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The Art of Architecture

by Monty Montgomery

Bruce Gora, senior partner of his Fort Myers architectural design firm, was interviewed recently after returning from a productive meeting in Naples with a prospective client. The meeting had gone well and Gora was in a happy mood, content with four important aspects of his life—his architecture, photography, music and family.

Bruce Gora: I grew up in Fort Lauderdale, went to the University of Florida, and have practiced in Florida, either in the Tampa Bay area or here in Fort Myers, where I moved in 1977 and opened my own practice in 1981. It’s now Gora-McGahey Associates in Architecture. I opened as a sole practitioner and Dan McGahey joined me in 1985 and we’ve been partners ever since.

We have not specialized in one particular type of project over the years. The thing I like about being more of a generalist in our approach is that variety is the spice of life. Variety makes it interesting to come to work, to be involved with projects of many different types from day-to-day and year-to-year.

One of the specialties that we have had, however, is medical office buildings. We’ve done over 70 of them in Southwest Florida, for about 26 different medical specialties. We’ve designed everything from tenant build outs in existing buildings to new buildings constructed for specific practices, to multiple suite office buildings intended for doctors’ offices where we’ve done most of their suites. We’ve also done adaptive re-use, which is an area we’re very interested in—that’s basically recycling existing buildings into new uses, for medical offices as well as other types of buildings.

Others?

We have done country clubs. We’ve done some public work, a few libraries in the area—the South Regional Library on Three Oaks Parkway, the Central Avenue Library in Naples, the Ruttenberg Library and the Fort Myers Beach Library. We’ve also done a number of recreation centers.

What’s different from a professional standpoint in doing a public building, a library, versus an office building?

Because of the variety of our projects and the variety of clients we work with, it’s hard to categorize. A lot of the time we do find the public sector employs people whose full time job is to be clients for architects and builders. So they have more experience at being a client in the whole process. A lot of other projects we do, especially the medical ones, where the physicians are experts in their own fields and typically more inexperienced as clients, require us to proceed differently.

We do a lot of work for Chico’s, for their headquarters. Because of the size of their company, one of their vice presidents is very involved in expediting construction. He’s very experienced and, in addition to making sure all the stores get built around the country, he is very involved with us when we do additions or alterations to the headquarters campus.

You are known as an architect, a photographer, and a musician. How did those particular three come about?

Until I went to college I was torn between going into architecture and being a musician—probably because I saw more future in a stable lifestyle that I would want to have by being an architect than a musician. Then I went to college and found a lot of other people in the School of Architecture who were also musicians. I think there’s a kindred spirit of people who want to do something in their life that’s creative, but with a little bit more stability than being a fine artist, a visual artist or musician. I actually formed a band in college made up primarily of architecture students.

I was fortunate enough, after fifteen years of not picking up my horn, to start playing again in local groups. That was a blessing for me to have that opportunity and be able to get together with other local musicians who played on a level where I felt proud of the professionalism of what we could do and still do it on a part time basis.

How’d that happen?

One day a couple came into my office to talk to me about designing a house on Sanibel. They described what they wanted—four bedrooms, a big kitchen because they entertain, and they wanted a music room. I stopped them and said, "Tell me more about this music room. Do you play instruments or is this to listen to your stereo system?" They answered, "Well, actually both". This fellow was a physician and it turns out he plays several instruments. I said, "Wow! Do you ever get together with other people? Do you have a group?" and he said, "I’m actually thinking about putting together a jazz group."

So we formed a band that lasted several years—but they didn’t hire me to design their house. When I saw their house after it was built, I realized they had made the right decision. Our styles wouldn’t have jived—the way our music did. But it gave me the opportunity to start playing again and just at that time a close friend I had played with in college moved here to start a career in emergency medicine and he joined the band. Now, although that original band is no longer together, the bass player and I play in The Juice, which is a great addition to my life. The Juice started in 1991 and has been together for a long time. We’re not as active as we once were; the bars aren’t hiring 7-piece groups anymore. When we play, it’s more for outdoor festivals or private parties.

You said earlier, talking about the doctor’s house "Our styles wouldn’t have jived." What does that mean?

I tend to be more contemporary in my design approach and they were looking for something very traditional. My portfolio didn’t show them something that they really were attached to, so from that point of view I thought they were pretty perceptive.

What are some of the differences in contemporary and traditional architectural design?

As an example, throughout Southwest Florida, not just in home design, people in the development community have gravitated toward Mediterranean style architecture. I would put that into the more traditional, classical style. Contemporary design is not as dependent on a historic style. We have had success designing contemporary homes and contemporary commercial and public buildings. There are different degrees of traditional design out there. The Mediterranean style that gets bandied about and developed in Southwest Florida goes from very pure and clean, that doesn’t rely on too much superfluous ornamentation, to things that are over the top in terms of ornamentation, where people who are doing them don’t really take the time to study the historic references they are pulling from.

We have done Mediterranean style buildings. What we have done is made a study of what the true forms and proportions and basic elements of the style is so we can depend less on ornamentation. Ornamentation is going to drive up the cost and it’s also going to drive up the maintenance of the building in the future. If you have all this superfluous decoration on a building, someone’s got to keep up with it. When we’re challenged with the task of designing a more traditional Mediterranean building, we do it in a much more simplistic way.

There’s a very arbitrary nature to the way most of your average developers do this. They’ll call anything with an arch Mediterranean. You know, in different areas of the country you’ll find different historical styles. In New England it’ll be more early American; in the southwest, in the Santa Fe area, it’ll be more adobe. There are certain areas where there are historic origins that make sense to use in the local architecture. Here people are being very nostalgic about a history we never had.

Mediterranean in Florida is not a stretch because in Coral Gables, in Boca Raton and Palm Beach there was an architect, Addison Mizner, who built for the early industrialists and other very well-heeled people settling those areas. He developed a very appealing and charming architecture based on his study of authentic European buildings. If someone came to me and asked for a Mizner type of style, I would prefer to hear that rather than ‘Mediterranean’. His work is much simpler, much more elegant than the local version of Mediterranean.

I don’t resist ‘Mediterranean’. And while it is true I’d rather do contemporary buildings, which don’t have this parameter before I even get started, I do appreciate the cleanliness and the proportions and the depth in Mizner’s work.

What are some examples of architecture or buildings in Southwest Florida that you admire?

I respect some of the original styles you’ll find in older neighborhoods off Dean Park and East Riverside Drive in East Fort Myers on the river. They were built out of the necessity to address the climate and all the conditions they had to deal with. With that said, one of my favorite projects we did is the Riverside Park Community Center in East Fort Myers because it responds to the neighborhood. East Fort Myers Riverside area was one of the original neighborhoods in Fort Myers. That’s why I feel good about that particular Center. It uses the porch, it uses the columns, it uses the shapes and all the elements that were designed for a reason back then and it’s become a very integral part of the neighborhood. It’s a modest building, not a big bombastic architectural statement, but that’s one of my favorite buildings for how it responds to the environment and its purpose.

Another favorite building of mine is the University Park Office Building at College and Summerlin, which is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of scale. To me it’s still the best example of a ‘high rise’ or ‘mid rise’ multi-story office building. To me it’s one of the best executed, detailed and rich buildings we have. The quality that went into it shows to this day and its proportions and everything make it a personal favorite of mine.

Another one—one we didn’t do—is what’s now called the Bank of America Building at the Bell Tower. I like the clean lines of it, the bold statement of it. It’s a corporate office building and not intended to look like something other than that.

The Sun Coast School’s Federal Credit Union is one our buildings that’s another favorite. It’s a smaller building on Matthew Drive and Summerlin. We had a client who appreciated clean, contemporary design and encouraged us. What I like about it, besides the form, is that we were able to execute the details right down to custom-designed air conditioning grills, the kinds of things you don’t often get the chance to do in commercial buildings these days.

The Fort Myers Beach Library is another one of our projects I’m very proud of. It’s institutional by nature and certainly isn’t intended to look like a beach cottage, but it still fits in very well into the barrier island community.

As architects we take very seriously the purpose of what we do and the impact it has on the environment and the quality of life. Whether or not you ever go into a particular building, the fact that you drive past it a few times a week and visitors or potential residents who come into the area see good architecture, that’s an indicator of the quality of the community.

What artworks do you plan to have on display in your Alliance for the Arts Member Gallery show in June, which will be on view the same time they’re featuring computer-generated fine art in a Frizzell Gallery high-tech ‘Digital Imagination’ exhibition? It’s curated by Bryan Chaikin, a creative designer at FindWhat.com and is supposed to be ground-breaking, using dozens of laptops and a big plasma screen.

To me, it’s a perfect match. My photography is generally centered around architectural themes and musical themes. I call my work ‘Architectural Abstraction’. Although I’ve been fortunate to travel a lot and the photos have come from many places and countries around the world and America, it’s not important for people to know where they’re from. With very few exceptions, where they are doesn’t really matter, that doesn’t add anything. What I’m looking for is how the built environment interfaces with the natural environment. I’m certainly looking for all the things that I look for in architecture—form, texture, shade and shadow. Good strong architecture makes those things happen, whether three dimensional or in a photograph.

Since I do black and white, I don’t depend on the colors, of course. I take sunsets just like the next guy but they’re not rendered in nature’s full range of beautiful colors. I rely more on contrast and composition. I just really enjoy taking pieces of a building and working with what shading and shadow and architectural detail gives me. Everything from contemporary buildings to ancient buildings.

One of my favorite pictures is a picture I took at a downtown parking garage and all it was were patterns of light and shadow. Right now, I’m starting to break out of my box a little bit. I used to wait for people to get out of my shots until I saw the Elton John exhibit at the High Museum in Atlanta. He’s a collector of photography, unbelievable stuff, and I remember what made so much of his collection interesting were the stories, the people in them. I literally went back to my car in the parking lot behind the museum and went back into the atrium space in the museum, and took a picture of a guy who was walking through the space. My point being I’m now starting to see the importance people play in composition.

I’ve also experimented with another thing since I had the opportunity to take a course with Jerry Uelsmann at the University of Florida. He was a pioneer of art photography and was actually ostracized for what he did back in the 60’s, which was to create surrealism with photography. His works were almost all black and white. He did blends that were multiple images, but his craftsmanship was so good that you couldn’t tell, you had to look very closely before you’d realize, "Hey, wait a moment—that tree is totally symmetrical!" or "That tree is floating in mid-air!" Every now and then I play with that and do it. Usually, if you go to one of my shows, the pictures marked "Not for Sale" are one of those, because it takes too damn long to do it. Each one is printed by hand.

This type of expression used to be lambasted by the arts community, because photography at that time was taking a picture of something that’s real, and you’re playing games and that’s not fair. Now you never trust that a photograph is unadulterated because it’s all done in Adobe Photoshop.

The first time I did this after I set up my darkroom I did a card, an invitation for my oldest daughter’s acceptance to the University of Florida, a graduation party. I took a picture of her lounging in a chair, with alligators at her feet. They were obviously two different pictures She was very nonchalant and it said "Another Gator in the family!" People asked me, "What program did you use?" and it drove me crazy, I didn’t use any program! I could do what I do in the darkroom so much easier with Adobe Photoshop, where you combine things. But I’m stubborn. I’m a traditionalist. •

from the May-June 2004 issue

"There are certain areas
where there are historic origins
that make sense to use
in the local architecture.
Here people are very nostalgic
about a history we never had."

photographs by Bruce Gora