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Simple Gifts

From modest cottages at the iconic village of Seaside, FL, to large-scale traditional structures elsewhere, Merrill, Pastor & Colgan Architects celebrates the discipline and purity of form found in traditional building.
By Kim A. O'Connell

A church is, without question, an expression of faith – faith in a higher power, as well as the power of religion to be a force for good. A church also expresses the faith that community traditions will be strong enough to warrant the time, money and materials spent in its design and construction. Historic beliefs and future hopes alike are embodied in the liturgy, as well as the windows and walls. So it is at the relatively new chapel in Seaside, FL, the iconic traditional town conceived more than 20 years ago by developer Robert Davis and master-planned by the New Urbanist duo of Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Even as some critics have written off Seaside as a kind of traditionalist fairyland for affluent vacationers, the erection of the chapel underscores the fact that Seaside is a real town and a real community. The chapel's spare design, by Vero Beach, FL-based Merrill, Pastor & Colgan Architects, reflects not just the high-minded Gothic of traditional churches, but also the down-home rural roots of the Southeast.

These somewhat countervailing influences represent not a paradox in the firm's approach but a central philosophy. Founder Scott Merrill, AIA, "is in love with the vernacular and classical traditions of architecture," writes Vincent Scully in a new monograph on the firm. "His design shows that he knows and respects them all so well that he is determined to build them correctly, that is, with the exactitude, the sense of discovery, even the originality, they deserve."

The firm was founded amid the traditional renaissance that spawned Seaside – now a model for other traditional neighborhoods, built in what was an otherwise underdeveloped, anything-goes part of the Florida panhandle. There, Scott Merrill designed buildings that were Classical in their purity of form and precision, but also simple and unpretentious as beachfront properties ought to be. Later, Merrill and his partners crafted luxurious private residences that evince a rustic Classicism. More recently, the firm has expanded its scope to include larger public buildings in a variety of locations, forging intriguing design solutions in terms of composition and scale.

The Honeymoon Period
As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, Merrill worked in the historic Rotunda and often crossed the famed Lawn with its Classical pavilions, which he says remain his favorite group of buildings. Although Merrill was an economics major, Jefferson's "academical village" inspired him to consider architecture as a career, and he went on to Yale University to earn a master's degree in the field. The faculty there placed a strong emphasis on broadening students' experiences with visiting critics' studios. "The great thing about the Yale experience was the sheer number of people with different bents and emphases that we learned about," Merrill says. "The Yale campus is like a classroom itself; it's the most amazing set of urban quadrangles. You have this pastoral complex of buildings at UVA and then you have this beautiful assembly of urban buildings at Yale, so I was exposed to the best of both worlds."

By the mid-1980s, Merrill had launched his professional career working for two Washington, DC, firms – McCartney Lewis and Cass & Pinnell (which later moved to Connecticut). At the latter firm, Merrill met Duany and was in turn introduced to Davis, who brought the young man to Seaside to serve as town architect. Merrill would have been content to fulfill that job's main function, which was to oversee the implementation of the master plan and facilitate construction. But Davis and Duany believed in Merrill, giving him the plum assignment of developing a series of rental cottages along the shoreline in the late 1980s.

Called the Honeymoon Cottages after the abode that Thomas Jefferson lived in while he worked on Monticello, the six identical houses face the Gulf of Mexico – a row of miniature Greek revival temples wrought in wood and painted white like the sand below. Jefferson's cottage is built into the hillside, an aspect that Merrill emulated by situating the cottages so that they appear as one-story volumes from the beach but pull up to their two-story height when viewed from the road.

Merrill still finds the Honeymoon Cottages to be instructive. Seaside was planned as a modest American village in which the houses were to be crafted in only a few types, and where the people would be relied upon to provide the local color and diversity. As it developed, however, Seaside's denizens constructed larger and larger houses with fat columns and other details that were "undigested and overscaled," according to Vincent Scully – while the exorbitant prices limited the socioeconomic diversity so praised by the New Urbanists. The Honeymoon Cottages, by contrast, advocate for the original vision of Seaside, which heralded simplicity.

"The Honeymoon Cottages are a distillation of a lot of important ideas, a very reductive type, which comes from the program," Merrill says. "They are incredibly simple buildings and very frankly repetitious….This was a chance to demonstrate that Seaside was really about a repetition of a limited number of types, not about the increasing individualization that was happening there."

The Classical Ideal
In 1990, Merrill started his own practice, which he moved to the Atlantic coast town of Vero Beach, FL. A year later, he hired George Pastor, AIA, who became an associate in 1996 and a partner in 1997. Pastor and Merrill had common roots, with Pastor having earned his Bachelor of Architecture at the University of Miami and his master's degree at UVA. During graduate school, Pastor recalls, he spent a summer working at Monticello as it was being restored, gaining a hands-on education in traditionalism. Now he plays a key role in the firm's projects and handles much of its contract administration.

David Colgan, AIA, joined the firm in 1994 and became the third partner five years later while concurrently opening the firm's only additional office in Atlanta. He received his Bachelor of Architecture from Notre Dame. Today, the firm has grown to 11 people, and Merrill is proud of the fact that they have never had to let anyone go.

"I think that Scott and George bring to the table such valuable and complementary skills that working together is never a shoving match for territory authorship, but a well-ordered and balanced effort," says Colgan. "I cannot say enough about Scott and George's ability to manage the talented staff that we have. The ability to assign work with just enough information to explain the task, but not so much that the exercise is rote, allows lots of ideas to be tested before the best are culled and further developed. It is a distillation of ideas that, in my mind, strives for the Classical ideal that nothing can be added or taken away without detriment to the whole."

The move to Vero Beach coincided with the firm's decision to work with Duany and Plater-Zyberk on their traditional resort town of Windsor. There, Merrill and his partners sought to create a distinct pattern language from which guest houses, community areas, and garden features would all be derived – a perfection of the Seaside model. The firm's design for the Windsor town center is first and foremost a beautifully executed plan, in which a group of public buildings form a collective unit that sits at the convergence of five roads. The diverse program is divided among eight separate structures, including two apartment buildings, a small store, post office, fitness club, observation tower and three gardens. The buildings showcase disciplined Classicism, employing Greek columns and Italianate rooflines tempered by warm Caribbean colors and human-scale volumes. A semicircular exedra serves as a focal point.

Throughout the '90s, in addition to upscale residential work, the firm continued to take on projects at Seaside and elsewhere, collaborating on new buildings at Windsor and at the University of Miami with traditionalist Leon Krier, among others. The firm's buildings, Krier has written, "strike us for the total absence of any of the trivia which mark the majority of contemporary buildings; they truly transcend the period." Its design for the town hall at Rosemary Beach, FL, in just one example, emulates Boston's Old State House in massing and form. Partly because of budgetary restrictions, the firm had to find ways to distinguish the building with broad brush strokes, in this case employing a dramatic parapet gable that evokes Florida's Spanish roots.

In 2001, Merrill, Pastor & Colgan began work on the Seaside Chapel. The building – an interfaith worship space for 200 people – remains a special project for the principals because of its significance as a culminating project at Seaside, the undeniable success of its execution, and the fact that it marks a shift in the firm's mission toward more and larger public buildings. Without resorting to typical religious symbology such as a crucifix, the church embodies the verticality of the Christian Gothic style. At the same time, rather than being heavy and foreboding, the white chapel is built in the rural Alabama Episcopal tradition of Carpenter Gothic board-and-batten churches.

"The Seaside chapel is very close to being the building I wouldn't criticize myself on," Merrill says. "It's very simple in its volume, and it has an affinity with the Honeymoon Cottages." "It was one of our first public buildings which we knew would be accessible to large numbers of people," Colgan adds. "It is a building type that is used at important times in people's lives and we hope it enhances the experience." Colgan should know – he and his wife were married there in 2003.

Public Works
In the last five years, Merrill, Pastor & Colgan Architects has undertaken a broad spectrum of design work representing a wide range of building types. These include a federal courthouse, a fitness center, a clock tower, two post offices, a motor court, several apartment buildings, an equestrian center, a small office building and a sales office. "Even though I've been a party to it, I've been surprised at how lucky we are to do a number of different building types, including several projects that are over 100,000 square feet," Merrill says. "This means that we're constantly shifting gears between scale and between regions. You have projects that are in very different settings, and with that you have programmatic and compositional challenges."

The real dilemma for traditionalists, Merrill continues, will be to design large commercial buildings on a human scale and with discipline and beauty, while accommodating a host of modern concerns, from the vagaries of property ownership to building codes and mechanical systems. He is reminded of Frank Lloyd Wright's dictum about building from the inside out – that is, allowing the building's exterior to offer insight to the spaces and layout within. "At the same time, if you're building in an urban setting, there's a thwarting of Wright's impulse to let the outside look like the inside," Merrill says. "There's tussle between wanting to have order on the street while reflecting the internal complexity. Our buildings are starting to work at this level."

The firm's approach to such complex projects is evident in its plan for the Fort Pierce Courthouse in southern Florida, not yet built, as well as in its submission for a design competition for the new West Palm Beach Library (which was ultimately won by Demitri Porphyrios). In both cases, the solidity and import of the structures are evident in the long, heavy facades, but this is considerably lightened by the extensive use of glass, the multi-story pier language, and the asymmetrical massing of internal components, which is most obvious in the roof lines. The firm's neo-traditional mixed-use plan for a new resort in Alys Beach, FL, and its compound of large apartment buildings in the Bahamas speak to other considerations as well, such as engaging and developing the street grid, accommodating traffic flow and determining pedestrian circulation.

When Merrill talks about this work, he sounds much like the eager young architect he was when he arrived at Seaside years ago – eager to apply the time-tested rules of traditional building with rigor, simplicity and imagination. "Composition has become of much more interest to us," he says. "The reductive quality of the Honeymoon Cottages or the Seaside Chapel is only one of at least two distinct strains in our work, with the other being much more freewheeling composition. While the smaller buildings have the design and the details, there's an intermediate layer of composition that becomes the great promise of the bigger buildings." TB

 

 

 
 

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