Back to the Future

By staff February 28, 2002

I've always had a weakness for "World's Fair" architecture. As a child, I was fascinated by the trylon and perisphere, symbols of the 1939 fair held in Flushing, Long Island. After a family visit to the site, I poured over photographs of the futuristic buildings, believing that such structures would rise in a new world of benevolent technology. But the Second World War followed the fair, and the promises of that World's Fair have been slow in coming.

Every now and then, a building comes along that seems to carry on the tradition of those optimistic times. Eero Saarinen's magical TWA terminal at Kennedy International Airport, now at the center of a preservation fight, is certainly one of them, singing "Man Can Fly!" in every wonderful arc and curve.

And now Sarasota has a World's Fair building of its own. At the end of South Osprey Avenue, in front of the Paradise Plaza Publix, a new World Savings Bank displays many characteristics of that 1939 exposition: It is bold, daring, flamboyant and enormously cheerful. Its strong lines and open facade seem to speak of friendly technology, of light and air, of confidence and security. The slim columns that hold up the roof slant outward, offering welcome and shelter appropriate to a residential mortgage business. The upper stories jut out from the main volume with a brazen "Look at me-I'm flying!" charm. The precepts of the Sarasota School of Architecture are at work here in a rejuvenated form. Suddenly, the corner of a fairly standard shopping center comes to life. The intersection and the city have gained a landmark.

Such landmarks don't turn up by chance. In this case, the new building is the result of World Savings Bank's program of architectural excellence, which has given shape to daring corporate buildings all over the country. The owners of the Oakland, California-based bank are fans of modern architecture who have put their money where their hearts and minds are, commissioning award-winning architects to create new branches. Their requirements for functionality are strict, but every other aspect of the design process is open and free. They want each branch to be an individual architectural statement; no two are to be alike. Apparently, their philosophy is that corporate "branding" comes from assets other than cookie-cutter buildings.

The Paradise Plaza branch is the work of Mateu, CarreƱo, Rizo and Partners, a firm based in Coral Gables that has designed other World Savings branches, most notably those in Eagle Creek in Naples and in Miami Beach. Roney Mateu says that both buildings are strong architectural statements that have been embraced by their communities, and he predicts that this engaging bank branch will win the same response here. "The umbilical cord that ties this building to the icons of the Sarasota School of Architecture-open volumes and floods of light-welcomes the user and speak of security and hospitality," he says.

Another architect based on Florida's east coast, Donald Singer, has done 18 buildings for World Savings Bank. "The standards are high, but the results are worth the challenge," he says. "These are clients who prize individuality, something an architect dreams of." Both Mateu and Singer believe their designs are better symbols of modern Florida than the Mediterranean Revival decoration seen so often in new construction here.

And as a footnote, it's too bad the chance to build an equally energetic landmark at the northern end of downtown has been wasted. The new headquarters of Channel 40/WWSB-TV could have broadcast the promise of the new digital technology that is transforming our lives. It could have said, "Look at me-I'm connected to the cyber-universe!" But instead of announcing technology, progress and excitement, it resembles an uninspired elementary school. Nothing sings, "Welcome to the future."

It also could have been what city planners call the terminus of an important north-south street, up-and-coming Central Avenue. But the building is placed off-center on the site in such a way that it's not visible as you approach it from the street. The vista is completed, instead, by an enormous beige satellite dish. Well, yes, the dish does say technology, but it doesn't speak of the glamour and razzle-dazzle we associate with television and the future. The towers of the cement plant next door, especially when they are floodlit at night, do the job better.

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