Florida Modern or Tropical Modern

26 Nov

The Museum of Florida History is hosting a special exhibit, The Florida Home: Modern Living, 1945-1965, which is on loan from the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, in Miami. Visitors can view the exhibit at the Museum in Tallahassee from June 2, 2005 to January 2, 2006. The following text from the exhibit covers some the unique architectural styles, which developed in Florida, particularly in the Miami area, in the mid-20th century.

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During the two decades following World War II, population growth and an expanding economy transformed the landscape of Florida. Extensive migration from other states, new highways, the rise of jet aviation, the reinvigoration of tourism and increasing investment in military installations propelled a far-reaching boom.

The hundreds of thousands of people who settled in Florida sought housing, particularly new homes in the suburban areas of the state’s metropolitan regions. Rising incomes, low-interest government loans and efficiencies in the building industry all contributed to the construction of an unprecedented number of houses. Architectural styles reflected the postwar generation’s desire for modern homes—homes that expressed the optimistic, future-oriented mood of the times and that offered interlocking spaces and furnishings for comfortable living.

In the Miami metropolitan area, the focus of this exhibition, architects adapted modernist design concepts and technologies to a sub-tropical environment to create houses uniquely suited to South Florida lifestyles. They employed vast glass and screened walls that revolutionized the surfaces of houses and produced unparalleled openness to the environment. At the same time, they aspired to a spirit of authenticity that was rooted in the ideas of the region’s early naturalists. Although their houses were often radically innovative in composition, architects followed vernacular building strategies and used locally available types of wood, concrete and masonry. The result was a new type of home that redefined the boundary between indoors and outdoors. This embrace and celebration of the tropical environment constitute the most vital and original contribution of South Florida architects to postwar housing.

The Postwar Transformation of Miami

During World War II, Miami was a major center for the training, recreation and convalescence of American armed forces. Following the war, many GIs, as well as thousands of other Americans, settled in South Florida, where they pursued dreams of success and contentment. During the postwar years, Miami evolved from a seasonal resort city into a year-round metropolis. In 1945 Dade County’s population was approximately 300,000; by 1970 it had surpassed 1.2 million. Housing developments sprawled in all directions, with the reclamation of more land from the Everglades and the expansion of streets and highways. The 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (“GI Bill”) helped many men and women to purchase houses and to study at the University of Miami.

Like in other “sunbelt cities,” automobile-oriented commercial architecture dominated primary streetscapes throughout the Miami metropolitan region. With the construction of the Interstate Highway network, a series of “new downtowns” soon radiated around the city’s historic core and served the growing postwar neighborhoods. These emerging town centers were the product of a retailing revolution defined by shopping malls. Families flocked to the malls to purchase an array of goods for their new homes. 

Designing the South Florida Modern HomeThere was ample precedent for the development of the tropical home in postwar South Florida. Porches for living and sleeping, walled patios, terraces, balconies, habitable roof decks, loggias, verandas and exterior stairways were all elements characteristic of the region’s earlier architectural styles: the traditional wood vernacular, Mediterranean Revival and the “Art Deco” modern of the 1930s. Outdoor-oriented spaces were the building blocks of a distinct South Florida residential architecture, which postwar architects pursued in new ways. South Florida architects were also influenced by national architectural trends, such as the Case Study Houses—affordable modern homes designed by leading architects between 1945 and 1966 for the Los Angeles area.

 

For South Floridians, the tropical home was a vehicle for creating a domestic utopia: a world in which families fantasized of unfettered contact with the warm, lush environment. This environment, however, also posed many challenges: annoying insects, intense sun, frequent rain and overwhelming humidity. In providing shelter and protection, South Florida architects employed raised floors, overhanging eaves and cross ventilation, while experimenting with continuities in indoor and outdoor spaces. Narrow rooms, shed roofs and large louvered windows helped to move breezes through houses.

The most conspicuous feature of the tropical home was the expansive screened porch or “Florida Room.” These all-purpose outdoor living spaces became more affordable with technological advancements, including “Lumite” plastic screening (instead of wire mesh) and lightweight wood or aluminum frames. Although Miami’s ubiquitous grid of streets ran north-south and east-west, Florida Rooms were often oriented southeast for maximum exposure to trade winds.

Modern Living in South Florida

The tropical home was more than just a house type—it was a multifaceted ideal that merged architecture, environment and lifestyle. This ideal developed around themes of active and passive leisure, pleasure and delight, and maximum access to the outdoors. Miami architect Igor Polevitzky noted that “Floridians as a whole are a little different from the average American . . . we have moved here, and in the moving we did more than just move to another house or another state—we have moved into a totally new pioneering environment and climate. We have moved spiritually, as well as physically.” Polevitzky and other postwar architects designed a new type of modern home for the thousands of Americans who settled in South Florida.

The openness and spatial flexibility of the modern house, combined with a tropical climate, engendered new trends in family life. In traditional house types, domestic functions typically were differentiated by separate rooms. In the modern Miami house, however, cooking and eating, relaxing and playing, and even sleeping could all occur in an outdoor-oriented Florida Room. Swimming and gardening also became integral components of an indoor-outdoor continuum. In essence, the South Florida home allowed the whole family to work and recreate together in a warm, shared space.

Architecture and building journals, news magazines and the homemaker press marketed this informal “playground” lifestyle nationally and internationally, thus inspiring continued migration to South Florida. South Florida was no longer simply a vacation destination. It was now possible to imagine tropical leisure as a permanent way of life.

Igor Polevitzky and the First Heller House

Igor Polevitzky was a decisive figure in the development of the tropical modern home in Florida. Polevitzky was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1911, emigrated with his family to the U.S. and graduated from the Department of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1934. That same year, he settled in Miami, where he quickly acquired a reputation for sophisticated commercial and residential projects. Polevitzky initially engaged the tropical environment with his “tropotype” series of houses, which were raised cottages with wrapping balconies. After World War II, his atmospherically transparent houses helped to characterize a new regional modernism. They emphasized the gentle, embracing qualities of a tropical atmosphere that allowed people to live in the outdoors.

The house in the Florida Home exhibit is a museum reconstruction of a residence that Polevitzky designed in Miami in 1947 for appliance salesman Michael Heller. It is a transitional house that balances the ascetic minimalism of Polevitzky’s postwar GI house types and the more dynamic screened environments of his later “birdcage” houses. A modest one-story box with a shed roof, the house is notable for the elaboration of its screened patio as an extension of the living space. Screened porches and patios were not a new element in Miami; but here the idea was, as Architectural Forum remarked, “extended to its logical conclusion, an airy large (19 x 30 ft.) cage, framed in aluminum.” The screened patio was almost as large as the house itself and created an alternative recreational environment. Its new role within the home was announced by its name: the “outdoor living area.” 

South Florida’s Modern Houses

Imported from Europe, the 1930s “International Style” house—made of glass, white walls and flat roofs—was never popular in the U.S., although a significant number were built in Miami Beach. Modernism’s survival was based on architects’ ability to propose less threatening options for the middle-income family. Spurred by Frank Lloyd Wright, the search for a new vernacular modern home accelerated after World War II. The modern became regional, with houses less rigid in design than the International Style and closer to the public’s desires. White walls and glass boxes were no longer the exclusive image of modernity. The warmth of brick, stone and wood could also be modern, as could sloped roofs and courtyards. Glass remained popular but was often screened by awnings, overhangs and louvers, or incorporated in sliding doors.

After World War II, South Florida architects created a new type of modern house. They conceived of their houses as experiments and took great pride in solving specific problems related to living in a tropical environment. Paradoxically, South Florida’s outdoor living ideal reached its apex during the 1950s, a period that corresponded with the integration of air-conditioning into the house. In an age defined by technological mastery of comfort, openness to the outdoors and natural breezes was a deliberate choice in lifestyle and aesthetics. With the development of cheaper central air-conditioning during the 1960s, however, the embrace of South Florida’s tropical environment declined in favor of the sealed box which, whatever its style, continues to dominate residential architecture at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

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Text and Photos provided by the Historical Museum of Southern Florida; written by guest curators Jean-Francois Lejeune and Allan Shulman.

The Museum of Florida History is located in the R.A. Gray Building, 500s. Bronough St., Tallahassee, FL. Museum hours are Monday thru Friday 9:00am – 4:00pm, Saturday 10:00am – 4:30pm, Sunday and Holidays 10:00pm – 4:30pm; admission is free.

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Special thanks to

Antiques & Art Around Florida

http://aarf.com/

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