by Tim Gilmore, 4/16/2021
It’s an elegant paradox. Here, concrete feels natural as wood, lines flow like the trees in a forest and the earth itself rises in tiers and terraces through foundations toward ceilings and skylights open to an overcast sky on a late February afternoon. For this is the house the earth built and these are the forces, captured as material, like a photograph freezes light, that flow through the house the earth built.
The Mary L. Singleton Senior Center might be the only institutional building in Jacksonville built on a 30°-60° grid. Standing beneath hexagonal shapes in the central hallway, architect Ted Pappas says of his design from 40 years ago, “A regular grid, of course, is 90 degrees and you can work with a 45 degree grid, but the reason for a 30-60 is that it flows. There are no square corners.”
Near the end of the 1970s, three towers built to house the elderly rose utilitarian in the eastern downtown sky. Just next door to the Singleton Senior Center, Centennial Towers, designed by Herschel Shepard and George Fisher in 1974, brood dark over East First Street. Pappas had designed the Hogan’s Creek Tower in 1976 and, in 1980, restored the abandoned Duval High School, built in 1907, repurposing it as Stevens Duval Apartments, independent living for senior citizens. The City of Jacksonville combined its goals of housing the vulnerable and aging and increasing the population of the urban core in the midst of decades of urban decay, suburban expansion and “white flight.” That gothic exigency seethes in these designs. Yet all this new housing offered its occupants very little socially and recreationally, so the City called for a new recreational center to serve “senior housing” in the center of the city.
Thus Ted Pappas won the chance to design his most avant-garde and Brutalist building. “We wanted to get the sense of a fortress on the outside,” Pappas told The Jacksonville Journal just before Christmas 1980, “so it would create that sense of protection for the old people using it. Once inside, it unfolds and feels like a village. We didn’t want walls separating people within. We wanted a sense of spontaneity.”
Outside, juxtapositions with nearby concrete buildings blare apparent. Immediately to the south, other side of Phelps Street, stands the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, designed by Hyman Witcover and Roy Benjamin in 1924, and to the east across Market Street stands Shepard’s and Fisher’s Centennial Towers Building.
Unlike the senior center, which rises from and defers to its location, the Masonic Temple dominates its site. It’s symmetrical and rigid, with a massive stone façade reached by steep monumental steps. With its orientalist Ancient Egyptian motifs, the temple announces it’s just that: a temple, a monolith. Ted Pappas loves the building’s stark clean lines, though he makes the distinction, “This is stone that was laid as opposed to poured.”
Here in the Singleton Center, motion is an architectural material. Concrete is organic in this Northeast Florida landscape of swamps and creeks. In this building, concrete doesn’t weigh heavily. It flows. The emphasis is on its pouring. The two most commonly used materials on earth are concrete and water. I never knew they were sisters.
And right angles occur rarely in nature. Natural growth curves and curls, spirals and unfurls. Designed on a grid with no right angles, this building incorporates motion as an element. Likewise here, sunlight becomes as much an architectural material as poured concrete. Concrete and sunlight both flow in rays. The light angles in from above, bouncing off 30° angles and 60° angles, and angles, as arrows of flow, become angels, since rooms contain no pigeonholes. From high above, meanwhile, the whole structure appears a series of hexagons and their fragments like strange broken crystals zoomed in from outer space.
When an old man rubs loosely wrinkled fingers along the walls in these halls, he touches the shapes of ancient redwood trees. He may or may not realize it. Their texture comes from redwood planks. Run your eyes after your hands across the flows of wood grain, the perfect imperfections of knots, the crevices and arcs. These walls are concrete poured onto redwood forms with gaps in between. After each pour, the ends are knocked off, the concrete redwood planks fitted together. Noticing the thousands of such details on these walls is like walking through a forest blind but touching all the variations in the textures of its trees.
The result is a Brutalism that grew like a forest. So often people criticize Brutalism as heavy and imposing, but each inch of these forested concrete walls feels naturally dictated, designed. The eye touches the tree knots in concrete. They feel soft to the eye. Pappas’s initial design hung trailing green plants along this central concrete spine, this hallway, and interconnected fountains in blue tile.
People hate Brutalism; people love it. Brutalism says, “I’ll be here as far in the future as the structures of Ancient Rome are past,” but poured concrete says also, “I’m ephemeral. I appear inflexible and monolithic, but the aggregate I’m built of is process, just as the remains of the ancient past are both present and ghost.”
The term “Brutalism” has nothing to do with being “brutal,” so people who wish to “save” its legacy by renaming it “heroism” build their premise, like that of other “Lost Causes,” on misunderstandings. The term dates to architectural critic Reyner Banham’s 1955 essay, “The New Brutalism,” and refers to beton brut, French for “raw concrete,” and its use as material by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, archetypally in his Unité d’Habitation built in 1952 in Marseille.
Assume that Brutalism dominates its surroundings and think of concrete as massive fixèdness, and the number of ways the Singleton Center shows itself arboreal continues to surprise you. Not only does the original design accommodate standing trees, not only do the concrete forms show the natural formations of redwood, but the structure’s geometry relates to the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, most often shown as a diagram built on hexagons, featuring 10 sefirot, plural for sefirah, as channels through which travel the creativity and consciousness of an ultimately unknowable divine essence. The 10 sefirot and 22 pathways of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life form one polyhexagonal figure.
And still, at the end of the central spine, the wide fireplace works as a visual terminus. Land your eyes at the very end of this central corridor and find this warm area inviting. 1980. Come in, make yourself at home. Carpeting is the burnt orange of the late 1970s, the soft and cushiony seating similar to Eames chairs. With a quiet alcove off to one side, behind the fireplace, and a library on the other, the terminus, the end, the final homespace, is a large and accommodating community living room with a fireplace. It’s the space that warms us at the end of life and welcomes us home.
Look out over the terrace to the side. That old oak tree still stands. Two ancient oaks preceded this building on this site and the architect designed us around them. Even the foundations span over the roots of the oak to accommodate the tree and respect its primacy.
Discussing the design for a December 22, 1980 Jacksonville Journal article, Ted Pappas described the shapes of openness. Like a Buddhist discussing form and void, he said, “There’s a difference between openness in a field and containing space and giving it a form.” He added, “The quality of a building is really the void itself. Not the positive, but—if I may make up a word—a ‘formful’ void. If you squeeze void, manipulate it, then it takes on its own shape.”