Even though he's a card-carrying member of several classical design organizations, Merrill isn't interested in cloning the past. He began his career in Washington, D.C., working for top firms McCartney Lewis and Cass & Pinnell, but he couldn't envision a happy future there. Extending, remodeling, and reinvigorating old houses is the Washington architect's bread and butter; everyone chases the same kind of work for the same clients. Merrill speaks highly of his very talented mentors, but he didn't want to follow in their footsteps.
So he decamped to Florida for the new town of Seaside, which offered the exciting opportunity to build fresh from the ground up. The now storied prototype for Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) was spearheaded with visionary zeal by developers Robert and Daryl Davis and designed by nascent New Urbanists Andrés Duany, FAIA, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, FAIA. of DPZ, with consultation from traditional architect and theorist Leon Krier. Merrill served as Seaside's town architect for two years, completing among other projects the sextet of Honeymoon Cottages (1988-89). In 1990, he followed DPZ to another resort TND at Windsor and established his own practice in Vero Beach, but he returned to Seaside for other commissions, including phase two of the Honeymoon Cottages (1994-95) and perhaps his most perfect building yet, the Seaside Chapel (2001). The Honeymoon Cottages and the chapel (both winners of AIA National Honor Awards) make manifest the early concept of Seaside: a modest beach town based on vernacular building traditions.
Building new drew Merrill to Seaside, but so did the power and potential of patternmaking. DPZ's original vision called for just a few patterns, meticulously defined and repeated across the 80-acre site. The comforting refrain of pleasing building types would also make better design more attainable. The explicit pattern book meant a contractor could build a handsome house without an architect. But in a way, Seaside was a victim of its own success. Soaring real estate values turned it into a haven for the rich and an architect's playground. “Ultimately, the town ended up developing in a way that was unforeseen,” says Merrill. “I was so enamored of the ideas that drove Seaside originally—the repetition of types.”
What lured him to Windsor was the promise of exploring even more building types. He lured others there, too. In 1991, he hired George Pastor, AIA, fresh out of the University of Miami and the University of Virginia's master's program in architecture, both strong in traditional design. “I spent a summer working at Monticello, crawling around the roof as they were restoring it,” says Pastor, who oversees construction of the firm's work. In 1997, Merrill made him a partner, and in 1999 they promoted David Colgan, AIA, a Notre Dame grad, to partner as well. Colgan now operates out of a small satellite office in Atlanta.
Through a mixture of speculative and custom residential commissions, the firm is exploring a number of house types Merrill thinks offer solutions for other densely planned communities. His enthusiasm for the right-brain wrestle of site, program, and budget is palpable. The 416-acre, gated Windsor is a high end experiment in patternmaking, but he hopes that repeating and perfecting its building types will make them more affordable in the long run. “Most people have to buy within a price range that can only be delivered through the economies of repetition,” he says. “But we as a culture exalt singularity. It's unattainable. Our concentration on houses singularly matched to a singular person belittles the dignity of the repetitions of houses most people live in. Wouldn't it be valuable to take patterns and repetitions and ennoble them?”singular sensation
For all his talk about repetition, Merrill and his partners don't simply replicate the past. Looking at one of their houses evokes that experience we've all had: You think you see someone you know at a distance, but when you get up close you discover a stranger. Maybe we should call it deja new. The forms and references feel familiar, yet you can't pinpoint the specific antecedent. This is what sets Merrill, Pastor & Colgan apart and yes, one might argue as Vincent Scully does in an upcoming monograph on the firm, what makes them modern.
Because, as much as Merrill emphasizes the clever plans and siting of the firm's house types, what stands out is the ingenuity of the architecture. It's deftly proportioned, beautifully understated, and, within a language we all understand, original. The path to this kind of rigor and invention wouldn't suit the lazy or flighty mind. It requires distilling our best-loved architecture styles to their essence—mapping their DNA and using the basic genes to build stronger, better organisms. “So many of the traditions are just about the pure joy of composition,” says Merrill. “You have to take them and find out their root appeal and work from there. For instance, English Arts & Crafts and Shingle Style are all about joy in manipulation of roofs. You have to be careful about how you take them on. They can all be done in pretty bad ways. But there are endless way to configure things that are readily accepted by conservative clients.”
“There are several good reasons for architects to be conservative,” he adds. “Among them is to save your clients embarrassment down the road.” Market acceptance is important to Merrill's firm, because it's important to both his developer and private clients. Beyond those exigencies, marketability means a greater possibility of implementing the firm's designs on a wider scale. “Architects say they want to do good by changing the very way we build and think about architecture,” he says. “But it's reasonable to suggest that how you do good is through incremental improvement leveraged over multiple projects.” The goal feels even more imperative given Florida's unprecedented building boom, which has advanced largely without direct contribution from architects.
“We have to deal with tremendous numbers,” he explains. “So much energy is spent on transformational change. But certain patterns make sense for money or for climate reasons. That's what makes it interesting to return to the courtyard house again and again.”
Despite its accomplishments in the realm of multiples, the firm is building a portfolio of sumptuous one-off custom homes. The freedom is almost disorienting after so many years dotting the i's and crossing the t's of DPZ's master plans, but it's also exhilarating. “Everything in Windsor is orthogonal, so to have a sloped site where the site section is integral is great,” says Merrill. “But the funny things is, even with a 90-acre site, you still run up against the setbacks and wish for more space.”
The private clients with beautiful parcels of land bring new possibilities for invention—and trips out of Vero Beach. So, too, does the firm's occasional institutional and commercial work. But in general, the challenge in those projects is to add value to something already desirable. What appeals most to Merrill is to take a building lot—or even a whole community—and create something valuable out of nothing. “Windsor was a grapefruit grove, other than that there was nothing at all interesting about the site,” he says. “We often inherit a featureless site. The specificity comes with the lot configuration, the clientele, the program. That is modern.”