Concrete Place

Concrete Places in a Landscape of Illusions
by Robert McCarter

In the 35 years since he started his practice in Fort Lauderdale, the architecture of Donald Singer has been remarkably consistent in its exceptional quality of design and construction, in its principled engagement of function and inhabitant, and in its uncompromising modernity. Modern architecture is not a style to be copied, but a discipline to be practiced, and the realization of the principles of modern architecture has always required its being grounded in a particular place. For Singer, that place is Florida, and his dedication to the principles of modern architecture and to their embodiment in this tropical climate imparts to our experience of his work an astonishing clarity, precision and solidity rarely found today in what has increasingly become a landscape of illusions.

As a third-year undergraduate student at the University of Florida in the late 1950’s, Singer recalls “discovering” the work of Frank Lloyd Wright while researching a project in the library. Astonished and inspired by a unity of form and construction he had “never imagined was possible in architecture,” Singer traveled to Wright’s winter home and studio, Taliesin West, in 1958, while Wright was still alive. Singer felt instantly “at home,” never wanting to leave, experiencing a “unity and completeness” he had never known before. The fascination with Wright, while certainly not unique to Singer, would remain an important force in shaping his development as an architect.

After graduating from the University of Florida in 1960, Singer entered the one-year graduate program at Columbia University in New York. During this time, Singer made a trip to Philadelphia and visited the office of Louis I. Kahn, then a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Kahn was moved to find that this young man had come seeking neither admission to the University, nor a job in his office, but simply to meet him. Singer remembers Kahn began to talk “non-stop,” speaking of “walls radiant with gold sunlight flowing endlessly on.” As Singer was staying with a family friend who also was friends with Kahn, he was able to spend both the afternoon and evening with Kahn, who after dinner talked late into the night. At the time Kahn was designing and building the Salk Institute, the Medical Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Kimbell Art Museum, and the intensity of his poetic thought stayed with Singer for years to come.

Upon his return to Florida, Singer learned of the three remarkable buildings constructed between 1960 and 1962 in Jacksonville by Robert Ernest, who a few years before had graduated from Yale University, where Kahn had been his teacher. Before beginning his own practice in 1960, Ernest had worked for Paul Rudolph, supervising the construction of the Milam House near Jacksonville, built of concrete block, including the remarkably plastic brise-soleil, or sun break, facing the ocean. Ernest was an astonishingly talented architect, and his death in 1962 at age 29, from cancer, was an immeasurable loss to the profession in Florida and the US. Yet Ernest’s three built works, two concrete block houses (including his own three-story home and studio) and a community center (roofed with one of the earliest folded plate concrete structures in the US), exemplified the architectural conceptions of Kahn, and were to exercise enormous influence on the Florida architects of Singer’s generation.

After graduating from Columbia University, Singer and his wife Elaine toured the country visiting the works of Frank Lloyd Wright. In recalling this 1962 trip, Singer mentions two aspects that would prove crucial to his own development as an architect. The first was what he called “the difference” that could be felt at Taliesin West following Wright’s death in 1959—the life had gone out of the place. The absence of the great architect effected Singer’s experience of the place that had been Wright’s home and studio: he no longer felt the unity of architectural space and the life that goes on within it, which had made such a strong impression on him only four years before. This early lesson in the importance of what Singer would later call a building’s “use and users,” its function and inhabitants, would stay with him throughout his career.

The second aspect of this trip crucial to Singer’s architecture was his experience of Wright’s early concrete block houses of the 1920s. In retrospect, it is perhaps not surprising that of all Wright’s buildings he visited, Singer recalls most vividly these early exercises in the use of concrete block, a material that would soon come to define Singer’s own architecture. He was deeply moved by both the Ennis and Storrer Houses, built in Los Angeles in 1923, and their respective systems of construction—the single-story, solid-walled and open-ended masonry volumes of the former, and the two-story, vertical volumes defined by masonry piers of the latter—would be redeployed in Singer’s own later designs. Singer also visited the Lloyd-Jones House, built in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1929, which employs a series of vertical masonry piers separated by continuous floor-to-ceiling glazing, unique in Wright’s work. This last of the first series of Wright’s concrete block houses is visited far more rarely than the houses in California, and Singer’s pilgrimage to see it is indicative of the impression these nearly 40-year old houses and their mode of construction made upon the young architect.

Wright had also built in concrete block at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, from 1938 onwards until his death. These works by Wright were well-known to the Florida architects of the “Sarasota School,” several of whom lectured at the University of Florida during the time Singer was a student. In the Anne Pfeiffer Chapel of 1938, Wright exposed the concrete block in the walls of the lower floor, under the existing citrus tree canopy, while the concrete block upper walls, which rose above the tree canopy, were covered with stucco plaster. While both these means of “expressing” concrete masonry construction, exposed and rendered in stucco, were common in architecture of the period in which Singer would have become familiar with this work by Wright, it was rare to find them both employed in the same building. Wright’s use of exposed and rendered masonry to differentiate between scales of site experience—the exposed concrete block seen up close as we walk beside the building, and the stucco rendering seen at a distance, above the tree canopy—would also have implications for Singer’s work.

Wright’s influence on Singer is evidenced by his only applying for work with Nils Schweizer, Wright’s Taliesin apprentice in charge of Florida Southern, and Alfred Browning Parker, Florida’s most famous architect, like Singer a University of Florida alumnus. Parker’s work was deeply indebted to Wright, who had praised Parker’s own house in its 1954 national publication. Due to lack of work, neither Schweizer nor Parker could offer Singer a position, and he enlisted in the Air Force, where he was stationed in Florida. During this period of military duty, he “moonlighted” by working in the evenings with the architect Charles Reed, and this experience was to have a profound influence on Singer.

Singer’s first and second built architectural works, an animal hospital and a residence built in 1964, were constructed of exposed concrete block walls and precast concrete floor slabs. His third built work, of the same year, was a building containing his own house, office and three apartments, constructed of concrete masonry walls rendered in stucco plaster. This modest, inexpensive design garnered Singer his first AIA Award of Excellence, in 1966, and more recently it received the prestigious “Test of Time” Award from the Florida AIA, recognizing a building that 25 years after its completion remains an important and influential work. With the rent produced by the three apartments, the building was also an ingenious solution to the problem of supporting a family without being forced to accept architectural commissions that held no promise of quality.

The Singer Apartments were built on a small, heavily wooded urban lot in Fort Lauderdale, and the plan is skillfully organized on a diagonal from the street grid so as to save the four existing oak trees and provide private entries and courtyards for the four apartments. While the building achieves this seemingly impossible task, our experience of it is characterized by the exact opposite of what we might expect from such a complex collection of functions. Spaces inside and out are flooded with sunlight and views of nature; the garden walls merge with the building walls in a seemingly free play of forms; and the fully glazed openings allow the domestic interiors to reach out to the street edge, expanding our perception of the site. The window at the top of the stair in Singer’s own apartment, with its three sheets of glass meeting without mullions at their outer three edges, elegantly joins the space of the house to the sky.

Here in his very first works, Singer established the qualities of inhabited space and meaningful construction that would characterize his designs during the next 35 years of architectural practice.

Concrete Places

From the very beginning, Singer has employed concrete block construction as his primary means to realize his designs. The concrete block, says Singer, is “our modern stone.” In his buildings, concrete block is honored for its own inherent qualities, for its obstinate ordinariness, and for its inability to look like anything other than itself. In employing the concrete block as his primary building material, Singer’s work may be related to that of Wright, who also employed what he called this “despised outcast of the building industry,” and Kahn, who constantly searched for modern equivalents (concrete block) of ancient construction (stone).

Singer calls attention to two other important attributes of concrete block as a building material that are critical to understanding his architecture. The first is concrete block’s coolness in Florida’s hot climate, its deep shadow in the bright sunshine, and its mass and resistance to the flow of heat into the house. The second is that, being composed of individual masonry units, block construction allows us to “walk up to the building and touch it, and know you are seeing the hand of the person who built the house, inside and out, long after the building is finished.” This doubly tactile reading of concrete block—the hand of the craftsman and the hand of those who later touch the wall—gives a powerful presence to Singer’s work, particularly in a society which places an ever-increasing emphasis on purely visual attributes.

Singer’s architecture is characterized by laconic, minimalist detailing of the basic concrete block construction method, giving primacy to the material and its structural and space-making task. All ornament, according to Kahn, comes from the details necessary to construction, and Singer’s work is an elegant elaboration of this ethic. Singer’s fondness for the flush detailing of wall surfaces, in particular the expression of cast-in-place concrete slab edge beams at the exterior, is complemented by the subtle pattern of the masonry units. This construction ethic imparts clarity and precision to the simple cubic geometry of Singer’s designs. His buildings often consist of an asymmetrical composition of masonry “boxes” that collect, without touching, around common circulation spaces, the only symmetries being those contained in the individual, cubic, concrete block room-volumes. As a result of their precision of form and construction, Singer’s buildings are able to focus and clarify their contexts, bringing a subtle yet powerful order to sites in both landscape and city.

The Niiler Residence, built in Fort Lauderdale in 1966, is a composition of three tower-like concrete block volumes that may be related to both Rudolph’s Milam House and Ernest’s own home and studio. All three designs position a variety of levels and heights of spaces within a sequence of open-ended concrete block shells. The Niiler House is sited in an abandoned citrus grove, and Singer placed the entry elevation within the grid defined by the trees, then turning the rear elevation of the three parallel concrete block shells 45 degrees to catch the prevailing breezes. The multiple levels of living space within are literally joined by the split-level stair and anchored to the central vertical service core, and the interior volumes interpenetrate with exterior space in almost every room. The concrete block walls are laid in a stack bond pattern, one directly over the other, similar to Wright’s concrete block houses, allowing the aligned masonry edges to hold both vertical and horizontal steel reinforcing. Also similar to Wright’s early concrete block houses, the horizontal structure consists of wood framing spanning between the masonry walls.

The Weinberger Residence, built in Miami in 1968, is perhaps the most beautiful and elegantly resolved of Singer’s houses, and yet it was accomplished only four years after he started his practice. Three interlocking rectangular volumes, two horizontal (one-story) and one vertical (two-story), are linked by decks in a carefully proportioned asymmetrical plan. Two large trees existed on the site, and in order to allow their roots to grow freely, Singer supported the house on a series of columnar foundations. The concrete block walls are supported by cast-in-place concrete floor edge beams, and the house floats slightly above the ground, seeming to defy the heaviness expected of concrete. In a similar way, these concrete “boxes” hovering above the sandy soil makes us more aware of the landscape than would have been the case if the house had covered its site. The structural materials of which the floors, walls and roof are constructed were also exposed as the finished surface, inside and out, allowing us to understand exactly how the house was made. The two-story living room is divided by a concrete header beam that aligns with the roof of the one-story portions of the house, and produces a “T”-shaped window composition in the main elevation to the surrounding landscape, reminiscent of Kahn’s Esherick House of 1965. This simple and delightful series of spaces is as refined an example of modern architecture as any built at this time in the US, and places Singer among the very best architects of his generation.

The Medical Plaza Office Building, built in Plantation in 1972, is equally astonishing in its integration of form, function and construction, and should be considered one of his very best works. In this design, Singer inverted the expected relation between the suburban office building and the street, placing the building above rather than behind its parking lot, so that the offices front the street edge at the sidewalk. The offices are lifted one floor above the ground, with the parked cars beneath them, where they are sheltered from both hot sun and torrential rain. On the street the offices are ordered in three solid windowless blocks, two longer and one shorter, constructed of concrete masonry walls, set in a “running bond,” overlapping, to reinforce the horizontality of the building’s massing, and carried on deep concrete beams that cantilever at each end. The entries to the offices, from the car and from the street, are located in the spaces between the office blocks, with stairs and elevators leading to the second level where we find something else unexpected—a 30 foot wide pedestrian passage, open to the sky, which runs down the center of the building its entire length.

In this extraordinary design, the offices are structured by the parking they cover, yet in our experience of the place, we are aware only of the pedestrian scale. The accommodation of the automobile, which normally eliminates any possibility of pedestrian space in the suburb, has been employed to create a sequence of arrival that is skillfully orchestrated to minimize the anxiety typical of visits to medical offices. The service functions most often seen as “infrastructure” (Kahn’s “servant spaces”) supporting the “real” architecture of the principal program (Kahn’s “served spaces”) are given equal consideration in the design process. The resulting design is both a powerful spatial and formal composition as well as a fully integrated, subtly articulated urban infrastructure, comparable to the very best modern architecture anywhere in the world.

In fact, the Medical Offices bear a remarkable resemblance in plan and elevation to Mario Botta’s School at Morbio Inferiore, Switzerland, completed five years later, in 1977. As in Singer’s Medical Offices, Botta’s School is organized as a series of discrete concrete horizontal volumes, aligned to make an urban edge, with solid upper walls hovering over open ground floors, the whole tied together by a central sky-lighted circulation spine at the upper floor that runs the length of the entire building. In addition to this comparison, we might also note the similarities between the houses of Botta and Singer: both are most often compact, cubic, simple geometric masonry masses, and both typically provide closed, protected refuges with outlook, framing selected views from within of idealized nature and urbanity, while at the same time blocking views of suburban sprawl. In all this we sense the influence on both Singer and Botta of the work of Kahn, the real link between them.

However, it was only in 1982, ten years after the Medical Offices were built, that Singer first became aware of the work of Mario Botta. Singer immediately invited Botta to be on the jury for the Fort Lauderdale Riverfront competition that same year, and visited Botta’s buildings in Ticino in 1984. As striking as the similarities between the work of Singer and Botta were before that date, are the differences between their work since that date. Botta has received extensive and ever-increasing international publicity for his work, in numerous books and magazines, which has led to a rapidly-increasing amount of work, requiring an expansion of staff and acceleration of the design and production process. On the other hand, Singer’s architecture has been published only occasionally in national or international magazines, and he has maintained a modest-sized practice where he is able to be intimately involved with every project. Yet Singer’s work has maintained its precision and simplicity, while Botta’s work has declined in quality in exact proportion to the increasing publicity he has received—an illustration of the deleterious effects of excessive publicity on the careers of architects. Few have proven capable of surviving their own “success.”

The City Park Municipal Garage, built in Fort Lauderdale in 1978, is Singer’s urban masterpiece. That his masterwork comes in the form of a seven-level parking garage, rather than a supposedly more “prestigious” institutional or office building, illustrates Singer’s remarkable capacity to achieve excellence in the chronically undervalued category of building called “infrastructure.” The City Park Garage is indeed architecture of the highest quality, and acts to center and order the entire downtown of Fort Lauderdale through its cl