When designing structures to stand near villages in Africa or or along the Intercoastal in Sarasota’s keys, architect Toshiko Mori’s buildings seem like visions of the future, practical but gorgeous, impressive but efficient. Her vision has earned her a worldwide reputation for making structures both beautiful and environmentally sustainable. In addition to being the principal at Toshiko Mori Architect and founder of VisionArc, Mori serves as a professor of Architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Mori, in October, gave a lecture at the Center For Architecture Sarasota for the public and graduate students at the University of Florida CityLab. She also spoke with SRQ about her thoughts on Sarasota’s significance to the modern movement and where architecture must head in the future. 

House of Gulf of Mexico II, designed by Toshiko Mori.


How has the focus on sustainability changed the way architects design buildings?  TM: In terms of the challenges we face, we have climate change, global warming and energy scarcity; 20 to 25 years ago, the way buildings were designed was very different because assumptions were different. In a way, I can’t be critical of past buildings that were not designed with the same rigor as we have because everybody was operating with an abundance of oil. It’s interesting. Most fundamental issues have really not changed, meaning how does a building serve a civic purpose, what is it role in society in terms of architecture and economy and environment. Those have always been in modern architecture. Sustainability in this sense is new because of the energy crisis? But principles of good design have always had efficiency of energy use and balance with nature. That has always been the fundamental issue.

House of Gulf of Mexico II, designed by Toshiko Mori.

What were the most important changes that came with the modern movement of the mid-20th century?  TM: It’s not easy to single out one thing at the expense of others. Sarasota’s modern architects, especially Paul Rudolph, were very resourceful. He was in the Navy and saw how to mothball ships when they were deployed and he used that material for roofing membrane. He was innovative in how to use material in another way. He also used Ocala block, like a concrete, but I understand the quarry has been mined, and there is no more Ocala block anymore. In terms of the Sarasota architectural movement, there was a very clever use of materials. It triggered new ways to use material. And while the Ocala block has been depleted, that was a local material.

How do you think the modern movement has endured through time? And what of the Sarasota School of Architecture in particular still has an influence on architects?  TM: Because it’s already 50 years ago, it has became a historical style. It’s going to endure as a historical style that has  a lot of offshoots come out of it. The Sarasota School had a style and aesthetic, but what’s important for me is to learn from their principles. Of all the modern movements, it’s the most important as far as responding to surroundings and to its particular tropical climate. There was a definite consideration of siting, of what works with severe wind or siting on a little higher ground to prevent floods. That was a very common sense approach to how one dealt with this site and environment. That was very important for me to learn from the Sarasota School and becomes a driving principle for my buildings in that area. 

What should students at the new University of Florida CityLab consider while they study in this area?  TM: You have to be aware of the local tradition, which is very rich. Young students have a tendency to look elsewhere for exploration and inspiration, say at what’s happening in New York or London. For young people, it’s always looking for something elsewhere, but it’s very interesting to look at what’s around them and that tradition. There was a lot of innovation that took place in the Sarasota School of Architecture. It’s also conducive to a type of architecture which will be in demand, as we are now facing a warmer climate and a crisis of flooding and water level rise. And we are also facing hurricane crisis management, which affects all of coastal Florida. You are used to it, but as that becomes an important model for the rest of the world to see and watch, it will not be so easy to demonstrate that type of architecture in places like New York where we don’t face such a severe situation right now. It’s of global importance if these students invent a policy that is applicable to the rest of the world, like in Southeast Asia and in South America and parts of Africa. A lot of parts of the world benefit from topology and come from climates that are like the environment of Florida.

You have designed some coastal homes in this region How much time have you personally spent in the Sarasota area?  TM:I did three buildings there, and at the time was coming every other week. I also have a very good friend in Sarasota, so I visit. It’s a beautiful area, especially if you ever spent a winter in New York.

What can you tell us about THE exhibit on your work at the Center for Architecture Sarasota?  TM:It will be a dialogue. It’s about my projects, which had to do with a tribute to five American masters, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Paul Rudolph, Marcel Breuer and Philip Johnson. Some of my projects, I built next to those masters. Some are a strong reference to it, and used that as a model. Some of them have size, and some less than half-size models of details. Sometimes the buildings are in a dialog with each other. 

What lessons should be gleaned from the masters?  TM: What to do in terms of buildings, in their time and my time, was to ask how to deal with challenges. What do you do with climate change, or with a new code or crisis? There is some change in how I use certain conditions, all details that had to do with exterior details between the indoors and outdoors. It can be a bit esoteric, but for architects, we are always obsessed with detailing and the essences of ideas.

When did you first decide to pursue architecture? TM: I started being an artist, but then became progressively interested in spaces. But then going back further, I’ve studied art history and painting and sculpture. In Florence at the Academia, I saw how Renaissance architects would work with artists and sculptures planning and building cities all at once. It was a discipline that engaged as many people in society as possible. Artists’ work can be isolating—you are often in a studio painting or creating sculpture. I like working with many groups of people.

What do you expect to be the architecture trends 50 years from now?  TM: I’m not clairvoyant, but we are facing a lot of crises. By 2050, they are predicting 75 percent of the global population will live in cities and will be emptying out of rural environments; that’s what they are predicting, and if that happens, that means cities will become denser and probably bigger. There would be a big gap between rural environment and the cities. Now, I’m not so sure I buy into it. There is now a movement to look at how to stabilize rural environments. I hope in 50 years there will be very nice, vibrant rural communities that will be livable, provide jobs and don’t turn into urban environments. There is still a lot of time to work on that. We can have the apocalyptic scenario, which is one that is short on water and food and we’re all at war over resources. Or we can have a utopian scenario, which is one where we live a balanced life, producing food and agriculture within our cities. It can go either way. I hope it goes toward a balanced life.