March 1, 2008
Max Strang’s administration building for a Miami botanical garden embraces its tropical setting.
Architect Max Strang takes a reverential view of the Kampong, a botanical garden and research center on the shores of Miami’s Biscayne Bay. “I consider it sacred space,” he says. The Kampong’s collection of rare flora alone might qualify it for that descriptor: one of only a handful of significant tropical botanical gardens in the United States, it has palms, cycads, and exotic fruit trees that draw scientists from around the world. But Strang is also talking about history. The Kampong occupies the former estate of horticultural explorer David Fairchild, who in the 1930s sat in his living room with fellow conservationists Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Ernest Coe and planned the creation of Everglades National Park, south Florida’s greatest ecological treasure.
It was with that legacy in mind that Strang designed the garden’s new education center. “The estate was built in the 1920s and was inspired by the kampongs of Southeast Asia,” he says. (Kampong is the Malay word for “small village.”) “The arrival courtyard has views out to rare trees, mangroves, and Biscayne Bay. I wanted to complement all that, not compete with it.” But respect for the past couldn’t eclipse the demands of the future: the Kampong needed a state-of-the-art space fit to house its research and education programs for years to come. Then-director Larry Schokman (for whom the new building is named) was eager to green the garden’s operations. So Strang, whose Miami firm is known for its brand of tropical Modernism, adopted the old estate’s local materials—coral keystone and oolitic limestone (Miami’s bedrock)—and created a clean-lined, environmentally sensitive structure.
The Schokman Education Center, completed in the fall of 2007, is totally open to the lush surrounding landscape, throwing climate control out the glassless, screenless “windows.” Cooling comes from ceiling fans, shady overhangs, and siting that catches the trade winds—once common strategies in south Florida, but now a rarity in a city where most people keep the AC cranked year-round. Chrysanthemum-based misters are used to discourage mosquitoes.
Strang and Schokman also seized the chance to contribute to Florida’s long-overdue conversation about water use: the rooftop terrace doubles as a rainwater-catchment area, channeling water through pipes in the support columns into underground cisterns. It takes about four weeks of average summer rainfall to fill the two 10,000-gallon tanks, which irrigate the garden during dry spells. “South Florida is frequently under government-imposed water restrictions,” Strang says. “This project demonstrates how easy it is to reduce our reliance on the municipal water supply, so water can be redirected to the places that need it most—such as the Everglades.”
The scientists, Strang reports, love the idea of gathering in a paradisiacal garden setting rather than a sealed lecture hall. “It’s a complete multipurpose space,” he says. “They can hold classes on tropical botany, do PowerPoint presentations, or have fund-raising dinners. They even have a yoga class meeting there.” But are fans and sea breezes enough to make Miami’s crushing heat and humidity bearable? The new director, David Lee, acknowledges that corporate events will probably be held during the cooler winter months, but he doesn’t expect visiting scientists to complain about the heat. “You’re dealing with biologists,” he says. “These are people who don’t like air-conditioning.”