Urban Art Museum

Invasive and Exotic Architectural Species: The Legacy of Addison Mizner

The nearly nineteen million residents of Florida are currently in a battle to protect their neighborhoods from a number of exotic predators. Burmese Pythons, Gambian Pouch Rats and other exotic species have been released into the wild by their irresponsible owners, and are wreaking havoc on the natural equilibrium of Florida’s ecosystem.  While the population of the Burmese Python in the Florida wild is estimated to be in the thousands, there is an even more damaging and invasive species lurking in Florida. It was first introduced more than 100 years ago, and currently maintains a population estimated to be in the millions. It has infiltrated our culture, and deceptively convinced the millions of Florida immigrants that it is a style that is both responsive to the unique climate of Florida and of the local vernacular. Clients love it, and laymen praise it for its architectural character.

Throughout history architects such as Paul Rudolph, Ralph Twitchell and Frank Lloyd Wright have forewarned us of the perils of stylistic fancy, favoring a responsible architecture that is a derivative of Florida’s unique climate. Their premonitions have long been forgotten, and many of their ideologies have fallen victim to the exotic and invasive architectural style of the Mediterranean Revival. The focus of this historical critique is not to recount the tale of how Mediterranean architecture became the dominant style of Florida, but to reexamine the legacy of Addison Mizner, and to raise awareness in the architectural community of the dangers of favoring style over process.

The Legacy of Fantasy:

Addison Mizner is one of the most misunderstood architects of the modern era, dismissed by historians as just another revivalist; his works transcend style and are a product of a unique process that enables Mizner’s gifts as both entertainer and storyteller to animate his architecture in a way that would make Walt Disney envious.  Mizner’s works and similarly Mediterranean styled architecture are fallaciously classified as of a fictitious Addison Mizner Style, or Mizner Architecture. The emergence of this classification suggests that Mizner’s work diverges from traditional revivalists, and a definition of that variation has yet to be constituted. Mizner in his designs appears to dance effortlessly from style to style with little regard for a specific period in an attempt to create his own history. Many architects derogate Mizner’s stylistic eclecticism as a consequence of his lack of formal training as an architect.   An inquisition into Mizner’s creative process reveals that his aesthetic emerges from his process which focuses on fabricating a fanciful history for each design, condensing centuries of cultural evolution into just a few years. In order for a Mizner building to achieve the illusion of being from a faraway Mediterranean town it must manifest the spirit of the place it is mirroring.  Mizner is unique in that he understands this spirit to be the summation of moments and events that define a place and not style. Below Mizner attacks modern architects, many historians often interpret this statement as an attack on Modern architecture, but if one reads the statement carefully it is revealed that he is actually attacking his revivalist peers. Mizner uses the term modern in the traditional meaning of the word “as of or pertaining to the present and recent time”, which is confirmed by the fact that Modern architects do not style their structures in a certain period. Mizner is attacking his fellow revivalists whom choose to replicate a particular style, producing an architecture that maintains a characterless copybook effect:

“Most modern architects have spent their lives carrying out a period to the last letter and producing a characterless copybook effect. My ambition has been to take the reverse stand – to make a building look traditional as if it had fought its way from a small unimportant structure to a great rambling house that took centuries of different needs of ups and downs of wealth to accomplish. I sometimes start a house with a Romanesque corner, pretend that it has fallen into disrepair and been added to in the Gothic spirit, when suddenly the great wealth of the New World has poured in and the owner had added a very rich Renaissance addition.”

In the early 20th century there was little constructed in Florida. Stepping into one of Mizner’s Mediterranean structures combined with the isolated landscape would have made a visitor believe they were on a secluded Mediterranean island. This notion of fabricating a historical context in reference to a foreign land is an early precedent for its present day incarnation at Epcot. At Boca Raton, Mizner was concerned with the reality of his Mediterranean fantasy, much in the same manner that Walt Disney was concerned with the authenticity of the representation of foreign lands in his concept for the International Street, a precursor to the World Showcase at Epcot. Many Floridians and architects attack Disney for being foreign to the native culture, but a reexamination of Mizner and his process reveals that the spirit of Walt Disney has been a part of Florida since its rebirth as a tourist destination in the early 20th century.

Addison Mizner Cloister at Boca Raton

Figure 1.1 The Cloister at Boca Raton, the exterior façade depicts an eclecticism of styles and motifs that suggest that the structure was not the creation of one designer, but the result of an evolutionary process requiring many discrete additions. Sadly the structure was demolished in 2003. Photograph by Frank E. Geisler.

Addison Mizner Cloister at Boca Raton

Figure 1.2 In a single view from the terrace of the Cloister several archway and column treatments can be viewed. The lone oculus seems to complete the seemingly eclectic and unordered composition. Photograph by Frank E. Geisler.

Addison Mizner Cloister at Boca Raton

Figure 1.3 The entrance hall of the Cloister showcases Mizner’s transference of his eclectic exterior compositions to the interior spaces. Variation in chair types, archways and architectural ornamentation are tied together by a uniform palette and suggest that they are all part of a collection that took centuries to acquire. Photograph by Frank E. Geisler.

The Legacy of Reality:

After reading several books on the life and works of Addison Mizner, a reoccurring theme emerged, each author maintained an unwavering loyalty to the architect and his designs as sustainable. Some writers made outlandish statements promoting Mizner’s architecture as intrinsic to Florida in what is a negligent disregard for history! In Boca Rococo, Caroline Seebohm suggests that “If he (Frank Lloyd Wright) had landed in Palm Beach in 1918, perhaps, absorbing the history of southern Florida, its flatness, the palm trees, the sunlight, and the humidity, he might have gone in the direction of his contemporary (Addison Mizner).”  One needs not speculate on whether Frank Lloyd Wright would have followed Mizner’s lead, because in 1941 Wright would begin designing a series of 18 buildings for Florida Southern College that serve as an exemplar to future generations of how to create buildings that harmoniously merge with the Florida landscape.

Although Mizner’s charming personality permitted him “to build the way he wanted to build”, he did so at the expense of the environment, and as technology and our understanding of the environment has evolved  so should Florida’s architecture. Ralph Twitchell warned Floridians of the dangers of the invasive Mediterranean Revival Style, and urged for architects to design buildings that are responsive to Florida’s unique climactic conditions and provide spaces that offer inhabitants a sympathetic interaction between the constructed environments they occupy and the natural environment. In an article written by Ralph Twitchel entitled “Where Goes Sarasota?” Mr. Twitchel outlines the major faults in transplanting the Mediterranean style to Florida.

“All of the work of the ‘boom’ period was Mediterranean in style with low-pitched tile roofs and stuccoed masonry walls. No one then gave thought to the outstanding characteristics of the Florida climate. The Mediterranean style was the product of semi-tropical, hilly and dry environment. Florida is neither hilly nor dry. Its warm sea breezes carry a high degree of moisture. Where the Mediterranean style answered the needs of its birthplace, its thick walls, small openings, enclosed courts and roofs with no overhang utterly failed to answer the needs of Florida.”

To be fair to Mizner, at the time his buildings were constructed, they were designed as tourist destinations, and would only be occupied during the dry winter season which more closely resembles   the Mediterranean climate. The buildings designed by Mizner were designed to only be lived in during the dry winter season, and neglect Florida’s true environment that the resident’s have to live in the rest of the year.

Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell developed an architecture that was of the Florida vernacular, but failed to make it fashionable in the same way Addison Mizner propagandized Mediterranean architecture to the top of the architectural food chain, where it has reigned for over a century. The last 100 years of architecture in Florida was grounded in fantasy and neglected the environment. The legacy of Addison Mizner is one that has changed the Florida landscape forever, and his impact on our culture and environment must be understood before we can move forward. We need to promote a new Florida architecture that is sensitive to the reality of our current environmental conditions, grounded by the limits of our region, informed by process, not a replication of another civilization’s history, engrained in our culture, we need a new Addison Mizner.

American Alligator is falling prey to the exotic and invasive Burmese Python

Figure 2.1 The Burmese Python like Mizner’s imported Mediterranean style is foreign to Florida’s environment and both are wreaking havoc on the state’s natural ecosystem.

Exotic and Invassive Species Habitat

Figure 2.2 Possible habitat for the exotic and invasive Burmese Python, this habitat mirrors sitings of Mediterranean revival structures.

Developed Land in Florida

Figure 2.3 The forcast for development and population growth for Florida indicates that the Mediterranean style will continue to thrive and the environmental and economic consequences of such irresponsible design and development will be severe for Florida and its residents.