s primary practice is established, and being generally tuned into his work, I thought I knew what to expect. A quote by Harwell Hamilton Harris preceding the prologue gave me a taste for how much more I was in store for:
“A region’s most important resources are its free minds, its imagination, its stake in the future, its energy, and last of all, its climate, its topography, and the particular kinds of sticks and stones it has to build with…” – Harwell Hamilton Harris, “Regionalism and National Architecture” †
(August 22, 1954), Vincent Canizaro, ed., Architectural Regionalism: Collected Writings on Place, Identity, Modernity, and Tradition (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007), 58,60,61,64.
The contents include: a foreword by the eminent author Robert McCarter, a timeline of influences by Max Strang, an introduction by Byron Hawes, a selection of images of projects, an essay by Strang, and an interview. Together it amounts to an overview of influences and theories along with some shining photographic examples of these concepts manifested at their completed, albeit untested state. Through the series of projects we are presented a record of Strang’s ability to build on the architect’s early exposure to the Sarasota School of Architecture.
The effect of this compounding succession that begins before his own time, Strang’s work is presented as being larger than himself. He successfully illustrates that there is a higher conviction than mere personal aesthetic or brand.
In introducing The Case Study Programme in the Arts & Architecture magazine, John Entenza refers to the home as “the environment that is responsible for shaping the largest part of our living and thinking.”
STRANG’S CHILDHOOD HOME
I won’t go into every anecdote or attempt to tell his full story here because, well, that’s what this book does so well. Strang tells his story of graduating from the University of Florida, working under Gene Leedy for a time before heading to Columbia University, and later working briefly for starchitect Zaha Hadid in London. After all his exposure to the avant garde and conceptual intellectualism, the work of Paul Rudolph and Gene Leedy still resonated the loudest. Strang has come back to Winter Haven frequently and has built two residences on Lake Otis. Strang muses there are rumblings of an effort to rename Lake Otis to “Lake Leedy.”
Another enjoyable anecdote: Gene Leedy taught a younger Strang how he photographs his own work using a Sinar camera. Strang explains that this is the camera that captured the iconic images of Gene Leedy’s Craney spec homes with brilliant cobalt skies featured in the book Sarasota Modern by Andrew Weaving.
Strang is exploring a new era of regional modernism for Florida, which is an approach that takes parts of the International Style’s reductive and global appeal but pairs it with local know-how and materials; place. A site-specific approach and an attention towards environment are always at the core.
THE TANNER RESIDENCE
The Tanner Residence illustrates a very direct and obvious trait of regionalism, the vernacular. With its corrugated tin roof it harkens back to Florida Cracker homes. Less obvious than the tin, but certainly more functional, is the way the house is elevated. Rather than disturbing the topography of the land, the house is lifted from the varying ground. This allows for the soil biome, which was living there before and sustains all life upward, to remain intact. Also the house is elevated from the ever porous and saturated Florida ground. This effect allows breezes to pass under and separates the inhabitant from the damp ground rendering them floating above the earth in true Miesien style between two horizontal planes. Surrounded by saw palmetto and sabal palms with the entry canopied by a live oak, it’s hard to miss how Old Florida informed the Tanner Residence.
Sitting adjacent on Lake Otis is The Lake House. The Lake House is similar in several ways to The Tanner Residence. Long and low, the structure is predominantly clean, white-painted masonry. Two key things distinguish it however: It is much more reductive than The Tanner Residence, and it is anchored solidly to the earth. Where The Tanner Residence has overt vernacular references tying it to the region, The Lake House leaves behind all materiality that would otherwise tip you off. Where The Tanner Residence floats above the earth, The Lake House is solidly seated. A set of stairs, the full width of the house, descends down the hill towards the lake which gives the house a feeling of being extruded from the earth, rather than floating above it. Its long, low profile sits humble and snug amongst the landscape. Its rear opens to the lake while its front to an interior courtyard, allowing for “balmy breezes” to run their way through the house at will. This connection to climate is what early modernism aimed for and we are just now rediscovering in our post-A/C-overdose move towards all things health and environment oriented.
Raingarden, a modern multi-family development, smacks of Genes Leedy’s y-axis oriented apartments in downtown Winter Haven but with more glass. Energizing a sleepy street in Winter Haven, this is a great example of how Strang continues to build on Leedy’s legacy. The vertical fins create shading and privacy for the windows situated between them. The design effectively creates a feeling of openness while providing privacy with its entry courtyards, a Leedy staple. This project begs to start a conversation about reurbanization, suburban sprawl, and traditional planning principles. Let’s put a pin in that.
This monograph provides contextualization for Strang’s work. For the outsider it will easily show how Max Strang’s roots in Winter Haven have provided him with a conviction that connects him to us all. The story of Winter Haven’s architectural relevance didn’t start and end with Gene Leedy. There may have been a lull in inspired architecture in Winter Haven. The lull being the approximate time it took for a man, shaped by its land and early Florida modernism, to come back around. Strang’s decision to set up an office in Sarasota and work in Central Florida will no doubt inspire others now and in the future. Recall the quote from before: “A region’s most important resources are its free minds, its imagination, its stake in the future…” Max Strang has taken a stake in Winter Haven’s future.