A one-of-a-kind offering in Sotheby’s Important Design auction (12 December, New York), the Walker Guest House is as much a kid’s dream toy as it is an architectural feat. Sotheby's spoke to Marina Dayton about her personal connection to the home.
A rchitectural historians and scholars know the Walker Guest House in Sanibel Island, Florida as a landmark of mid-century design and paradigm of environmentally conscious living. But for Marina Dayton, who spent every spring there since the late 1970s, experiencing the home as a child is more aptly described as stepping inside “a perfect little origami box,” she tells Sotheby’s. Dayton is the step-granddaughter of Dr. Walter W. Walker, who alongside modernist architect Paul Rudolph in the 1950s, masterminded the compact abode, which cleverly uses panels and a pulley system to maximize space. “As a child I knew that the house was wonderful to live in, and then as an architect I began appreciating it intellectually,” says Dayton, an alumna of Yale School of Architecture who worked under Annabelle Selldorf before opening her eponymous Brooklyn firm. “We can love something in the abstract, but what stands the test of time in any architecture is if it has been enjoyed over time and lived in happily.” Speaking to both aspects of the building’s significance, Dayton recalls how the Walker Guest House will always hold very special memories for her extended family, and she hopes the next owners will find it as magical as they have.
What is your favorite childhood memory of the Walker Guest House?
My brother and I always loved running into the house when it was closed, then pulling on its big ropes and counterweights to individually lift each flap. Suddenly the whole space opened up, revealing these wonderful scenes surrounding you.
The house has the efficiency of a very cool boat. The whole experience of inhabiting it is a bit like sailing or any fun outdoor pursuit where you can interact with something that’s man-made to harness nature. As a kid you feel like you’re inside a house, but also like you’re inside a machine. To feel like you have that much participation in the space was really fun. It still is as an adult. I go back with my kids and relive what it’s like through their eyes.
What did neighbors and passerby make of the house?
They definitely were curious about it. Everyone had their own name for it – the Cannonball House, the Spider House. People would stop by and ask if they could just step in and look around. Grandpa Walt and my grandmother were very sweet and would welcome them inside.
Can you tell us about some of the art we see in photographs of the house?
Every morning my grandpa Walt would take long walks on the beach. He collected whatever he found – mainly to clean it up – but then he’d make these collages with everything from shells and driftwood to crumpled up cigarette packs. He was a doctor, but he loved Modern art and was an artist and preservationist at heart.
"The house seems very anonymous when you first walk up, and it’s all closed off. Intriguing but anonymous. Then you open it, and it’s so alive."
Did living in the Walker Guest House inspire you to pursue a career in architecture – especially given the connection that Rudolph was the head of Yale’s architecture school and designed its Art and Architecture building?
It was more like the reverse. As a kid I just thought of it as a wonderful playhouse. We appreciated it for all the inventive elements and the beautiful way it communicated with nature.
When I went to architecture school, one of my first classes was an environmental systems class. We were taught that we should be looking back to indigenous architecture – when people didn’t have any electricity, how did they make their houses most comfortable with just nature and the simplest local materials? One of the first examples they showed of a modern building that uses these fundamental principles was the Walker Guest House. At night the structure closes down and keeps the house warm. During the day, the flaps open up, not only allowing the breeze to pass through every side and underneath the house, but also extending the livable space by acting like a shaded porch all around the home. For the first time I saw this house as an architectural icon.
"What I appreciate about Rudolph’s design is how inventive he could be within such small parameters. Working with local building materials, he created something that is beautiful, functional and endlessly enjoyable."
What have you come to admire about Rudolph’s work? In addition to its incorporation of the environment, what makes the Walker Guest House so modern?
What I appreciate about Rudolph’s design is how inventive he could be within such small parameters. Working with local building materials, he created something that is beautiful, functional and endlessly enjoyable.
Before I went to Yale for architecture school, I did a summer program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. One of the school’s first seminal studio projects is the nine-square grid exercise where you have to design a dwelling based on this simple geometry. That’s essentially what Rudolph did, but his solution to this classic architecture school problem took it to an entirely different level, giving it real-life context in a totally original way.