In the realm of Florida architecture, few names loom as large as Victor Lundy. Heralded as one of the leaders of the Sarasota School of Architecture (a title he resists), Lundy’s inspired designs ranged from drive-in churches in Nokomis (demolished) to glassed-in motels in North Port (now on the National Register of Historic Places) to the celebrated (and mostly intact) Blue Pagoda building that housed the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce. Revisiting Sarasota this past November for a celebration in his honor at the 2016 Sarasota MOD Weekend and the opening of a gallery show of his watercolors at Art Center Sarasota, Lundy looks back on his career, the town where he first made his architectural mark and what remains of his work. 

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SRQ What was it like being back in Sarasota? Victor A. Lundy: I was very moved by the attention—I really didn’t expect that at all. I’m so honored by the attention. When I started out, I was going to be an artist—a painter—and then when I became aware of the art of architecture, I quickly adapted that. It seemed a much richer form of art than hiding in a metal building and facing myself doing painting and drawing all alone. Architecture was that, plus involvement with people and history and cities and all of that. Architecture became my art form and it’s the quality of the buildings that I produced that brought the notoriety.

And this is where you received your first architectural commission, right? I received my first commission as a consequence of a painting I submitted in a competition. I won the first prize and Karl Bickel, a former head of United Press, was on the jury and when he found out I was an architect he called me and said, “Lundy, I hear you’re an architect. We have a beautiful site, we’re thinking of building the new chamber of commerce building there and I’d appreciate it if you went there tomorrow and visualized an abstraction of what you would build there.” So the next day I showed up, I spent the day with an easel and I did four huge paintings, which were exhibited. The consequence of that—I received my first commission.

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Did you get a chance to see the town when you visited? Did anything stand out?  No, I didn’t have the chance. And because of what has been done to sort of spoil most of the buildings I created there, I definitely avoid seeing them again. I kept busy and didn’t have the chance to see Sarasota except recognizing that it’s become a completely different city than the one I remember.

How does it feel to see your buildings changed after the fact? Frankly, absolutely devastated. Because I had this reputation as being an artist as well as an architect, these little churches communicated with me. These were very modest, low-budget congregations. They weren’t very sophisticated and their budgets were small, so I did the best I could. None of them could receive air conditioning at the time—there wasn’t the budget for it—and so that was to happen in the future. So in the original buildings, I worked out large sliding glass doors that let breezes in and I had for every project a strategy for air conditioning later when they could afford it. Well later, when I had left Sarasota—this is why God invented the telephone—when they wanted air conditioning all they had to do was call me and I would have flown down and helped in any way I could. Instead, they hired local architects whose job it was also to call me and say, “Hey Victor, we don’t want to ruin what you did. You better come down.” Like the fellowship hall at St. Paul’s, which was my favorite early building—I hope I never meet the architect, but he put a huge four-foot-by-four-foot wood air conditioning duct flowing through the space and new lighting fixtures from Home Depot. And I had a sophisticated plan for doing the air conditioning machinery outside and coming indoors through nicely designed vertical sculpture elements that would distribute air without ruining the space. So I’ve been horrified by what happened to almost all of these early buildings and that’s why on these subsequent trips to Sarasota I just avoid seeing. It’s just too painful for me to see them in their current condition. At first I resisted coming down but I was really touched by Janet [Minker]. She was so wonderful over the phone and their feelings were so sympathetic to mine and they generously included my son, wife and grandson.

Is it possible for you to revisit these old projects? Well it’s pretty hard though to restore them to their original form. That’s why Donna Kacmar is doing a book on my work, which will record the original images and which I’m happy is going to happen.

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Is watercolor something you’ve always pursued as well? I’ve always painted. When my architecture commissions were either spare or didn’t exist, I’ve always drawn and painted and so that’s always happened. I competed for the Rotch Traveling Scholarship offered by the Boston Society of Architects, which is a yearly competition really between Harvard and MIT, and I won and that gave me the opportunity to take the grand tour of Europe and I recorded all of that in formal watercolors, which weren’t shown in Sarasota but they exist at the Library of Congress, which has all of my stuff. I was originally going to be a painter, and I received a scholarship to New York University. But when I discovered they had a school of art and architecture, I was entirely smitten. Architecture was my art form and they had a distinguished Beaux Arts professor from Paris and I had two years of that training. Then Pearl Harbor happened and I ended up an infantry sergeant in Patton’s army in World War II. When I came back that school had disappeared and I went to Harvard University where Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer were my teachers.

You’ve said before that sketching, particularly a building, helps you to understand and grasp it. What do you mean by that? In a way, it’s a result of my early Beaux Arts training. I had the same early training as Louis Kahn, a personal friend, where students were isolated one from another, the problem to be studied was given to them and they had something like three to four hours to come up with an idea for the building they were going to study in detail for three or four months. All of us became pretty adept at drawing an idea, which had to be adhered to. So whenever I had a new architectural commission, I would go to the site—sometimes I actually slept at the site—and I would do watercolor paintings of first impressions of some sculptural idea I’d like to do there, much like what I did for the Chamber of Commerce building called the Blue Pagoda. And I still do that.

Does that apply to the sketches done overseas of your fellow soldiers in Patton’s army? Did drawing them help you capture them or what you were going through? Those were done on very small five-by-seven-inch sketchbooks—small enough to stick in my shirt pocket—and they were just a personal record of what I was going through. And because I draw pretty fast, sometimes I would draw something while I was moving. Just eight of those have survived and they’re also at the Library of Congress. I had a whole bunch of others, but they were unfortunately in my personal stuff which was stored somewhere and ripped off and stolen by GIs. They still exist somewhere.

Architecture feels so solid next to watercolor that they almost seem like opposites. Is there a reason you were attracted to these two media? I’m both. I have such respect for aspiring artists that to call myself an artist is like calling myself a saint, but I’m half an artist and half architect and they’re one. They’re not separate. Whenever I study a project, I draw constantly. Not necessarily watercolor, but the drawing and the painting are integral to forming my architectural work. I suppose it’s innate. I have a three-dimensional sculptural sense of things, and so my architecture isn’t all boxes. There are three-dimensional shapes and forms to it and it comes as a consequence of how I draw and do architecture and they’re one process.

What does it mean to work towards the irreducible? Whenever I start a project or frankly every day when I’m going to draw something, I use rolls of yellow or white tissue paper and just sketch something and I keep going until it’s just a perfect thing of what I have in mind. I heard that description from a personal book that Matisse wrote about how he started every day working towards the irreducible of a thought he had and sometimes he did as many as 30 drawings of the same thing until it was as perfect as he could get it—an irreducible image. In a way, that’s exactly what I do. I discard all the extraneous and get to the irreducible of any idea I’m working on.

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You’ve made a career of exploration, trying new ideas. With that in mind, what are your thoughts on preservation and Sarasota’s attachment to the Sarasota School of Architecture? Number one: there wasn’t a Sarasota School of Architecture. We were just a bunch of guys who happened to be working in the city at the same time. I didn’t belong to any group and I was always known as a lone wolf. My buildings are different because that’s my nature. I don’t just do box after box after box—I have a three-dimensional sculptural sense of things. For example, at the New York World’s Fair [in 1964], my project was the toilets and hot dog stands and out of the blue I came up with those air-supported structures. Very low budget and they were an enormous success. Philip Johnson called me after that and he and Lev Zetlin were sort of pissed off because for $6000 each—that’s all they cost and I did 10 of them—they received more attention than his multimillion dollar project. 

What is your feeling upon completing a project? What you’re touching on is my total distress at what happened to my projects. When I left them, I had used up the client’s meager money and on a couple projects I waived my fee to help do as much as I could. Completing was part of my involvement with every thing I’ve ever done. In a way, with the other projects that were respected by clients, I got each client to a point of it being irreducible and my ideal of excellence. I was so pleased when I finished these projects, but then I was so nervous about what might happen to them. I made people laugh in Sarasota when I said I wish they wouldn’t even use the buildings so they wouldn’t ruin them. 

Have your thoughts on architecture changed since you began? I’m very much a man of my time. I don’t belong to the computer age. My computer has always been the ebony pencil. If I were to start practicing now, I don’t have a computer and I would have to be educated in its use. I’ve had some experience when, years after Sarasota, I was design director at HKS [Architects] in Dallas, a huge firm, and they had one of the top computer systems in the country. I would draw a curved line and then I would have to wait until the computer guys caught up. And somehow I always liked my freehand line better than what the computer interpretation of it was. In that sense, I’d need some learning if I were to start a practice, because I’m very aware that this is a different time, but I’m still alive and what I feel and my philosophy of art and architecture remains. My sense of how I would approach a problem hasn’t changed

If you could, what would you tell your younger self as he’s starting out? What I am is out there. People who know me through the years say I’ve never changed. My advice would be to follow what I actually did in my own life: to be always totally aware of what’s happening and the progress of the world and how different it is; to always be aware and to adjust in intelligent ways to the movement of history and what’s developing and happening beyond one’s immediate time.