Paul Rudolph’s Walker Guest House on Sanibel Island (1952-53) is a magical modernist box essential for understanding Rudolph and midcentury modernism. In 1952, Dr. Walter Walker of Minneapolis asked Rudolph to build a small guest house on Sanibel Island, intended as a pendant to a larger house already designed by Rudolph (that was never built). Rudolph delivered a unique design: a 576-square-foot lightweight box made of wood posts and beams painted white; glazed with wall-sized windows and screens; enclosed by large square panels; and raised on a 24-by-24-foot platform. Rudolph captured its animated, tensile character when he later said of the house, “It crouches like a spider in the sand.”
Most remembered for his controversial, large-scale Brutalist buildings of the 1960s, Rudolph (1918-97) first achieved international acclaim in the late 1940s and early 1950s for a series of widely published, structurally expressive beach houses he designed in Sarasota, Florida, with Ralph Twitchell (1890-1978). The houses were experimental, using new materials, such as plastics and plywoods. Rudolph saw the houses as opportunities to explore and question the rules of modern architecture in order to find his own unique means of expression.
Controlled by an ingenious, sailboat-like rigging system, the adjustable panels acted as giant shutters that could shade and protect the house’s transparent expanses from sun and rain. Hinged at the top rather than the side, the shutters were abstracted versions of the hurricane shutters found throughout the Caribbean. The shutters were counterbalanced by ball-shaped, iron weights. Painted red, they gave the house its joyful, toy-like character. The Walker family vacationed in the guest house during the winter and affectionately called it “Cannonball.” At the end of the season, they locked the shutters and left the house upon the beach, like a traveler’s trunk waiting to be opened again next winter. They still return to it today.
A prize-winner (the“Award Bienal de Sao Paulo”) , the Walker House helped catapult Rudolph into the chairmanship of the Yale Department of Architecture by 1957, where he influenced an entire generation of students, among them Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Robert A. M. Stern. A model both local and universal, the lightweight, box-like Walker House was undoubtedly a prototype for his prefabricated dwellings of the 1960s, which he tempered with sensitivity for locale learned from Florida.