May 24, 2017
Rene Gonzalez’s “Floating” Homes Reflect the Past, Look to the Future
Adapting the region’s traditional architecture and preparing for climate change, Rene Gonzalez is creating a new residential typology for South Florida.
Place and time both play a strong role in the work of the Miami architect Rene Gonzalez, but they are expressed subtly—even abstractly. On the surface, at least, his work is unassailably contemporary, but Gonzalez is a keen observer of history, tradition, and culture. Dig deeper, and there is much more to learn.
Gonzalez was born in Cuba, reared in Fort Lauderdale, and educated at the University of Florida in Gainesville and the University of California, Los Angeles. As a young architect, he was mentored by Richard Meier, from whom he learned the persuasive power of ideas, then by the late Frank Israel, who nurtured his creativity and intellectual curiosity. Ultimately in Miami, he worked with the late Mark Hampton, who taught him the abiding importance of materials and that you can never pay too much attention to detail; Hampton, a Florida native himself, had worked with Paul Rudolph in Sarasota and thus carried on the great traditions of early tropical Modernism.
Along the way, Gonzalez became fascinated by the endemic forces that shaped his life. He began to explore Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, studying intently the many means by which Cuban refugees approximated the way of living they’d known, one that dealt with sun and shade without technology but rather with simple fixes: porches (portales), screens (persianas), and protected outdoor spaces (patios). As Gonzalez documented this, he realized that, remarkably enough, Little Havana’s informal vernacular architecture not only offered respite from heat and sun but at the same time promoted both a vibrant street life and privacy. Experience and observation can be great teachers.
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A second, parallel course of inquiry grew out of his early years in the largely post–World War II urban landscape of Fort Lauderdale and came to maturity in the course of his education in two bastions of regional Modernism. In Florida, the Sarasota school of architecture has had a lasting significance, as has the more experimental work of Miami’s early Modernists. In Los Angeles, of course, examples abounded. Gonzalez was intrigued by the sensitive (and sometimes precarious) siting of Modernist houses within the landscape and, by extension, found himself drawn to Miami’s vernacular stilt houses in Biscayne Bay, only seven of which still stand.
This type of construction, given its potential to address the inevitable consequences of climate change in South Florida, has led him to a body of work that might best be called “floating houses” (most of them in stages from concept to near completion). “We started giving more consideration to the rising water levels,” he says. (In 2015, the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact predicted a rise of six to ten inches by 2030.) “Instead of trying to deny it, we wanted to celebrate it.”
All of this comes into play in his recently completed Ron Rojas in Key Biscayne, Florida. It is a house rooted in the building traditions of Miami—stucco and terra-cotta—and it embraces the subtropical climate with its offerings of sun, shade, ocean breezes, and more. Gonzalez says that the design for the house combines his strong interest in taking both the natural condition (the climate, both present and future) and cultural patrimony (meaning Miami, Cuba, and, more generally, Latin America) and “amplifying” them. “Obviously it’s not meant to be literal,” he says. “Sometimes it’s implicit in the architecture.”
The house is on a land-blocked lot on a Key Biscayne street that parallels the ocean. And though it is not elevated in the visible way that subsequent projects will be (among them the Prairie Residence in Miami Beach, which is supported by pilotis, yet seems to hover over the landscape), it is a first step.
In this case, the landscape is anchored by four pools of water that are technically separate but designed to seem interconnected, some featuring lily pads and grasses and stepping-stones across them and one for swimming. “The house is intended to seem like it’s floating over pools of water,” says Gonzalez. “The illusion that the house is surrounded by water is my way of making the house seem elevated.”
A front patio that is part of the entry sequence provides separation from the street. Gonzalez conceived the house as a sequence of solids and voids. Enclosed volumes, open terraces, and partially covered interstitial spaces are stacked using a comparatively complex geometry, making the most of the opportunities for open-air living offered by both site and climate through a seamless connection between indoors and out; he terms it a kind of “ambiguity” between where one ends and the other begins.
Light and air are further filtered by a sequence of louvered terra-cotta screens; Gonzalez designed these screens—made from long, slender slats of clay fabricated in Italy with a hollow core that allows for reinforcement—with three different patterns that are both functional and decorative. Terra-cotta has deep roots in Cuban culture and is most typically seen in barrel tile roofs—traditionally these tiles, called azulejos, were hand-formed across the craftsmen’s thighs, hence the shape.
Practically speaking, the clay louvers filter the intense Florida sunlight while still letting the breezes flow through, but more poetically the clay screens create ever-morphing patterns on the house’s floors and walls. Says Gonzalez, “The light is always changing.” And philosophically, there’s another layer: Here is a sophisticated contemporary house that intuitively feels tropical and has a kinship to what one might call a cultural condition.
For all that, this is not sleight of hand; rather, it is a studied response, a kind of translation of a more idiomatic architecture that came before. Gonzalez has a longtime preoccupation with using basic materials in new and innovative ways, as is evidenced by the library in his spacious new office in a 1923 building near the Miami River in the Little Havana neighborhood; half is devoted to samples of stone, wood, metal, and more—some as old as the building arts and others brand-new.
Thus comes a house that is almost elemental—earth (as in the terra-cotta), water (in the pools that surround the house), and air—but in an iteration that is entirely contemporary. And if the ideas are intricate, the result is not. The end product speaks of simplicity and serenity, but in a way that tells a story of the tropics.
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