Going Public

By staff October 1, 2002

If a city is remembered for its public sector architecture, we are likely to be easily forgotten. Precious few signature buildings have been built in Sarasota recently, and even fewer have been saved from the past.

Jack West's City Hall, a monument to the austere beauty of the Sarasota School of Architecture, still looks pretty good. Not as sharp and clean as it did when it was first built, before the surrounding landscaping had become so busy, but still impressive. However, it is on a less-traveled street, not in the key position one would expect for the seat of city government.

County government is less auspiciously served, cowering in a converted commercial structure-massive, but of no particular architectural merit. Fortunately, the former Federal Building, now under renovation to house city offices, has a certain Greek-revival institutional grandeur and occupies a grand site on Orange Avenue near the Post Office that says "government lives here." On the other hand, visitors still point to Selby Library and ask why our hockey arena faces the Opera House. A pity-if the building were more flamboyant, if it had more attitude, it could be a commanding institutional presence. It could say, as public buildings must, "Look here, this is what our town is all about."

But things are looking up. The Sarasota Chamber of Commerce recently moved into new headquarters, a strong architectural statement designed by Robert Towne of the ADP Group. Here is a building that clearly means business, expressing its "Look Here" character in clean lines that manage to unite the severity of the Sarasota School with the monumental balance of classic architecture. The result is pleasing, inviting and dignified at the same time.

But one of the most important aspects of any public building is its site, the source of its impact on the public realm and on the stream of public life passing it. The Chamber of Commerce sits near a gateway to the city, on Fruitville Road just west of the Washington Boulevard/U.S. 301 intersection. So it should be a knockout, right? Should be, but isn't.

Why? Because the building occupies the portion of the gateway site next to a large Walgreen's, subservient to the drugstore, which has the true gateway position, highly visible to traffic moving in every direction. The chamber's building is most visible to traffic that has turned west on Fruitville, traffic already headed into the urban core. Its striking diagonal facade, the wing carrying its identification, is turned toward U.S. 301, less visible to traffic moving east.

There are undoubtedly good reasons why the site is what it is, most of them having to do with cost, but it seems a shame to have settled for half measures when building such an important structure, a symbol of the business pulse that animates the city. Perhaps it is more disappointing because the building itself is excellent, inside and out. Towne has managed to create a dignified rhythm in the more conventional rectangular core of the building, pacing the openings in the skin with calm skill. Then, as if to shake us up, he has designed a wedge section that incorporates the public entrance, expressing a more youthful spirit of dynamic energy. Thus, two aspects of our business community-the old guard, the young lions-each have an expression in the building where they meet.

And they meet in very pleasing spaces, starting with an angular, airy lobby, proceeding to conference rooms of various sizes, continuing to a common work space full of natural light. Here, the lines are simple, the finishes pleasantly spartan. Ceilings are high, circulation seems logical, acoustics are under control. All in all, it's a functional place in which to work, a businesslike realization of the exciting promise of the exterior.

Oh, if it only could have been at the corner! Properly sited, Towne's strong design would have created an impressive gateway to a resurgent downtown.

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