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 clarity of form and function at the large scale, and its precision of precast concrete structure and concrete masonry walls at the smaller scale.

The users are oriented within both the building and the street grid of the city by the vertical volumes open to the sky, positioned deep inside the two-city-block-wide horizontal slabs of the building, and by the provision of a generous, 20-foot high ceiling at the street level, allowing views out to the surrounding streets. In order to insure permanent access to sunlight, Singer placed the driving ramps outside the edge of the structure where the building faces the interior of the block, so that any future building could not come closer than 30 feet from the façade of the garage. The City Park garage is a superbly resolved design: formally simple, yet containing a variety of scale and detail, together producing a density of experience appropriate for a place of arrival and departure from an urban center.

The Howard Brody Residence, built on a site on the New River in Fort Lauderdale in 1982, is carefully structured to allow the inhabitants to have views of the heavily-trafficked river without loss of privacy. The house is composed of two masonry volumes, the first a square in plan, containing the entry, kitchen, and children’s bedrooms, and the second a long rectangle in plan, containing the living and dining areas, study and master bedroom. The rectangular volume runs parallel to the river edge, while the cubic volume is on the other, approach side of the site, and is oriented at a 45 degree angle to the river; both are constructed of 8 by 16 inch masonry units set in a running bond. The rectangular volume contains an open, two-story living and dining space that runs its entire length, opening to the river with a full-height glass wall recessed behind a masonry frame. Within this open rectangular volume is located a cylindrical “tower” housing the study below and the master bedroom above, both of which have windows opening into the larger space; the cylinder is constructed of 8 by 8 inch masonry units, set in a stack bond. The connection to the cubic volume is made, at both levels, from this cylinder, which is centered in plan on the cubic volume’s diagonal axis, and that emerges through the top of the rectangle that houses it to form a circular roof terrace. The house is both a series of independent, pure geometric forms and a powerfully interlocked set of interior spaces, and the thresholds between the domestic functions are carefully articulated in the details of construction.

The Fire Prevention Bureau, built in Fort Lauderdale in 1983, is located on a lakefront site adjacent to an existing fire station. Singer placed the building on the lake’s shoreline, so that the rear of the building projects out into the water. The rooms are articulated as a series of independent rectangular volumes, facing east and west, organized around a central circulation space. The low-angled sun that strikes these primary façades morning and afternoon are met by cast-in-place concrete sunshades, outreaching hollow walls tilted at a 45 degree angle in section, protecting the windows recessed deep in their shadows. Typical of Singer’s office buildings, the windows are designed as openings across the entire end of a room or volume, rather than as holes in the wall. Both the cast-in-place concrete sunshades and the masonry bearing walls that anchor the building to the site are rendered in stucco plaster, making of the whole building a highly plastic, pure white form, on which the sun creates a constantly changing pattern of shadows throughout the day.

The Elementary Schools (nine total) and Middle Schools (eight total), built in Broward County from 1990 to 1996, exemplify Singer’s commitment to quality in public architecture. Designed as prototypes, each school’s programmatic spaces are arrayed around a central courtyard where all circulation is concentrated, providing orientation, security, and a sense of place. The heat and humidity of the south Florida environment is tempered by these courtyards and their layers of shaded circulation. The classroom and other functional volumes are separately articulated around the central court, giving both an individual and collective scale within these miniature urban realms. Taken together, these schools possess a quality of space, clarity of construction, and dignity of purpose rarely found in our time of chronically under-funded public architecture.

The World Savings Branch Banks, built in Ocala, Venice, Naples, Palm Harbor, Boca Raton, Wellington, and Sarasota from 1993 to today, offer an astonishingly effective series of variations on a theme. Designed for one of the world’s most discriminating clients, these banks are elegantly minimal compositions, using color and prismatic planes of concrete to create a strong sense of identity and place within their uniformly unmemorable suburban contexts. Exposed to view on all sides, the banks nevertheless act to articulate their functions and modes of access in a clear and immediate manner. Their spaces both open and shadowed, the banks’ stucco and glass wall planes fold around corners to form dynamic spatial compositions joining interior and exterior, giving physical and visual access while protecting the banking functions from exposure. As spatial tour-de-force and functional place of business, these banks reject both Venturi’s “decorated shed” and “duck,” setting the highest standard for the architecture of the contemporary American suburbs.

The Larry Brody Residence, completed in Miami in 1995, is an extraordinarily elegant design, constructed with a level of craft rarely seen today. Built on a small island in Biscayne Bay, the house frames an incredible view of the downtown Miami skyline though a series of massive concrete block piers. The client required each room to have a view of Miami, and to achieve this Singer’s plan arrays a series of 3 two-story, 24-foot-square volumes along a 45-degree diagonal. These solid volumes are exposed to create a façade that steps back on the entry side of the house, while the façade that faces the view is composed of an arcade of concrete masonry piers parallel to the edge of the water, each pier turned at a 45-degree angle. Behind this arcade and the parallel full-height glass wall it shades, and in front of the stepping mass of the main part of the house, are the living and dining rooms. Seeming at once both inside and outside, the double-height living and dining rooms are overlooked by the solid stepped volumes housing the bedrooms and service functions, and they in turn overlook the pool, terrace, and view of Miami, seen through the arcade of piers.

The house is beautifully constructed of a double-layer concrete block wall (8 inch outside and 4 inch inside), horizontally “striped” with alternating gray masonry (two courses, or 16 inches high) and cream-colored masonry (one course, or 8 inches high). The floors and ceilings are of wood, whose color compliments the cream-colored block, and the house is filled with elegant and yet highly functional details. In the protective shadow of the concrete block arcade, the window wall is constructed of large sheets of glass with mullions only at the floor and pier lines, while the glazing in the exposed outer walls is divided by closely spaced horizontal steel mullions. The second floor master bath projects out over the first floor dining room, with a glazed wall that opens to the view, yet the privacy of the bath is protected by horizontal wood louvers that wrap the opening, blocking views into the bath from the room below. The spaces of the house are at once expansive, open to the magnificent view through extensive glazing, and yet intimate, protected behind heavy masonry walls and piers. The living room engages the domestic scale of the bathroom and kitchen at one edge and the urban scale of the skyline framed in the arcade at the other edge. Sitting in this living room, one of the greatest spaces Singer has ever designed, we are truly at home in this time and this place.

A Landscape of Illusions
The Florida landscape has, from its very first exploration by western Europeans, been a place of illusions. Both a real and metaphorical swampland, Florida is a layered landscape without dry land or open water. The travel journals of William Bartram, dating from 1774, tell of great water courses that disappear without a trace; of a hollow land riddled with springs; and of natural illusions arising from the sun’s play across the flat shallow landscape, the swamp’s equivalent to the desert’s mirage, blurring the horizon line and merging wet ground with humid sky. In this landscape of natural illusions, real and imagined, what was solid and what was not was impossible to tell by sight alone. To know the reality of things in Florida, one had to touch them, to test their reality with one’s hand.

Today there is no place left in Florida—not even in the depths of the Everglades—where nature has not been touched by the hand of man. In a process of destruction that that is disingenuously called “land development,” modern man has scalped the forests and filled the wetlands of Florida. The indigenous landform and vegetation of Florida has largely been replaced by the vast grids of agribusiness and the meandering cul-de-sacs of the suburbs, retirement communities, and office parks—complete with their “natural” compositions of imported plant material (ironically enough called “landscaping”). Florida continues to be a place of illusions, only now they are man-made ones: urban “canals” dredged from mangrove swamps (Fort Lauderdale and Sarasota), “nature resorts” without natural features (Disney World), and “old towns” without histories (Seaside and Celebration). In this “new” Florida, everything is made exclusively for the enjoyment of the eye, without any reality, solidity or permanence.

This transformation of the context for building in Florida even extends to the materials typical of construction. In the 1960’s, when Singer began his practice, there were numerous types of concrete block made locally in Florida, with a great variety of colors, textures, sizes and shapes possible to obtain with little difficulty. Concrete blocks were known by the location of their manufacturing plant, such as the light tan-colored “Ocala Block,” and characterized by the subtle differences in the sand used in their production. Examples would include the Becker House of 1962 by Robert Ernest, which was built of custom-made rhombus-shaped concrete blocks, and the series of speculative houses built in Gainesville in the 1960’s by Jack Clark, modeled on Wright’s Usonian Houses, which employed custom-patterned, locally-manufactured concrete blocks. In fact the consistency of high quality, inventively-detailed concrete block construction throughout Florida in the 1960’s is remarkable, and in marked contrast to what typical construction has become today.

Since the 1960’s there has been a steady decline in the types and quality of concrete block that can be obtained for construction in Florida, and there are very few local appearance-grade block manufacturers still in business. In addition, the number and quality of craftspeople able and willing to lay concrete block has also declined precipitously. This loss of craft is more troubling than the loss of manufacturing capacity for, while the methods and machinery necessary to produce high-quality concrete block could be relatively easily reassembled, if the economy were supportive, craft techniques are lost forever when the last mason with a particular skill retires. Today’s contractors have no interest in such demanding craft techniques. Rapidity of assembly and maximum quantity with minimum labor have now replaced craft and quality for the construction industry.

While Singer has consistently employed concrete block in his buildings since starting his practice in 1964, the building industry as a whole has increasingly relied on more ephemeral materials. Led by the home builders, the construction industry has developed a new set of standard materials that are both less permanent and less “real” than the traditional building materials they replace. Materials such as “acrocrete” or “dryvit” (a thin layer of plastic-impregnated stucco on foam insulation, applied over wood framing), and plastic roofing and precast fiber wall panels (that come in 10 foot-square sheets formed to look like a field of individually-laid tiles and stones), have now come to dominate the construction industry, offering faster erection time (lower labor costs) and the ability to “look like” real, traditional building materials. But do not look too closely, and do not touch these materials, or the illusion will be broken.

Along with this loss of real materials has come a parallel loss of real indigenous architecture in Florida. In the same way that traditional building materials have been replaced by new materials that “look like” but are not the originals, traditional modes of building (including both the farmers’ metal-roofed “Cracker House” and the regional interpretation of modernism called “the Sarasota School’), have been replaced by “new” styles that “look like” no original to be found in Florida.

So-called “neo-traditional” styles of building, such as those written into the code at Disney’s new town of Celebration (where all styles are defined except the two that are not allowed, “bizarre and modern”), are the result of national marketing studies called “visual preference surveys.” That such surveys simply identify purely visual prejudices is proven by the fact that the results of Disney’s study were an overwhelming preference by prospective home-buyers for a two-story “Victorian” street facade and a one-story “open, modern” floor plan – both in the same house! The split between image and reality that underlies this “historical” styling of contemporary construction is further illustrated by the fact that these same buyers could never imagine having real Victorian-era bathrooms and kitchens in their new “Victorian” houses.

This obsession with “historical” styles and “look-alike” materials has today laid waste to Florida, filling it with fake “French Provincial,” “Spanish Colonial,” “Southern Plantation,” and “Mediterranean” houses, all built of polystyrene foam “stucco,” cement fiber board “wood” siding, cast concrete “stone,” thin-sliced glue-on “brick” tiles, non-structural columns and arches, and plastic “Spanish clay barrel tile” roofing. Architecture, that most real and permanent of human fabrications, is increasingly difficult to find amidst this scenographic abundance. Where the “image” satisfies our desires, the real thing is no longer required.

Despite this trend towards superficial “historical” styling of buildings, for Singer it is inconceivable that we would build anything other than modern architecture—as he says, “we live in the modern age.” Today, modern architecture’s characteristics of openness to the environment, forthright expression of construction, ability to house new and differing lifestyles, and spatial freedom are perhaps more important than ever before. As put into practice by Singer, modern architecture has shown itself to be uniquely capable of making places where contemporary cultural, social, and domestic aspirations are realized in harmony with the climate, topography and environment of Florida.

In the end, the difference between Singer’s architecture and the various versions of “neo-traditional” building is not about taste or the preference of one style of design over another—that is the illusion of choice created by the Disney surveys. In contrast to the superficial “styles” of building that are today becoming the norm throughout Florida, Singer’s architecture has consistently involved meaningful choices in the daily lives of architecture’s inhabitants; authenticity in building and materials; engagement of the history of the context; enhancement of the natural environment; creation of a sense of place; and reinforcement of our identity as those who “live in the modern age.” Fundamentally opposed to any erosion of the real, the architecture of Donald Singer remains anchored in its place, its material, and its time: concrete places in a landscape of illusions.