Scott Merrill Builds on Strong Foundations
Scott Merrill, this year’s winner of the prestigious Driehaus Prize for traditional architecture, crafts homes in tune with their locales and with the past.
When Merrill completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Virginia, in 1979, “there weren’t many jobs for architects,” he recalls (accurately). So Merrill spent almost two years traveling the country, sometimes driving, sometimes hitching rides. By the time he was 26, Merrill says, he had seen all 48 lower states.
What most impressed the Ohio native, besides the natural wonders, were the varied building types peculiar to each region, from tobacco barns in Richmond to grain elevators in Kansas to shotgun houses in New Orleans. But with strip malls running rampant, “you sensed it wasn’t going to stay this way much longer.”
Indeed, while living in Washington, D.C., where he began his career in the 1980s after earning an architecture degree from Yale, Merrill watched the rural counties of northern Virginia “being consumed by development. It was the saddest thing for me,” he says. So, in his practice, he decided he would focus on site planning that uses land more efficiently — meaning more densely — and, when possible, respects local traditions. And he decided that he would do that in Florida, which he calls “the ground zero of sprawl.” With its history of indifferent development, plus its “harsh and unforgiving climate,” Florida, he says, “is a state that tends to keep architects humble.”
For two years, Merrill served as the town architect of Seaside, the New Urbanist community in the Florida panhandle that millions know as the setting of the film The Truman Show. His goal was to show that Americans would live in relatively dense, pedestrian-friendly communities. Seaside also demonstrated the popularity of traditional architecture. In 1990, Merrill moved to Vero Beach, Fla., to help create Windsor, an upscale New Urbanist community founded by Galen and Hilary Weston and built mainly of pastel-colored stucco. Then he was a sole practitioner; today, his firm, now called Merrill, Pastor & Colgan Architects, has more than 100 buildings to its credit, many in Florida but some in places like Jackson Hole and the Caribbean.
On March 19, Merrill received the Driehaus Prize, given each year to a proponent of traditional architecture — an alternative to the Pritzker, which focuses almost exclusively on modernism. His uses of past architectural forms “in modern settings reinforce the values of community, beauty and sustainability,” says Michael Lykoudis, the dean of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture and the Driehaus Prize jury chair. Says Merrill: “We should not ask every architect to be interested in the same things. It’s a big profession.” He plans to share the $200,000 prize with his partners.
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