|Discipline and Nature|
|Written by Blanca Mesa, BT Contributor|
Exhibit highlights the “tropicalist” work of Alfred Browning Parker
Architect Alfred Browning Parker began building his home, which he called Woodsong, in Miami at a time when there was no central air conditioning and the wildness of the tropics lay just outside the door. It was a moment in Miami that presaged the birth of a movement: Miami as a tropical city. And Parker made the connection between modernism and naturalism sing in every dwelling he designed, beginning in 1942 until his death in 2011.
“Parker innovated the modern into a diverging Miami,” said Miami architect and preservationist Allan S. Shulman at the opening reception of the new HistoryMiami Museum exhibit, “The Discipline of Nature: Architect Alfred Browning Parker in Florida.” The exhibit is curated by Shulman and Randolph C. Henning, author of The Architecture of Alfred Browning Parker: Miami’s Maverick Modernist. Original drawings, photographs, models, and furnishings that trace a 60-year career can be seen through February 26.
Parker’s work exemplified how to live in harmony with nature, his principal source of inspiration. He saw the beauty of gnarled wood and pock-marked limestone -- and invited it indoors -- to line ceilings and walls, and grace fireplaces. He broke the boundaries between the outdoors and inside, with homes that were more like treehouses, their patios encased in canopies of green. The windows and doors weren’t made to keep anything out; they existed to bring in tropical light and bathe the rooms in ocean breezes.
There is a lifetime of “tropicalist” designs to see, including Parker’s oolitic limestone-encrusted home carved from an abandoned gas station, elaborate commissioned homes, and ambitious civic projects like Bayside’s Miami Marina. Churches, schools, and office buildings are also in the mix, each carrying the distinctive Parker sensibility to Miami’s place in the tropics.
Does Parker’s work resonate today? At first, the answer would seem to be “no.” Viewing the exhibit from the perspective of 2016 is like time-traveling -- peering into a lost world of palmetto and pinelands that once existed throughout Miami but are now only found on conservation lands.
Architect and urban planner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, a panelist at the exhibit’s opening night forum, wondered aloud if Parker’s vision and sensitivity to the nature that nurtured him could inspire architects working in Miami today.
“It seems like another time,” she said. “You don’t see this kind of building going on now. Is it just going to be history?”
Miami’s current architecture trends toward large-scale buildings and condo homes hermetically sealed by leak-proof windows and doors. Trees, if they can be found at all, are a distant mass of green amid an ethereal landscape of open ocean and expansive sky. There are few places to viscerally experience Miami anymore.
Luckily, there is one building that recalls Parker’s dream of environmental harmony: Herzog & de Meuron’s Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). Elevated to absorb storm surge (and rising seas), the building boasts an open public space facing Biscayne Bay and Museum Park that reminds one of Parker’s tree-canopied patios. Its use of materials are a Parker staple, too: wood and rough concrete exteriors that will weather, evolve, and transform with time, as objects in nature do. Here you can have a visceral experience.
PAMM embraces nature rather than denying it -- something to keep in mind for the next 100 years. Miami is having a moment that seems, for the most part, intent on denying its place within the natural world. But there are natural forces with a will of their own that cannot be ignored or tamed.
Super storms, super floods, super heat -- these are all coming with a ferocity and frequency we have never known. In this world, Parker’s quest to live harmoniously with nature will be a challenge. But it could also be our best bet for survival.
At David Kennedy Park in Coconut Grove, the mangroves are already moving closer as high tides come higher and stay longer. One day, their roots will claw their way onto our playing fields.
And the flood waters on Miami Beach are not really controlled. They seep into the parking garages and lap at back doors.
Could there be a more sustainable way to co-exist? Architects today will have to figure out where to put the water. Tidal pools in front yards? A saltwater river through Lincoln Road?
For Parker, the fundamental ordering principles revolved around setting each building within its natural environment and climate. If we want Miami to have a future, we will have to find a place for the water to flow. For the air to breathe. And the trees to grow.
So Parker is not just history. He has given us guiding principles for the future, too.
“The peril of our time is not from our external surroundings, but from within ourselves,” Parker said. “Man cannot ‘conquer’ the earth. He can establish a symbiotic relationship. He cannot control nature; he can live in harmony with it.”
Volume 15, Issue 1, March 2017
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