Lessons in Form

By staff September 1, 2002

Perhaps the Sarasota School of Architecture should be called the

Architecture of Schools in Sarasota, since it left a remarkable legacy of handsome academic as well as residential buildings in the county.

As early as the 1940s, Sarasota had become the hangout of a remarkable group of young architects, led by Ralph Twitchell and Paul Rudolph. They and their colleagues, including Mark Hampton, Gene Leedy, Victor Lundy and Jack West, had found some work designing residences, and their success had attracted widespread attention. Their rational designs for the Florida climate, the clean elegance of their structures, their experimentation with new materials-all these built their reputation as the Next Big Thing in American architecture.

Enter Philip Hiss, developer, successful businessman and patron of the arts. In 1954, Hiss was elected to the Sarasota County School Board. In the sudden burst of prosperity after the war, it became clear that Sarasota County-like the rest of the country-needed new houses, new churches, new commercial centers and new schools, all the stuff of community. Hiss convinced the school board that it needed a massive building program to provide for the families that were pouring in. He managed to get control of the process, selecting and hiring architects for the new schools regardless of their experience in academic design. Their talent attracted Hiss, and he attracted them to this small town with a penchant for the arts. This at a time when MacKinlay Kantor and Syd Solomon were working here, when Frank Lloyd Wright was working nearby and when the Palmer and Ringling heritage was still fresh. Sarasota was looking for a new identity,

and new architecture-simple, clean, light architecture-seemed to be part of it.

The results were spectacular, if not always durable. Between 1954 and 1959, Sarasota County was provided with schools that attracted national and international attention. The ideas they conveyed have remained at the leading edge of school design-larger, multi-purpose spaces, provisions for air-conditioning and electronic connectivity, response to the severe demands of the climate with floods of light and air.

Although some of these structures have been lost or tampered with, we have quite a collection of them still. Three of the finest examples, although they are not seen at their best these days, are Victor Lundy's soaring classroom building at the Alta Vista School on Euclid Avenue, Paul Rudolph's graceful Riverview High School, and his addition to Sarasota High School. At Sarasota High, Rudolph's debt to Corbusier is clear in his use of freestanding concrete panels to define spaces and to control climate. Unfortunately, the connection between the graceful Gothic-revival original school and the addition has been ruined by the ugly parking lot on the Tamiami Trail side. To see the building properly, go to School Avenue and marvel at its powerful planes and majestic elevations. Lundy's design for Alta Vista has been plagued by structural defects, but it still flies. And those shaded outdoor teaching areas look mighty attractive even in disuse.

The demise of the Sarasota School was unfortunate, indeed, and remains largely unexplained. Something drove the American public to strip malls and fake architecture; whatever it was, we are still in its grip, although the New Urbanists are fighting to free us. With the malling came the uninspired-no, mindless-architecture that we see everywhere.

Fortunately, good school design didn't perish at that time, not completely. Yes, most of our new schools are unremarkable, but we do have a few that carry the conviction that we are formed by our surroundings, never more so than during our education. The jauntily geometric Pine View School designed by Carl Abbott and Stuart Barger's handsome theater for the Booker High School VPA are good examples of what still can be done with some imagination and leadership. Abbott seems to be playing with the volumes at Pine View, putting cylinders opposite rectangles, straight lines up against curves, joining them with cut-stone surfaces and colorful walkways, while Barger has chosen somber colors and a rhythmic contrast between imposing flat and curved masses.

But, oh, dear, we also have the new St. Martha's School on MacIntosh.

What could have possessed the school's leadership to commission a group of gas storage tanks, or-worse-sewage treatment structures as a school campus? Domes these may be; Buckminster Fuller they aren't. There is none of the airy technology of the Geodesic Dome that Bucky promulgated in places like the Seattle World's Fair, none of the lighter-than-air transparency that the geodesic technology made possible. St. Martha's tanks are rooted to the soil implacably, devoid of buoyancy, like huge toadstools. Largely windowless, scowling, heavy, hulking, these are repressive and unwelcoming in the extreme. It is hard to imagine education going on here.

We are told that this style is designed to resist hurricanes. I think I'd rather be swept away.

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