A Healthy Addition

By staff January 1, 2003

Sarasota is not famous for fine commercial architecture. Even the late, lamented Sarasota School produced few iconic business structures. Schools, yes; residences, yes; a nifty City Hall, but relatively little in memorable commercial buildings. Unfortunately, recent development has produced almost nothing of which we can be proud. A lot of Mediterranean Revival stuff, some of it relatively inoffensive, but nothing striking. The glass structure at the corner of the Tamiami Trail and Gulfstream Avenue-it's officially named One Sarasota Tower but is still called the Penner Building by many long-term residents-responds well to a first-rate site in its graceful volume and constantly shifting reflections of sky and water, something one cannot say of the elephantine new addition to the Radisson Hotel on Lido. (Our treatment of Lido Key since the dastardly destruction of the Lido Beach Casino is nothing short of shameful and especially ironic considering the concerns for scale and proportion embodied in our new Downtown Master Plan.)

But now comes a break in the depressing state of things: an exuberant new building by Sarasota architect Guy Peterson, the unfortunately named Center for Digestive Diseases on South Tamiami Trail. Here, at last, is a welcome statement in architectural clarity and confidence. Horizontal lines, sometimes jutting out from the main mass and emphasized by ingeniously varied windows and sleek stainless steel panels, speak of the technology to be found inside without striking fear into the heart of the beholder (or, one hopes, the prospective patient).

Peterson was commissioned to create an exterior in response to the technical demands of the medical facilities within, designed by others, but there is no sense of constraint in his bold and assured handling of the volumes and masses that express the interior functionality. In fact, the building seems to boast of its technology, without sneering at the humans who will benefit from its efficiency.

The sexy strength of the architecture recalls the French architect supreme, Le Corbusier, as seen in his Villa Stein, outside Paris. Fortunately, it does not reflect Corbusier's other tendency, toward massive "machines for living" like those ghastly apartment houses near Marseilles, buildings that dwarfed and depressed the very people who were supposed to live in them. A compelling illustration of that discredited theory can be seen in the recent Steven Spielberg film, Minority Report, in which the monstrous high-tech residential tower where the Tom Cruise character lives is called an "egg crate" by the surprisingly architecturally savvy goons who are chasing him. In this case, however, the architect has given high-tech a human scale, a friendly face, recalling the optimism we used to feel when looking at displays of the "City of the Future."

Peterson says that the owners, represented by developer Jason Harwell, care deeply about good architecture. In fact, one of the group, Dr. Charles Loewe, considered a career in architecture before deciding on medicine. Harwell says that the partners were determined to create a building that would respond to the prominence of the site, to make an investment in the community. This kind of ambition to improve the urban landscape is rare and most welcome, especially on a busy traffic artery. To be fair, there are a few other buildings of quality nearby, in a zone that seems to have become a medical suburb, starting with the excellent proportions and detail of the addition to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, reminiscent of a 1940s table radio. With luck, and a few more visionary investors, the U.S. 41 corridor could become a handsome addition to the commercial and institutional landscape south of downtown.

Another exuberant building has made a debut recently: Savon Furniture's wonderfully over-the-top showroom on U.S. 301 near DeSoto Road. Here is commercial architecture as extravagant advertising for itself. The building, basically a big box, is nothing special. But the enormous Palladian window in the front facade, flanked by giant purple and gold metallic palm trees, is delightful in its self-aware playfulness. The "don't-take-us-too-seriously" statement is made even more surprising by the line of matching palm trees, this time in green neon, which the giant window reveals marching down the center aisle inside. This is design which makes one want to go inside, to see if the merchandise is as amusing as the architecture. It is probably unfair to ask a furniture store to be witty, but this comes pretty close.

Architecture can make us want to see what it encloses. A restaurant, for example, will expose its interior by letting us see the customers within, sitting at elegant tables or lined up at a counter. We get a pretty good idea of what we are about to experience. A house of worship, on the other hand, hints at the mysteries within, usually without displaying them (although some of the new mega-churches are closer to fast-food outlets than cathedrals). A retail store will provide display windows to tempt us to enter. A medical facility should engender confidence in the skill and technology to be found inside the walls. Peterson's building certainly accomplishes this. The Savon store provides temptation and a smile. What more could we ask of either? (end)

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