The Sand Men

By ericg August 1, 2012

Jerry Sparkman and Todd Sweet ( you find yourself in northern Italy later this summer or early fall, be sure to visit the charming 15th-century Palazzo Bembo on Venice’s Grande Canal, a few steps from the Rialto Bridge, where—surprise!—you can dip your feet into a thousand pounds of silky white Siesta Key sand flowing from a basin in the floor.

The sand was shipped to Venice in July by Todd Sweet and Jerry Sparkman of TOTeMS Architecture to serve as the centerpiece of an architectural exhibit at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.

It’s a huge honor for the young architects, who’ve racked up armfuls of awards for their warm, contemporary, indoors-meets-outdoors designs, including the 2010 Gold Best of American Living Award for the curvaceous Casey Key guest house featured last October in this magazine.

When Sweet and Sparkman received the coveted invitation to be among some 30 architectural firms from around the world participating in the famed Biennale, their immediate thought—after asking the curator if he had the wrong phone number, says Sparkman—was to create an exhibit that shows the “qualities of place” that inspire their designs, rather than showing concrete examples of the designs themselves.

Sarasota is central to their work, says Sparkman; in fact, it was the Sarasota School of Architecture, which flourished here in the 1950s and ’60s and was “very much about the environment and finding inspiration in nature,” that drew him here. And for both of them, the iconic Sarasota element is the 99-percent quartz sand of Siesta Key Beach. The interaction between the flowing sand that will be artificially lit from above and below and the natural light that will stream into the room from two southwest-facing windows forms the basis of their exhibit.

“People will walk on the sand, touch it, feel it, get a sense of what it is,” says Sparkman. “We’re looking forward to sharing the quality of the Siesta sand with the world in a museum environment.”

Architecture Biennale curator Rene Rietmeyer, a Dutch painter, most certainly did not have the wrong number when he called Sweet and Sparkman. He learned about their firm from photographs of the Casey Key guest house, and in a small-world coincidence, he had visited Siesta Key in 2008 and then created a series of abstract paintings as a response to the beach. When Rietmeyer shared that, says Sparkman, “I realized how much he understood the potential of our exhibit.”

Sparkman spent two months this spring living at the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast’s Bay Preserve as artist-in-residence, building a full-size mockup of the 12-foot-by-18-foot room in Palazzo Bembo where TOTeMS’ installation will reside. Students from Ringling College of Art and Design are collaborating on the project (Ringling College underwrote half its cost), and there is talk of creating a documentary on the design process, possibly in conjunction with Community Video Archives or the Sarasota Film Festival.

A record-breaking 170,000 people attended the last Venice Biennale in 2010. Sparkman says he and Sweet are looking forward to “sharing some of Sarasota with the rest of the world.”


The Venice Architecture Biennale, part of the larger Venice Biennale, which also spotlights art, cinema, music, dance and theater, runs from Aug. 29 through Nov. 25. To plan a visit, go to

The Elements of the Exhibition







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