Beauty and the box; Silverstein residence

Much has been written about the architecturally significant Silverstein home on Casey Key, designed by internationally acclaimed architect Toshiko Mori, FAIA, and constructed by Sarasota custom builder Michael Walker. Architectural Digest is among the publications that have raved about the "beautiful balance" of strength and ethereal lightness that characterizes the dwelling, which Mori has compared to a horseshoe crab, with a hard protective shell outside and a soft interior.

Looking out the windows toward the Gulf of Mexico on a January afternoon, I was not surprised to see the effect the house had on a pair of passing bicyclists who paused in the crushed limestone drive to gawk at the modern glass-and-concrete facade set upon eight piers above them. The tourists stared in open-mouthed wonder at the two-story, floating box; an apparition of modern composition rising up from a narrow barrier island between the Gulf of Mexico and Little Sarasota Bay.

Honoring a continuum of modernism found in the mid-century Sarasota School of architecture, Toshiko Mori's commission belongs to Mike and Renee Silverstein, a knowledgeable and discerning couple who live here seven months of the year with Calypso, a Yorkshire terrier, and a Maine Coon cat named Frazier. The couple has built or renovated nine dwellings in their 48 years of marriage, working with major architects, such as Charles Young, Hugh Newell Jacobsen, Alan Watzenberg and Henry Meyerberg. They have nothing but admiration for Toshiko Mori, the Robert P. Hubbard Professor in the Practice of Architecture and chair of the Department of Architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design since 2002. She is also principal of Toshiko Mori Architect, which she established in 1981 in New York City.

This home represents a new stage for the design connoisseurs. For Casey Key, the Silversteins desired a spare beach retreat that would express their modern sensibilities and serve as a suitable showcase for a panoply of museum-quality, 20th-century furniture and art from their extensive collections. Renee and Mike say they've "done the museum-quality, 18th-century mansion thing" at the corner of 64th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan (which an article in New York magazine described as "The Greatest Apartment in New York"), and currently own a three-story, circa 1910 Dutch Colonial on the north shore of Long Island at Sands Point.

"If you have studied museum-quality, 18th-century historical design and understand its complexities and beauty, you then are able to pare down and become a modernist with pure enjoyment and appreciation," says Renee.

Toshiko Mori designed a structure that both embraces and defends itself from the water on both sides, and challenges the corrosive effects of wind, sun and salt air. "The house has a tough exterior, which gives it a monumental scale against the Gulf of Mexico and strength to withstand adverse climate conditions," the architect says. "Yet the interior is filled with ethereal light -- airy and atmospheric." Despite its mass, the structure touches the ground lightly at two points: one being the pillars and glass vestibule underneath, and the second at the end of a suspended walkway that tethers the house to the tropical gardens on the east, or bay side of the property.

Rising up through the center is the single-most dramatic element: a glass core that begins at ground level with a transparent, enclosed entry space, flows up the stairs through a translucent glass floor at the first level and culminates in a prismatic skylight in the roof. But it is not just any skylight. This is a masterpiece by Toshiko Mori's husband, James Carpenter, an artist and sculptor of great renown, who blurs the lines between architecture, engineering and fine arts. Fascinated with the phenomenon of making light visible, Carpenter has developed new glass and material technologies for some of the most famous structures in the world. His company's installations have included an animated podium light wall for 7 World Trade Center; a transparent, double cable-net wall for the Time Warner Center; and an undulating glass dome for Penn Station.

He calls the Silverstein installation a prismatic lens. Part of the overall core of the home's architecture, it is a volume of light that slices through its heart. "The skylight was conceived as a way to bring the qualities of the sunrise and sunset into the center of the house," Carpenter states in an e-mail. "These events are not so much something observed in the distance, but rather internalized by the architecture." Using laminated low-iron clear glass, laminated dichroic glass and stainless steel, Carpenter says, "the work achieved its goal of creating this centralized core of light, which can often activate the entry space by the projection of light and color at different times of day. As the work is so finely tuned to the changing characteristics of the light conditions outside, the prismatic lens becomes a way to observe these daily and hourly changes in an intimate way."

The Silversteins are thrilled by the panorama of colors washing over the white walls and the concrete and translucent glass floor as the sun moves across the sky throughout the day. Natural light from the vestibule also arrives through the stone, steel and glass staircase and streams down from clerestory windows above. "Each week of the year is different, depending upon the placement of the sun," says Renee. The atrium reaches to a soaring 23 feet and becomes a glowing glass box on the second floor. Sixty feet of glare-reducing windows along the eastern and western sides of the home also invite the interplay of light and shadow across the discretely placed furnishings and art. The shadows add another design element and help to soften what could be an austere interior.

The gardens are equally special. Renee and Toshiko Mori were of one mind about saving the old Cuban laurel trees that provide the back yard with a canopy of shade and Old World character. Once the site of a Coast Guard station, the two-plus-acre property now has the largest private boat dock in the area. Mori began transforming the original government building, only nine feet above sea level, into a guest house. She designed an outer shell around the core, creating a "house inside of a house," says Mike, who loves the way the original peaked roof resembles a butterfly. "There's so much concrete and steel in there that you can't even make a cell phone call," he says. The two-bedroom-plus-office main house was completed in 2002. A pool house was added adjacent to the bay area. The Silversteins' four married children and 12 grandchildren are frequent guests.

The Silversteins do not think of a house in traditional ways. They weren't seeking a cocoon, and the word "cozy" does not apply.Mike explains that it takes a psychological adjustment to live in such a consciously designed space, where there is "no wall to put your back or your chair up against." There is, however, light beyond measure, priceless water views and a dense Florida landscape of subtropical foliage. "But this house is not just a lot of glass and angles," he stresses. "There is a feeling, a respect for the land and a feel for how lightly the house sits on the ground." And, of course, there is a collection of art, furniture and design that can stand on its own in such a unique environment.

Mike credits Renee for her commanding knowledge and precise eye. He notes that when it comes to details and measurements, if something is off by a 16th of an inch, Renee will know. Whether on safari in Africa or in Tahiti, she is likely to rearrange interiors to her liking. "She can be happy in a tent in the middle of the jungle, but complains if you put her in someplace that's mediocre," Mike says admiringly. Taking a tour of their home is like visiting the Museum of Modern Art galleries; a series of iconic designs in carefully staged vignettes. According to Mike, the Florida humidity and heat are too punishing for delicate Art Deco furnishings. Thus, most of their earliest treasures are up north, where the climate is more conducive. After experimentation, they discovered that the Casey Key house seems to work best with pieces from the 1960s, '70s and '80s, which coexist alongside new commissions and a smattering of older pieces.

It's a staggering array. On a wall floats the fanciful "Flying Shelf" stainless-steel construction of Maria Pergay, with jade and silk ropes and tassels. The Silversteins met the artist in Paris. Large, twin paintings, featuring boxes in mother of pearl, shellac and lacquer, were commissioned from Nancy Lorenz. A sofa and chair, designed by Philippe Starck, still have their original pink velour upholstery. There are one-of-a-kind lamps by Jean Royere and a Diego Giacometti library table (one of only seven in the world). A 1950s-era gong by sculptor Harry Bertoia, and a low, black, wood chair by Royere that once stood in the artist's own living room, are eye-catching. A purple-and-orange Italian rug by Gabetti & Isola injects color in the space. The Bertoia bronze sonambient sculpture that graces the living room was displayed in the White House sculpture garden for two years. Along one wall is a terrazzo-topped table by Jean Prouve. Another iconic sculpture is Albert Paley's rusting Core-Ten steel construction. A stainless-steel coffee table by Francois Monet is surrounded by three stainless-steel and leather chairs by Jacques Charpentier. Paul Frankel sofas bear their original fabric, which Renee finds "every bit as modern as today, and more interesting."

For the Silversteins, the living area is not just a gallery, however. It is a focal point for social interaction, as well as a restful spot to enjoy views of the grounds. "We can sit here and have a drink and get away from the sun. It's so relaxing," says Mike. A series of elongated slit windows along the side walls give teasing glimpses of the gardens, which also highlight a Rob Laurenson sculpture titled "Split Ring," purchased from the Season of Sculpture on the bayfront. A large screen drops down for showing movies. The projector is concealed in the ceiling. The Silversteins frequently entertain in the huge terrain of the main living space, which they liken to a ship. James Carpenter built the custom "Renee" dining table that seats 20. It is constructed of honeycombed stainless steel imbedded in acrylic and covered with glass -- a strong and lightweight invention used in the America's Cup racing boats. Mike says it took four men four days to put the massive pieces together. Flanking the table are two large abstract paintings commissioned to represent the passage of time as reflected in the home's massive windows: "Night" and "Day," by Hungarian artist Miklos Batuz.

In the small, west-facing room, 1950s bamboo chairs from the Philippines set the tone for a collection of accessories and furniture inspired by a large, vintage divided plastic tray that belonged to Renee's mother. Her mother also owned the art pottery of Sascha Brastoff, displayed on the honed granite and stainless-steel bar designed by Mori. Renee explains that the value of the bamboo chairs resides in their rare, wide arms made of six rows of bamboo. They're called "Godfather chairs" because gangster Hyman Roth sat in one in the movie "The Godfather, Part II." French ceramicist Roger Capron is represented by a tiled cabinet, a set of cups and the likeness of a turkey on the cement-block wall. A pair of aluminum pillar lamps by Mario Vento rests on a floor of poured concrete.

Alcoves to the north and south display striking metal sculptures. One is a new acquisition: a shiny, woven, anodized-aluminum, ultra-modern rocking chair by Israeli artist Ron Arad, purchased at Art Basel. By contrast, one of the Silversteins' most valuable pieces is a 1930s steel floor lamp from Pierre Chareau's Maison de Verre, discovered in a Parisian dentist's office.

Six bathrooms are also objets d'art. In a powder room, a white vessel sink sits like an egg atop a white, honed-marble floating counter. Toshiko Mori designed sleek drawers of perforated steel over black Formica. Subtle, tiny, gray-and-white Bisazza reflective-glass mosaic tiles adorn the floor and walls. The kitchen is likewise a streamlined space, featuring stainless appliances; smooth, honed black granite; and opaque glass-front cabinets. Emeco's aluminum "Navy" chairs add pristine design to an aesthetic that Renee calls "no nonsense." Doors open to the facade's long, sun-sheltered patio, which overlooks the gulf.

Everything that is superfluous in the house is hidden from view, from refrigerated wine storage to built-in shelving concealed within floor-to-ceiling wood closets. Air-conditioning vents are unobtrusive slits, and stereo speaker grills are invisible behind sheet rock. Subtle track lighting designed by the architect is "there, but not in your face," says Renee. Upstairs, the space has a Japanese quality, with low-slung platform beds and night tables set against light wood accent walls, which segment the rooms. In the master bedroom, a 1920s Andre Sornay ladies desk plays against this minimalist sensibility. Pocket doors can close off the master bath and huge, walk-in, his-and-hers closets to create a private enclave. "You are truly spending each 24 hours inside the shell of a contemporary art work that is so very comfortable and uplifting to the intellect and the soul," Mike says admiringly. Renee adds that "Toshiko is astute, sophisticated and worldly. Her intelligence is to be respected, and she approaches her architecture with a modernist's poetic manner."

The architect also appreciates her clients' exacting standards. "What is unique about Renee and Mike," she says, "is that they have a very highly cultivated sense of design, and their visual acuity and spatial understanding are outstanding. Throughout their long life in collecting art and furniture, they have cultivated an unusually fine-tuned visual capacity that can discern and make an excellent judgment on quality."

Mori hopes to receive more commissions in Sarasota, where she and Michael Walker also built a highly regarded guesthouse addition to the Burkhardt house, a 1957 Paul Rudolph design, also on Casey Key. "I had a particularly good work relationship with Michael Walker, who is an exceptional builder," Mori says. "I would love to have another opportunity to work with him. He is also a very sophisticated, ethical and wonderful individual to work with."

Renee pronounces the collaboration a great success. "Toshiko's design ultimately is a complement to our Floridian, West Coast lifestyle, our design sensitivities, and to our artwork as well, and we are most grateful."

About Toshiko Mori

There are many sides to Toshiko Mori's talent. In addition to her much-talked-about residences around the world, her firm won the coveted honor of designing the visitor center for Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin D. Martin house in Buffalo.

She has created design-forward retail stores for Issey Miyake and Commes des Garcons, and buildings for institutions, including the Syracuse University Center of Excellence. Mori is also known for her innovative study of textiles and technologies, museum exhibitions and public structures, including the Newspaper Cafe in Jindong Architecture Park, Jinhua City, China. She commutes between New York City and Cambridge, Mass., and a home in rural Maine.

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