Driving to Carl Abbott’s office in North Sarasota, one starts to wonder whether construction had indeed reached this place at all. It’s not that he lives far off a beaten path; the campus border for Ringling College of Art and Design lays less than a mile to the west of Abbott’s office. But on a winding road with no marked lanes of traffic and mailboxes standing beside dirt driveways with no structures in sight, this region hardly looks like a shrine to modern civilization. Once you find your way to Abbott’s architecture office, you start to see the traditional-meets-modern construction and clean exteriors that even those unlearned in the details of architecture will recognize as marks of the mid-20th century. This isn’t a building designed by Abbott, but it advertises that an architect would be happy to spend his days here. The structure provides function, not ostentation. And most important for an architect like Abbott, it melds into the environment rather than blasting out from it.

If you want to find a true tribute to the philosophy of architecture, though, you must look not at the building but the man inside. Abbott many days can be found here leaning over papers drawing plans by hand. If you ask, he’ll tell you this is the only way to truly create architecture. Heck, you don’t even need ask—he’ll surely tell you this in a matter of time. “My contemporaries today, some just do what the computer can do,” he says. “They can’t see past it.” To those who view architecture as a product of available tools, perhaps that even makes sense. Just as the arrival of steel in the 20th century made the vaulted ceiling a less essential element of design, why wouldn’t computer-assisted drafts streamline the contributions of an imperfect human architect? But for Abbott, this pulls designs further from nature, furthering the distance between man and land. “Everything we build with originally came from the earth,” Abbott says. “So you should dig into the earth, not make it separate from nature.” These are the design principles Abbott has brought to every job he’s overseen in a career that dates back more than a half a century. And even at age 80, it’s an approach that puts him very much in demand among a certain type of client looking for a certain type of building. The articulation of this philosophy also sets Abbott apart as the greatest living voice of the Sarasota School of Architecture, one of the most important movements in the field to occur in the 20th century. More than just parroting a philosophy espoused by the architects of yesteryear, Abbott studied under its masters, serving as a living temporal string to the works of the past—and ensuring that legacy continues for years into the future.

Abbott grew up in South Georgia and Fort Myers and first became familiar with this region through his mother who had come with family to Bradenton in her youth. Even then, Sarasota was both a hidden gem and a Mecca for wealth. “My mother used to always tell me Sarasota was a city that was aware of things,” Abbott recalls. “It was like somebody had picked it up out of New York and dropped it here, and maybe that was good and maybe it was awful.” And so Sarasota is more than a school of architecture for Abbott; he knew the region before the school existed but the foundation on which to build was here, and as he grew into a man he would witness the birth of an architectural movement.

First he needed the education to become an architect. Abbott would study at the University of Florida to learn the craft, where he learned under Buckminster Fuller, the originator of the geodesic dome. Those studies would again give Abbott reason to turn his attention toward the Gulf Coast. And as he looked for work in the field, he ended up working a short period in a Sarasota office with ties to Paul Rudolph. While Abbott would eventually get to know Rudolph well, this was not the time. Abbott worked with Burt Brosmith, a successful but less celebrated contributor to the Sarasota School, as Rudolph turned his attention toward a teaching position at Yale. “I only met Rudolph once when I worked there,” Abbott recalls. These were the waning days of the Sarasota School’s peak, but it was a formative time for Abbott, who had some limited involvement with such famed projects as the Sarasota High School expansion. 

And it introduced Abbott to figures like Ralph Twitchell, who would run a practice with Abbott’s college buddy Joe Farrell and design structures such as the current home of the Center for Architecture Sarasota. Twitchell, as Abbott tells it, was drawn to Florida by the ostentatious structures beloved by John Ringling but became frustrated with the utter inefficiency innate to siting buildings like the Ca’ d’Zan on the Gulf Coast. Twitchell instead embraced the philosophy of Wright and began building modern structures that used ventilation to the structure’s advantage instead of building heavy, highly ornamental mansions that would bake occupants during beating-hot summers.

He was also involved as a young man in such important projects as I.M. Pei’s dormitories on the New College campus, though interestingly he worked on that from an office in New York. And eventually modern Sarasota would win his heart, and he started his own practice here in 1966. As with any kind of art, pinning down the elements of a genre can prove challenging, and every expert will offer a vastly different take. So what exactly was the Sarasota School of Architecture? For certain, there existed a different academic underpinning to the design aesthetic in Florida compared with other parts of the world embracing sharp lines and smooth curves. To hear Abbott tell it, Sarasota ended up as one of two places in the world to create something truly special, mixing the industrial mindset of Bauhaus with the elegance of Wright. The other place was Los Angeles, where modern houses set into mountainsides would provide backdrops to James Bond movies. Here, homes like the Healy Cocoon House and commercial buildings like Galloway’s Furniture turned Gulf breezes into coastal ventilation systems while also bringing the Gulf Coast a futuristic aesthetic.

For sure, the school came from the modern movement, heavily influenced by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The most important sampling of Wright’s work in this conversation might be found in Florida Southern College’s circular towers and cantilevered overhangs, not at the Guggenheim. Wright celebrated geometry, but with purpose. New material allowed a science fiction aesthetic to develop from finished woods and bending metals.

John Howey, who wrote The Sarasota School of Architecture in 1985, said the Sarasota School embraced the freedom and function of Wright. Architects like Paul Rudolph and Victor Lundy led the charge. “They used new materials, and then had an unusual use of materials with unconventional ideas,” Howey says. Concrete and red clay tile would direct change. And as many of these architects had seen the results of the Bauhaus architectural movement in Europe during World War II, the minimalist flash melded with American design. And the use of large pieces of glass and new hurricane shutters proved revolutionary, Howey says.  To this day, architecture students around the world study the work done by masters here. “The Sarasota School does have aspects we can still learn from in relation to climate,” says John Ochsendorf, an engineering and architecture professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s something that fascinates me generally.” Howey says Abbott very much belongs within the Sarasota School, having built such structures as the Summerhouse Restaurant on Longboat Key and homes along the Gulf Coast that turn an eye toward the coast as a tool and not just a decoration, and he sees the philosophy continue through all layers of design. “Carl was equal or better than some of the original Sarasota architects,” he says.

Some of the world’s leading architecture voices continue to celebrate Abbott as one of the great architects working in the world today. “His work privileges spatial definition over detail, planar precision over joint, and suspended surface over tectonic revelation,” writes Robert McCarter, a Ruth and Norman Moore Professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “In this way, Abbott is closer in spirit to the early modern artists and architects…than anyone practicing today.” Abbott’s firm has been in operation now for 50 years, though not always in its current location. For many years, he worked in the old Sarasota Times building downtown, a structure with inconsistent utilities and numerous flaws but which taught him a surprising amount regarding good and bad siting. “It just happened to have a western exposure,” he says with a sardonic lift in his voice. The building had crummy air conditioning, but beautiful sunrises in the morning and a view of the bay.

Jobs in the region would pull him inland and toward the coast. He would create seminal projects like the Weld Beach House overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, putting into a pristine setting a home with an almost triangular footprint with a point jutting like an arrowhead toward the coast. Further inland you can find a ranch home in east Sarasota County dubbed the Modern Ranch Home. Nestled into a spacious 10-acre site, the entrance actually divides this long, horizontal home with a breezeway, cutting away a small guest area on the west side from living quarters located on the east. A scale model of this home sits on Abbott’s worktable. Sean Harris, who has worked as a Ringling College adjunct design professor and now works full-time with Abbott, considers the home one of Abbott’s very best—a notion Abbott himself waves off. To Harris, the home boasts a traditional feel and usability while also representing the signature Abbott commitment to siting guided by terrain. The breezeway through the middle, which Harris refers to as a “dogtrot,” takes a feature found in many an historical ranch. “Many Southern mansions break down that way, but while it’s a traditional way of building a house, no one has used these forms before,” Harris says. 

Abbott smiles at the description of the work. He still doesn’t consider the ranch home a career pinnacle, but then he won’t accept any existing work as such; asked what his best home ever has been, Abbott quips, “My next project, always.” The ranch home meets the client’s needs, with a place for grandkids to play and a way to reduce utilities on the part of the home intended for entertainment. The best design features are utilitarian ones. That’s what sets much of Abbott’s work apart—function. And while a younger generation of architects in town privately has been known to dismiss much of the Sarasota School as the work of arrogant fine artists unconcerned with clients’ actual desires, Abbott says none of the projects that bear his signature would ever have happened without specific clients who dare to dream and who bring needs best met with modern design.

Just as Sarasota residents sometimes tire of seeing John Ringling’s name borne by bridges, roads and art museums, the perpetual mention of Paul Rudolph in local institutions may dull the world renown that truly exists for one of the 20th century’s most important architectural visionaries. “With the exception of Louis I. Kahn, no American architect of his generation enjoyed higher esteem in the 1960s,” reads a 1997 obituary in the New York Times. “Mr. Rudolph wielded enormous influence over the direction of American architecture at mid-century.”

That impact, according to the Times, became magnified by Rudolph’s position as chairman of the School of Architecture at Yale University from 1957 to 1965, less than a decade but an era that fell when American architecture would be re-envisioned as an exploration of form and efficiency rather than a simple study of history. It was this period when Abbott would actually get to know the man so often credited as father to the Sarasota School. Rudolph during his Yale tenure taught masters courses but, unlike celebrated peers at rival institutions, always kept those classes small with roughly 10 pupils each school year. In 1961, Abbott earned a place in one of those groups, studying alongside such future giants as Lord Norman Foster and Lord Richard Rogers, celebrated leaders in the field who remain close to Abbott today. 

It was during this time when Abbott feels he got to know Rudolph, both as a person and as a visionary. “Rudolph was a powerful man,” Abbott says, “but most importantly he was a powerful instructor.”

By the 1960s, Rudolph’s name already has an esteem associated with it that would make any building more valuable, but clients also want a building that would “act” like a Rudolph and feel modern while you moved inside it, not just when you first saw the structure from the street.

What sets Rudolph and the Sarasota School apart from the European Bauhaus movement that so influenced US architects after World War II, as far as Abbott is concerned, was the relationship to terrain. While European architects like Mies van der Rohe would sometimes set structures on platforms or stilts to put distance between a man-made structure and the ground itself, structures that as Abbott describes them “came from the machine,” architects in the Sarasota School would shape a building into the land’s contours. This would make the buildings feel more organic, almost akin to J.R.R. Tolkein’s fictional hobbit holes, with geometric entrances and that used hills to camouflage the true size and scale of structures. It’s those elements often studied by architects today who desire ways to make structures more energy-efficient and earth-conscious—more “green” and “sustainable” by modern parlance. It’s no surprise then that when Abbott in 2012 got around to publishing a book of work, it would be entitled In/Formed by the Land, a tome and testament to designing structures in a way that fits into the world rather than reshaping it or setting itself apart from the world entirely.

Rudolph deserves the credit for inspiring a generation of architects, but disciples like Abbott spread the word in the world. It was Abbott who drove Foster and Richards to the American Midwest in the thick of winter to see works of Wright, an inspiration those men would take back to Europe while they shaped the late 20th-century Modernist movement, as influenced by these Western works as Rudolph and company had been by Bauhaus in the decades prior. “Carl has a passion for architecture and an appetite to learn from the significant figures of his time,” Foster writes in an intro to In/Formed by the Land. “There were experiences that we both shared that could not have occurred without Carl’s boundless enthusiasm and determination to make them happen.”

One wonders what energy a young Abbott must have brought to these excursions, because even in what many would presume the twilight of his career, the Sarasota architect brings an enthusiasm to everything with which he chooses to engage. Just this spring, he could be found studying ancient architecture in Cambodia around the temples of Angkor Wat, a locale he endured more than 20 hours of flight time in order to see. “It was well worth the trip,” he says immediately after. “We went to 25 or 30 temples.” The buildings were free and inspiring, if a bit similar for Abbott’s tastes. But while he speaks highly of the ancient architecture, a lingering upset underlines his mention of the way the Khmer left the sites in a state of disrepair. Abbott came to unbury the civilization, not to praise it. Maybe this less-acknowledged love of ancient work tells more of Abbott’s architectural activism today than any connection to Rudolph and Twitchell. When Abbott’s name appears in local headlines these days, more often than otherwise it’s because of his activism through organizations like the Sarasota Architectural Foundation, groups that give tours and host events at classic structures through the region but which also stand as a line of defense against the loss of architecture to the unforgiving power of progress. Disrepair has cost us many a landmark today and utter disposal has cost more. In 2009, Rudolph’s first public structure, Riverview High School, was torn down to make way for new plans despite the foundation’s efforts. But structures like the Sarasota High School expansion stand, and foundation leaders say Abbott deserves the credit.

“In 2012, Carl was the one to encourage SAF to work constructively with Sarasota County to ‘appropriately rehabilitate’ the Paul Rudolph Addition at Sarasota High School,” says Janet Minker, Sarasota Architectural Foundation chair. “Everyone can take pride in the exterior restoration completed in 2015.”

Saving Sarasota High from Riverview’s fate didn’t end with keeping the exterior of the structure recognizable. Abbott and SAF fought for preservation of details as small as the walkway canopies connecting the Rudolph Addition to the historic Sarasota High School on Tamiami Trail, something Abbott recalls as an important feature Rudolph included to ease the transition from the traditional architecture into the modern campus. Ringling College of Art and Design last year had bulldozers on the ground ready to raze the canopies when Abbott sounded media alarms that a bit of history would again be destroyed, this time in the name of modern art.

That fight ended up forging a friendship between Abbott and Anne-Marie Russell, executive director for the Sarasota Museum of Art. Russell says she took this job in Sarasota largely because of the deep architectural heritage here. The college opted in the end to let the Rudolph canopies stand. The museum leader in a few short months has developed a respect for Abbott as a critical voice on behalf of the built environment. “He’s a delightful man,” she says. “It’s no secret I think architecture is the highest art form. It is important his leadership on this issue is understood. The Sarasota School of Architecture is perhaps Sarasota’s greatest export, and I don’t know if the community has always understood it as a true asset.”

So why the passion? Abbott says he knows architecture, valuable as it may be, remains a “vulnerable art.” It’s also something that can be churned out. Abbott guesses about 90 percent of licensed architects today go into the field as a production entity, designing replicable houses with interchangeable elements. That’s fine—more people enjoy employment in painting houses than masterpiece canvases—but it makes the field all the more cutthroat. “Only 5 to 10 percent of us consider this a fine art,” he says. “And it’s a tricky thing to say you want to be part of that. You only want to do quality work, and when you screw up we all come and get you.”

Abbott isn’t always shy about doing so himself. But while he can critique work he considers derivative or styles that rely more on what a computer can draw than how a structure will ultimately act within its environment, he wants also to be a defender of great architecture. And with luck, when he is no longer a contemporary to new architects, maybe somebody will fight to defend his work with the same level of fierceness.


Sarasota is also where Abbott and ex-wife Rebecca raised a family. From his current Sarasota office, he points to open land across a bayou to property he still owns and which at times served as entertaining space for Abbott family events. Just as is the case with the property where he works today, you can hardly believe man has discovered the land. Tree canopies shield the ground from the sun and a blanket of leaves covers the earth. Abbott reflects on birthday parties for his sons Cooper and Mark, when dozens of children would play in the yard for hours.

The Abbotts eventually divorced, but remain friendly. Abbott’s sons would go on to architecture-related studies and both at times worked within his Sarasota office. Today though, both work in finance at Raymond James Associates. And Abbott still works here. Over the span of decades, he has bought slivers of land out here in this underdeveloped North Sarasota neighborhood near Whitaker Bayou and now owns quite a land estate. His sons still live in the area, granting Abbott frequent opportunity to watch his three grandchildren grow. Abbott’s work takes him around the globe, whether it’s checking out sites for new homes he designs or studying historic architecture at remote archeological sites. But when he gets to sit here, he has a picture-window view of a life well-lived.