THE VISION OF PHILIP HISS
The Man Who Made Sarasota Modern
NOVEMBER 2021 – MARCH 2022
The Man Who Made Sarasota Modern
NOVEMBER 2021 – MARCH 2022
“A man of many well-developed interests, Hiss is an author, photographer, explorer, real estate developer and civic leader. However, none of his interests is stronger than architectural design.”
St. Petersburg Time 1964
Hiss landed in Sarasota after surveying the Florida coastline on the Garuda, a 39-foot wooden craft custom built by famed Stamford boatbuilder William Luder. He was drawn in part to the area by the natural beauty, the prominence of the Ringling Museum under Chick Austin’s leadership, and the possibility of promoting an approach to modern life, education, and architecture in harmony with the climate and natural and cultural environment of south Florida’s Gulf Coast.
From the Lido Shores residential development to the Sarasota Public School Program to New College, Hiss’ forward-thinking, integrated vision and innovative and experimental projects changed Sarasota. His legacy continues to resonate and offer lessons for today.
Philip Hanson Hiss embodied the notion of “thinking globally and acting locally”. He is known as “the man who made Sarasota modern” through his role as the impresario and enthusiastic promoter of the Sarasota School of Architecture. Influenced by his family and formative years growing up in the Northeast and further cultivated through his global travels, Hiss’ wide-ranging, integrated interest would help transform our community into a celebrated destination known for exceptional culture, art, design, and education.
He left his formal education behind after boarding school and embarked on an autodidact’s grand tour, preferring to learn experientially, and, with the means to do so, he began to explore. His adventures inspired him to share the lessons learned among indigenous communities and inspired thinkers like Margaret Mead and John Dewey.
“…with a whimsical sense of humor, not much admiration for people of his own race and plenty of curiosity about the people of other races, Hanson Hiss is well on his way to know about the globe he lives on.”
Los Angeles Examiner 1931
Hiss didn’t just travel as an adventurous tourist, he undertook serious analyses of the places he visited and documented them thoroughly through his writing and photography. His most formal accounts, the published works Bali (1941) and Netherlands America (1943), demonstrate the rigor with which he pursued this ethnographic work, despite not being formally trained in anthropology. His Bali excursion was formally recognized as an expedition by the Netherlands Indies, and was supported by the Riverside Museum in New York City, which then hosted an exhibition of his photographs.
In 1928, he set off to travel through South America on a Harley-Davidson 1200 cc model JD.
The tabloids made much of the “millionaire’s adventures” through dramatic headlines, Hiss’ pursuits, however, were serious and his engagement with different cultures, languages, art, and history demonstrate a scholar’s, rather than a rogue’s journey. After, he set off for China, Tibet, and India.
During and after World War II, Hiss spent five months travelling through the Dutch West Indies to produce Netherlands America, sent by the Dutch government as part of the war effort. He worked for the Office of Strategic Services as an expert on Southeast Asia throughout 1944, the Office for War Information and then The Hague in 1945 and 1946.
His wartime efforts, combined with his personal, creative, and intellectual pursuits, reflected a larger movement where artists, writers, scholars, and intellectuals employed their skills in service to their country. A notable example is Margaret Mead, with whom Hiss maintained an intellectual relationship and whom he greatly admired. His later activities in helping conceive of and found New College bears her influence in terms of educational pedagogy and community engagement.
Hiss made his disdain for colonial expansion and exploitation well known in his writing and described his respect for those who live in both harmony with their natural environment and who live with a sense of art and design integrated into their daily lives.
He was determined to show how modern, industrialized peoples could live in accord with their surroundings, create community, and educate themselves toward an enlightened future. Hiss, however, was no naïve Rousseauan Romantic, blind to the realities of a changing world. Rather, he was convinced that an integration of technology and gracious living could yield a healthy and inspired life.
The key to this, he felt, was the concept of what, in the 1930s, became known as “Good Design”. The movement was widely popularized through a series of exhibitions and projects initiated by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and distributed throughout department stores and other popular venues across the country.
“The degree to which people are adjusted to their environment is the true measure of their happiness.”
P. Hiss House & Home, 1954
While traversing the globe, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere, Hiss came to appreciate the vernacular architecture of many of the tropical and subtropical cultures he encountered. Visual and physical connections between interior and exterior, permeable walls, and elevated first floors, are among some of the climate-responsive design strategies promoted by Hiss, who became a prominent developer and influential proponent of modernist design in postwar Sarasota.
In 1949, Hiss purchased vacant land on north Lido Key with a vision to create a model neighborhood of forward-thinking residences that responded to the natural and socio-cultural environment of south Florida’s Gulf Coast. Hiss named it Lido Shores. At the time, the much-needed housing being constructed in the rapidly expanding American suburbs was generally designed with little regard for regional and local contexts.
“Stilt houses are an old trick in native, tropical architecture. They give you two things worth getting: one, shady place underneath; two, more of the breeze than you can catch close to the ground. They also give you a better view.”
P. Hiss, Bali, 1941
While not a licensed architect, Hiss designed many of the early homes on Lido Shores through his development company Hiss Associates, applying what he had learned about capturing tropical breezes for ventilation and cooling, deep overhanging eaves for shade, and terrazzo flooring for its cooling properties and low maintenance in the sandy island environment.
Lido Shores also provided an experimental platform for emerging architects such as Paul Rudolph and Tim Siebert, who Hiss collaborated with to create houses intended to transform architectural design and revolutionize domestic living.
The original residences of Hiss’ innovative community still provide lessons on sustainable design approaches and permeable and adaptable buildings that can promote healthy air and adapt to a changing climate.
Through Lido Shores and his patronage of local architects, Hiss helped produce a forward-thinking and contextually modified strand of Tropical Modernism, now better known by the moniker: Sarasota School of Architecture.
“School buildings literally convey to students and teachers what a school board and administration (who are the representatives of the people) really think of education.”
A child of the progressive era from a civic-minded family, Hiss was drawn to public service and devoted his life to socially transforming and improving his community. In 1955 he was elected to the Sarasota County School Board and eventually served as the Chair. It was during this dynamic and tumultuous time that he engineered the Schools Building Program as Chair of the Board of Public Instruction, resulting in the establishment nearly a dozen, architecturally significant buildings from 1951-1963. In addition to the program being chronicled in global glossy magazines from Architectural Record and Architectural Forum, the 1958 Time Magazine “Sarasota Success Story” declared that Sarasota …”can top any community in the U.S. in school architecture.”
“We are not going to have a better physical environment until as a people we understand the need for it and will support it, and this is purely a matter of education.”
Inspired by lessons from his travels and motivated by the belief that a properly designed environment can support learning, Hiss was a proponent of the campus model that reimagined elementary and secondary schools as villages organized around primary and secondary common areas. This alternative approach to educational facilities design replaced the convention of a monolithic, two-story building with a double-loaded corridor. Instead the modernist schools envisioned by Hiss, and designed by talented local architects, took advantage of the temperate climate to foster interaction and allow for fluidity among interior and exterior.
Hiss felt, and demonstrated repeatedly, that employing good design principles could be cost effective, as well as successful pedagogically and aesthetically. After the initial success, inertia set in, and Hiss moved on from the K-12 realm to higher ed. In a 1967 essay in Architectural Forum, Hiss acknowledged that “…the school board probably moved to fast, and in doing so, left its constituency behind.” But he also identified a lack of awareness about issues and ideas beyond county borders, and, as always with Hiss, determined that education—opening minds, formally or informally—would be the key to raising awareness and inspiring positive action.
“I attribute this success to a fortunate juxtaposition of a perceptive, vitally interested, far-more-knowledgeable-about-architecture-than-usual school board, an open-minded school administration and the concentration of great architectural talent in the immediate area plus opportunity created by the passage of a substantial bond issue, and the desperate need for new schools.”
“Buildings speak a great deal louder than words. They say many things about a community’s attitude toward education, toward intellectualism, toward creativity. They speak of interest or apathy, pride or neglect.”
Architecture for Education, 1965, Unpublished Manuscript, Philip H. Hiss
After a dozen successful public K-12 schools delivered–not without challenge and controversy–Hiss turned his attentions to higher education. After nearly a decade of planning, New College opened its doors to students in 1964.
Hiss professed the purpose of the innovative institution was to seek “new solutions to new educational need, accepting no dogma without test, striving to eliminate all barriers that inhibit the growth of ideas.”
New College was named and partially modelled after Oxford’s “new” College, developed in 1386 and given the moniker to distinguish it from another college. The core concept was to encourage free-ranging intellectual inquiry, under tutelage of the finest faculty minds, with a contractual system of assessment rather than traditional grades. Key to all of this was a properly designed campus that could foster this radical reinvention of an old concept.
Hiss invited top architects and key emerging design professionals to participate in the process of identifying and vetting candidates who could provide a vision and plan for the New College campus. In choosing renowned architect I.M. Pei, Hiss described the process: “…it seemed impossible to find the right man…we met some brilliant men, some inspired men, and for a time we thought it be difficult to resolve the problem. The we met Mr. Pei and the decision of the committee was unanimous. We knew we had met the right man…Each day we become more enthusiastic about our choice.”
Although the full Pei plan was never realized, the magnificent dormitory building with its cluster-courtyard design was built and, not only housed students, but originally met other needs of the fledgling institution. The building still fulfills its original use and continues to inspire students today.
“In my opinion, a more highly qualified consultant in matters of architecture does not exist.”
Charles Colbert dean emeritus of the Columbia School of Architecture
In 1967, Hiss penned an essay for the prestigious global magazine, The Architectural Forum, entitled What Ever Happened to Sarasota?
…in the 1950s there was a greater concentration of architectural talent in Sarasota than in any small town in the United States…
Sarasota seemed to be on the verge of becoming a community with an unusual appreciation of the arts, with enough leisure to pursue them and with a sufficient number of concerned people who spoke out for those values and were heard. It was all an illusion…
…Today, Sarasota has almost completely surrendered to the big developers and to East Coast (of Florida) money.
Philip Hanson Hiss’ commitment to education and deep belief in the transformative possibilities of good design resulted in numerous generative gifts to our community. But getting there was not easy. The work of transforming a community can be complex, messy, and fraught.
The essay had a tone of frustration. Hiss was a brilliant, complex man who contributed greatly to the Sarasota region, but who was forthright in his criticisms of what he believed was holding the community back. Dynamic tension among community stakeholders involving growth, change, priorities, resource allocation, and, ultimately, values is a natural part of the democratic process.
While these community conversations are often challenging, they are essential. We are ultimately asking ourselves Who are we? How do we want to live? What are our responsibilities to our community, to our children, and to theirs?
These are the core questions that we ask ourselves and fellow residents, and the answers—reflecting our collective values—will impact generations to follow. We are grateful to past leaders in our community who asked and answered these questions, giving us the Sarasota School of Architecture, the Public School Program, New College, and the other exceptional educational and cultural offerings that Sarasota has become known for.
“Let us not blame the teachers, let us blame the system. And let us blame ourselves for not demanding something better…”
The 2021 Symposium was held at the New College of Florida bayfront during MOD Weekend. The Symposium explored Philip Hiss’ monumental contributions to Sarasota’s development via an introductory film, presentations by scholars covering his various Sarasota projects, and a lively conversation with fellow practitioner Carl Abbott and Hiss’ daughter Muffi, led by writer Bob Morris.