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Architecture as ART

The John D. MacDonald house on Siesta Key is a triumph of form in harmony with its surroundings.

If one is going to feel romantic about a house, the John D. MacDonald residence on Siesta Key is a good choice. It stands on Big Pass, and one can look southwest to the Gulf of Mexico and northwest to the end of Lido Key, with pines filtering the view of resort hotels and condominiums. To the north and northeast, the sparkling city of Sarasota is a nighttime jewel of lights.

A little inlet called Fiddlers' Bayou curves in around the house, giving it water on three sides and making it potentially as vulnerable to tidal fluctuations and prevailing winds as the surrounding mangroves, oaks, palms and wild grasses. It is a structure specially built to withstand storm tides and high winds, as it has done for a third of a century now.

Approached from a boat on the gulf side, the great pyramidal, metal roof shining in the brilliant sunshine reflects the plan of the house, a powerful form that speaks eloquently of shelter to the sailor passing by. At night, the lighted underside makes the form more delicate, showing the poles and beams that hold up the 62-foot-square shape.

From the very beginning this house has been a magnet, attracting imaginative and historic interpretations: "a beautiful South Seas home," "reminiscent of the old fish houses on Florida's eastern coast," "shares many characteristics of the early Florida Cracker cottage," "a classic achievement in contemporary architecture" and on and on. It caught editorial attention in architectural and shelter publications in the United States, Europe and Japan.

For me, its designer, the form and function of the MacDonald house exists to offer its owners the joy of a close, secure relationship with its pristine coastal site. I was seeking clarity of form rather than style, with minimum intrusion into the site.

John D. MacDonald was one of America's most prolific and admired writers, completing 67 novels, five collections of stories and 500 magazine stories before he died, unexpectedly, in Sarasota in 1986. He was exceptionally quick to grasp new ideas. But until we began our work together to create the very private utopia John and his wife, Dorothy, had dreamed about for many years, they hadn't given the architecture of their new home much thought. Dorothy was a painter of abstract canvases and had studied with the acclaimed Syd Solomon, also a Siesta Key resident. My didactic nature welcomed their desire, as clients, to collaborate with me, their architect. In fact, Dorothy drew up the first floor plans.

We worked for several years on designs, beginning in 1966. The first house we designed was to be built on Manasota Key. My father, E.C. Seibert, who worked with me then as a structural engineer, got so far as building a fine boat basin at that Manatee site. John then decided he did not want to leave Siesta Key, where he had lived on Point Crisp for many years. So the project was moved to the present Big Pass site, and I designed quite a large house of heavy timber and stone, as John and Dorothy then wanted.

But as I worked along, my feeling grew that such a house would be much too massive and heavy-handed for its open, waterfront location. I was able to convince the MacDonalds that their residence should be more concise and elegant, designed from a clear geometric concept. It might also be less expensive, I advised, if it were smaller and designed in the contemporary manner. This is the concept of the house we finally built.

After my draftsman, Tom Walston, and I completed working drawings, another associate, architect Buddy Richmond, convinced me that he could make a final version that was more polished and spare, and with less expensive detailing. This final concept was drawn at office expense. John and Dorothy were such good clients, I felt they should have my very best effort. Besides, they understood and appreciated the design. Ours was the best relationship an architect can have with a client.

John and Dorothy moved into the house in 1969. For some time, as the house took shape, they had come to feel at one with the space. As the years went by, the house became more and more theirs, for both worked at home and spent the greater part of their time there. One corner of the house was Dorothy's studio, the other was filled with John's office machinery and files. Furnishings and art were not "designed" but were very much a part of the MacDonalds' lives, giving the space an authenticity that no designer can really accomplish. The only complaint I ever heard from John was that his house was so beautiful, it attracted gawkers.

My father did all the structural work for this building, which was unlike any other, at least any other built in these parts. One of the great problems to be solved was how to fasten together the uneven pine tree trunks that support the house, for they are rather like asparagus waving in the wind until you can capture them at the top. My father designed a series of specially fabricated steel connectors, which, being exposed and a design feature, were galvanized after fabrication. This was not inexpensive, and at times of such decisions, one comes to respect and enjoy an understanding and enthusiastic client.

The first selection for the poles was greenheart timber, imported from Central America, carefully specified for straightness. When the trees arrived, they did not meet specs. We sent them back. This was a hassle, and again we appreciated having a client like John D. My father and I then went up to Central Florida to choose growing pines. They were harvested, barked and treated for the house. All of this, added to our "courtesy" redraw of the final plans, was not conducive to profit. But then, the idea was "architecture as art."

It was a golden time then. We were doing something good for the sake of doing it and giving it our very best. We were happy. Frank Thyne, our builder, joined us for lunch frequently at Sarasota's old Plaza Restaurant, the favorite watering hole of resident artists and writers, many internationally known. Frank gave me a two-martini education in literature and philosophy. In return, my father and I educated him about sailboats. Frank had attended the University of Grenoble and the Sorbonne in France and had earned a doctorate in philosophy. He came to Florida in 1956 to teach himself to be a developer and house builder.

The Thyne construction crew were Mennonites, the very best craftsmen, who were proud they "could build anything an architect could draw." Frank worried because they had an occasional habit of fasting. He made sure they ate regularly because "they tended to slow down when hungry."

The house is a strong one. As it was designed to do, it has weathered several hurricanes and a tidal wave. Each of the great Florida pine columns rests on a strong connector fitting of galvanized steel, set into a cubic yard of poured concrete, which in turn is supported by a piling that goes 12 feet down into Siesta Key's shell sand. My father also designed a breakwater in front of the seawall, made of stone riprap to absorb the force of the waves. The main structure of the house is 9 feet above the grade. John and Dorothy were the kind of people who could handle ideas like 49 trees going up through their living space. This stormproof house was built a good 10 years before the federal government made up all the building codes of today. The concept of a house that could withstand natural beachfront forces was a new idea then.

The 50-foot-square living space and the 12-foot surrounding porch have a constant roof slope that starts at 8 feet on the porch perimeter. The porch has a 4-foot overhang for tropical downpours. At the glass walls, 12 feet in from the porch edge, the roof is 12 feet high. It rises to some 22 feet at the center. It's a grand space, as only one bedroom and bath and the entry foyer have walls that touch the ceiling. The ceiling is structural deck, consisting of two layers of pine for strength and one layer of cedar. On top is a triple layer of insulation, over which is the galvanized roof.

Cut into the pyramid of the roof was a sun deck. I mention this to show what an understanding client John was. Perhaps people who write books understand the problems of composition with which others must struggle, for John was fair of skin and didn't sunbathe. However, he agreed that the deck was a place for a monumental stair to be built from the main floor hallway below. The hallway, a tall, triangular space, needed a sculptured form, the stairway, to fill it. Later we roofed over the sun deck, and John serendipitously had a rooftop writing room. Problems like this were solved in laughter and understanding friendship. John was a man of quick wit and high humor, and I miss him.

For me, this glass pavilion provides the ultimate visual extension, the architect's art of using the transparency of glass to extend the interior experience outward while bringing the surrounding landscape inside, making it a part of the interior landscape. From this strong, safe glass shelter, one becomes part of a soft, starlit, tropical night, the clash and flash of a thunderstorm, the wonderful serenity and soft dawn light of early morning.

Edward J. "Tim" Seibert began his professional career in the Sarasota office of Paul Rudolph, premier conceptualist of the Sarasota School of Architecture. The Seibert firm is the longest continuously operating architectural practice in the area. The Sarasota School won recognition for the city in the 1950s and 1960s as the home of some of America's most innovative architects. In 1995, Tim Seibert received the Florida AIA Award of Honor for Design and last year was elected to the Jury of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects.

To Seibert, the John D. MacDonald residence entirely represents the Sarasota School's philosophy. He does not believe in the validity of designing in "styles" but rather that building form should spring from the site, the owner's feelings and design program, and the traditions of the place where the structure will be built. A building, Seibert says, must express its own time and place, and so today, a contemporary form is the only logical way to build. "Without this basic logic, there is no architecture as art," he said.

Edward J. "Tim" Seibert's firm Seibert Architects is in Sarasota.