The Tamiami Trail rolls south from Tampa, Fla., passing through downtown Sarasota's thriving theater and arts district before continuing along the Gulf of Mexico and cutting east to Miami. Guy Peterson's office sits in the middle of Sarasota's creative hub—just blocks from Sarasota Bay, with its string of resplendent keys. His one-story white stucco building has a shot of chartreuse marking the entryway, and inside, a conference room's white walls, terrazzo floor, and translucent glass doors are a striking backdrop for Peterson's work. A “drumroll wall” slides from its slot, bearing a collage of elevations from the Houses of Indian Beach, a coastal infill community that will contain 23 Peterson-designed homes. On another wall are mounted two huge color renderings on yellow trace—presentation drawings for a current project—and opposite that, a grid of four John Pawson staircase sketches—a gift from his wife, Cynthia. Scattered about are models of lithe houses with geometric cutaways, serene courtyards, and glass curtain walls. Peterson's office suits his practice, which exudes a minimalist aesthetic softened with a subtropical vernacular.
Born in Cheyenne, Wyo., Peterson, FAIA, was an infant in 1954 when his parents moved to Sarasota, where a group of architects had famously come together to debate the tenets of the International Style. The regional modernist movement known as the Sarasota School of Architecture was in full bloom, led by the legendary Paul Rudolph. (Rudolph's 1953 Umbrella House still stands—sans umbrella—on nearby Lido Shores.) If anyone comes to modern architecture honestly, it's Peterson, for his earliest memories are rooted in the area's landmark modernist buildings. He attended Alta Vista Elementary School, which has an addition designed by Sarasota School architect Victor Lundy, FAIA; Brookside Junior High, which was designed by Ralph and William Zimmerman; and Riverview High School, Rudolph's second public building. Peterson's father, a physician, practiced in a Zimmerman office building. His family joined The Field Club—a yachting club with building additions designed by Edward J. “Tim” Seibert, FAIA—and his parents were friends with Seibert and Jack West, AIA. “I wasn't part of the Sarasota School of Architecture,” Peterson explains, “but it was part of me growing up.”
Sarasota's balmy breezes and sparkling beaches have long attracted wealthy homeowners, and newcomers continue to flock to the Gulf Coast—almost 1,000 a month to Sarasota County alone, according to the latest University of Florida figures. When it comes to new custom homes, exorbitant land prices have made the modest scale of those mid-20th-century gems obsolete. Today's dwellings are exponentially larger to justify the cost of the property they sit on. Weather patterns over the last 50 years have also tweaked the modernist landscape. The classic vocabulary of concrete and steel construction, floating overhangs that provide passive heating and cooling, and direct indoor-outdoor relationships still suits this near-tropical climate. But the hurricanes that regularly pummel the coast are shifting the building codes as swiftly as the shoreline.
“Every time there's a big hurricane, the codes change,” Peterson says, noting that Katrina's fallout is still to come. “It's challenging to get the transparency you want—to afford impact-resistant glass, because it's so expensive, but also because hurricane codes limit glass sizes. If you look at the influences of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, Mies' work is more transparent with structure and glass; Le Corbusier's work is more about integrating mass and structure. Our work is more in the Le Corbusier vein and not as transparent, exploring how to express both skin and structure at the same time.” Building on barrier islands or seaward of Florida's Coastal Construction Control Line adds another layer of design constraints. For example, homes must be built above the wave crest of a 100-year storm, which can be 19 feet above sea level in some zones, and must limit light emissions and glare to protect nesting sea turtles.