Though house commissions—about 20 at a time—keep Peterson's five-person firm busy these days, there's always at least one commercial project on the boards. Currently under way is Fruitville Forum, a retail center on the edge of downtown Sarasota, and the headquarters for Tempra Technology, a research company developing food containers that heat and cool themselves. Other recent commercial projects have included a restaurant on St. Armand's Key and the LEED-certified council headquarters for the Girl Scouts of Gulfcoast Florida. In an effort to keep learning, Peterson's entire staff is pursuing LEED AP certification. Cynthia Peterson, who has long overseen the office finances, is currently at Boston's Simmons College studying to be a certified archivist specializing in architecture. She'll then use those skills “to catalog and preserve our work,” Peterson explains. “Figuring out how to document and provide access to all the hand drawings, models, and photos is a mind-boggling assignment.”
The Houses of Indian Beach—his first foray into development—is another project that's pushing the boundaries of his practice. Peterson and three other developers purchased eight wooded acres on Sarasota Bay, near the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, that will hold 23 homes ranging in size from 2,300 square feet to 4,700 square feet. Variously clad in materials such as concrete, stucco, black-stained cypress, marine plywood, and Cor-Ten steel, each home is a set piece designed for its particular site and the house next to it. When a lot is sold, owners can choose to build the house for that site or have Peterson custom-design an alternative. Despite Sarasota's current glut of subdivision homes, Peterson says his niche is solid. “With Sarasota's history of Modernism, a lot of people here view architecture as art and as an investment in something special. It's not safe, like the imitation Mediterranean Revival style that's driven by Realtors, but it's a strong market.”
Extracurricular activities—from lectures at the University of Florida School of Architecture and membership on its advisory committee to work with the AIA Florida Foundation for Architecture and the Sarasota Architectural Foundation—leave little room for downtime. His top priority right now is to save the Rudolph-designed main building at Riverview, which is slated for demolition to make way for a new high school unless preservationists can find a compatible use for the building—and the funds to renovate it. “We've got everyone from AIA Florida to Charles Gwathmey, FAIA, and Lord Norman Foster helping us,” Peterson says. The school is also featured in Site Specific: The History of Regional Modernism, a film that will travel around the country this fall in a lecture series by Metropolis editor in chief Susan Szenasy.
Meandering along the sun-drenched streets of Siesta Key, Lido Key, and Bird Key, making stops to admire the rhythm of Royal Palm trunks outside a spare courtyard or the play of light through steel staircase treads on a stucco wall, it's impossible not to adopt Peterson's enthusiasm for architecture stripped to its purest essence. “Architecture should make you think about your environment,” he says. “I'd rather have someone not like my work than not notice it.”
Each client, he continues, “has a new energy and creativity demand. The biggest challenge is to take all that and keep reinventing where we're going with our language. I'm trying to make things as simple as I can, using honest materials and creating space that's about light and form, and not being seduced by stylistic fashions.”