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A Florida midcentury house unlocks the era—and its architect

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Paul Rudolph’s “poor man’s” version of the legendary Farnsworth House is an icon in its own right

Paul Rudolph’s 1952 Walker Guest House in Sanibel Island, Florida, photographed in 2015.
Photo by Chris Mottalini

This article was originally published on November 5, 2015.

Celebrated in its time, Paul Rudolph's Walker Guest House (Sanibel Island, Florida, 1952-53) is a magical modernist box essential for understanding Rudolph and midcentury modernism. When I was researching The Architecture of Paul Rudolph (Yale University Press, 2014), finding this small house amidst the beachside scrub of Sanibel Island, Florida, was a tricky, if pleasurable, treasure hunt. But now you can see it more easily. To make this important early Rudolph work accessible, a replica has been built for display at the Ringling Art Museum in Sarasota this fall.

Most remembered for his controversial, large-scale Brutalist buildings of the 1960s, Rudolph (1918-97) first achieved international acclaim in the late 1940s and early 1950s for a series of widely published, structurally expressive beach houses he designed in Sarasota, Florida, with Ralph Twitchell (1890-1978). The houses were experimental, using new materials, such as plastics and plywoods, that Rudolph had encountered when he served in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II. Educated at Harvard's Graduate School of Design under Walter Gropius, Rudolph saw the houses as opportunities to explore and question the rules of modern architecture in order to find his own unique means of expression.

The Walker Guest House was Rudolph's breakthrough. The commission came soon after the thirty-four year old Rudolph had established his own architectural practice. In 1952, Dr. Walter Walker of Minneapolis asked Rudolph to build a small guest house on Sanibel Island, intended as a pendant to a larger house already designed by Rudolph that was never built. Rudolph delivered a unique design: a 576-square-foot lightweight box made of wood posts and beams painted white; glazed with wall-sized windows and screens; enclosed by large square panels; and raised on a 24-by-24-foot platform. Rudolph captured its animated, tensile character when he later said of the house, "It crouches like a spider in the sand."

Photo by Chris Mottalini

Controlled by an ingenious, sailboat-like rigging system, the adjustable panels acted as giant shutters that could shade and protect the house's transparent expanses from sun and rain. Hinged at the top rather than the side, the shutters were abstracted versions of the hurricane shutters found throughout the Caribbean. The shutters were counterbalanced by ball-shaped, iron weights. Painted red, they gave the house its joyful, toy-like character. The Walker family vacationed in the guest house during the winter and affectionately called it "Cannonball." At the end of the season, they locked the shutters and left the house upon the beach, like a traveler's trunk waiting to be opened again next winter. They still return to it today.

With this one tiny house, Rudolph took a giant step towards finding his way in architecture. He struck biographical notes with the Walker House. When its shutters were open, it resembled the screened porches of his Southern childhood. Its white frame recalled the symmetry of the Greek Revival cottages of Rudolph's hometown of Athens, Alabama. An advocate of regionalism, Rudolph called for incorporating traditional, regional forms, such as the shutters, into modern buildings in order to establish relationships to their locale, meaning site, climate, culture, and inhabitants. But it wasn't all just personal. As he was building the Walker House, Rudolph emerged as a maverick who gave lectures challenging the flat-roofed, glass-walled boxes of the International Style - then at its zenith – which were spreading around the world. Postwar America admired its office buildings, like Lever House (Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, NY, NY, 1951-52), but also feared that the International Style was eliminating individuality and sense of place.

Photo by Chris Mottalini

The Walker House was Rudolph's complex tribute to and critique of the International Style's most celebrated dwelling, the Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe (Plano, IL, 1946-51). With its lightweight, white wood frame, the Walker House was Rudolph's "poor man's" version of the Farnsworth's expensive white, steel frame, whose beauty he could not help but admire. Rudolph corrected the main drawback of the Farnsworth House, evident as well in the Glass House (New Canaan, CT, 1945-49) by Philip Johnson: lack of privacy. Edith Farnsworth felt exposed by her house's glass walls, which she was powerless to change. For privacy, Johnson retreated to the almost windowless confines of his adjacent Brick House. Rudolph rectified this drawback by allowing the user to adjust the shutters of the Walker House for privacy and to suit their moods. Rudolph explained, "With all the panels lowered the house is a snug cottage, but when the panels are raised it becomes a large screened pavilion. If you desire to retire from the world you have a cave, but when you feel good there is the joy of an open pavilion." The Walker House set Rudolph upon the path to concluding that architecture was the art of manipulating space in order to affect and reflect human emotions, as was evident from the interior complexity of his Brutalist buildings, the most famed being his Yale Art & Architecture Building (New Haven, CT, 1958-63).

A prize-winner, the Walker House helped catapult Rudolph into the chairmanship of the Yale Department of Architecture by 1957, where he influenced an entire generation of students, among them Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Robert A. M. Stern. A model both local and universal, the lightweight, box-like Walker House was undoubtedly a prototype for his prefabricated dwellings of the 1960s, which he tempered with sensitivity for locale learned from Florida. Naturally cooled, user-responsive, lightweight, and beautiful, the Walker House was a turning-point for Rudolph and its replica will hopefully be one for those discovering it today.

Timothy M. Rohan is associate professor of architectural history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author of The Architecture of Paul Rudolph (Yale, 2014). He is working on a new book about architect-designed Manhattan interiors.
Walker Guest House [Sarasota Architectural Foundation]
All Paul Rudolph coverage [Curbed]