Architecture for Nature
The exhibition features over a dozen projects that exemplify Abbott’s unique climate and site-based perspective on living in harmony with one’s environment. Using his Bayou Studio as the epicenter of Abbott’s creative inquiry, the exhibition shows how key concepts developed in the experimental atelier space find physical form in his built projects, whether commissioned or conceived with a prescribed program.
Nature is at the heart of Carl Abbott’s creative practice. All of his gestures — however small or grand — exemplify Abbott’s committed ethic and aesthetics, his site-based perspective on living in harmony with one’s environment. While some belief systems posit a “man” v. “nature” sensibility, Abbott’s cosmology understands human beings to be of nature. He thus shapes space, physically and conceptually, to serve nature’s—our—needs, in terms of comfort and shelter, but most importantly, in terms of one’s enrichment and enhancement of life.
About the Exhibition
The exhibition arrays over three areas on the Museum Campus:
- La Musa Azul – a site-responsive meditation grove located in the Marcy & Michael Klein Plaza
- Exant/Extinct – a spotlight exhibition in the historic portion of the Wendy G. Surkis & Peppi Elona Lobby
- The Bayou Studio – a mini-retrospective in the Claire H. Rusen Gallery.
The Historic Lobby
Each of the six gothic-arched niches (that historically contained sculptures prior to their mysterious disappearance in the 1950s) features a single project. These six projects, three of which are extant and three of which have been destroyed, represent masterworks of Abbott’s oeuvre.
The Hicks Residence
The Hicks residence was designed and completed in the early 1980s and was destroyed in 2016, a victim of rising coastal land values combined with a lack of appreciation for design.
Lido Beach & Lido Bay
Both built in 1981, these two residences, though distinct, share a sensibility and are considered kin in the mind of Abbott. One was on the Bay and the other was on the Gulf.
The clients entertained often and wanted a very formal house. The entrance is dramatic and steep. The pool begins to reveal itself at a sharp angle and points you to the dense forest.
It’s only by turning 90 degrees to the right that you realize you are on the beach. The curious reveal heightens the dramatic unfolding, setting the stage for more surprises that emerge as you proceed through the marche, the path of the project. The house was demolished in 2005.
The client was inspired by their friend’s Lido Beach home, but they wanted a less formal house. Both owners wanted the houses to have a relationship to each other, “to communicate with each other”, in the words of the architect, which is why we present them together.
Unlike Lido Beach, one entered this home in a very informal way, around the building and up a ramp. A demi-circle pool was set apart from the house, and you would glimpse it from the ramp. The full reveal did not occur until you were inside the house, continuing the delightfully counterintuitive unveiling. Similar to Lido Beach, this house did not survive, having been torn down in 2011.
Casa del Cielo
In supporting the project for a major award after its construction in 1982, Paul Rudolph described Casa del Cielo in this way: “…raised horizontal planes, which interpenetrate one with the other—all above ground in a tropical climate—the balancing of solids and voids and the flow of space horizontally and vertically are handled in a remarkable way…”
Despite this praising review by Rudolph, the house was destroyed in 2017 and has since been replaced by condominiums.
How does one solve the ultimate design challenge—mediating between heaven and earth, between the humans and the gods? How does one shape spiritual space?
Positioned at the extreme edge of the site, Villa Cedro (constructed in 1984) takes full advantage of the property. At the end of a cul-de-sac in a typical suburban layout, a long drive at the edge of the site takes you on a journey to another landscape. The house opens to the surrounding forest in such a dramatic way that it feels as though you are miles from another structure.
The austerity of the street view, elegantly evoking ancient temple architecture, affords extreme privacy and a great contrast to the experience within. Dynamically activating the radial plan, you are swept out over the water as the house expands to embrace nature and take full advantage of a limited water frontage. An ingenious reading of the building code (since changed from its construction in 1986) allowed a “pier” to significantly expand the frontage, capturing more of the waterscape. This gesture perfectly exemplifies Abbott’s geometric genius with diagonals that visually capture space over water, erasing the distinction between water and land.
The Claire H. Rusen Gallery
The Bayou Studio
The Claire H. Rusen Gallery, located on the second floor of the Museum, features the core of the exhibition, which is centered around Abbott’s Bayou Studio. The Bayou Studio functions as an evolving “work in progress” gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) site-specific and site-responsive installation that has functioned as his home and studio since the early 1970s. Built in 1925 by architect Thomas Miller Bryan for John Ringling’s banker, C.E. Hitchenings, this fine example of vernacular Spanish mission-inspired domestic architecture had fallen into disrepair by the time Abbott acquired it. Abbott’s keen, yet gentle, interventions timelessly updated the dark cottage through his signature moves—opening up the space to fluidly move from inside to outside.
The Bayou Studio is both an atelier and an experimental and experiential laboratory space, where Abbott’s designs are conceptualized prior to finding physical form in his built projects. This portion of the exhibition articulates the path these ideas take from conception to creation in his realized, commissioned projects. In addition to serving as a mini-retrospective view of Abbott’s work, visitors will encounter a recreation of The Bayou Camera, an immersive installation uniting light and landscape at the Bayou Studio property. Abbott’s intervention into the structure, opening an east wall as a portal through which to engage with the visually “captured” primeval forest across Whittaker Bayou, allows one to experience a continuously shifting play of light, a key element in Abbott’s design practice.
The Bayou Camera
One of the highlights of The Bayou Studio is a permanent, immersive site-responsive light installation that embodies the notion of the Studio as a dynamic experimental and experiential lab. What might seem at first glance to be a conference room, with a “picture window” and a view, is actually an extraordinary and ever-changing environment that harnesses and captures the shifting light to create a time-based art installation.
The operating concept here is one of a “camera”, literally, a room and the origin of our word for the device that captures our vision as memory.
Continuing down the south wall, there are two more exhibition spotlights: The Two Chairs and drawings completed by Carl in part with the personal reflection and installation process. Perhaps one of Abbott’s earliest, visceral encounters with Modernism were childhood chairs his parents bought for him and his sister. The cantilever design of these chairs was first conceived by Mart Stam, Dutch architect, planner and furniture designer, in 1926 (and was awarded the European patent for the design), just prior to Stam joining the Bauhaus Dessau in 1928. Stam in turn influenced fellow architects and designers Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van de Rohe, whose various versions of cantilevered chairs were widely popularized and continue to endure a century later. Years later, Abbott salvaged these chairs from the garbage and painted them his signature blue. His enduring practice of capturing objet trouvé and applying the vibrant, yet unifying pigment persuades one to appreciate form, shape and composition more deeply.
The Meditation Grove
La Musa Azul
As one enters the Plaza, the eye is drawn toward two “Abbott Blue” walls converging in a portal. These diagonal gestures define the entrance to the site-responsive, interactive installation, La Musa Azul, featuring one of the signature blue hues that has defined Abbott’s creative practice since his youth, where he was captivated by the wild irises and petunias of his Georgia childhood. The sculpture defines Abbott’s intersecting attributes as both a colorist and a landscape designer, and employs his signature diagonal gesture, used as a device to lead both body and vision. Visitors are invited to wander the grove, sit in quiet contemplation or simply marvel at the musa trees (Latin name for the banana genus), and enjoy the shared etymology of “muse”, origin of the word museum—a muse in the grove. Trees have long provided our “first architecture”—providing shelter—and sacred groves throughout time and across cultures have provided a respite from the bustle of our “profane”, workaday lives—much needed during this current time.