Building Business

By staff March 1, 2004

Looking around at the new construction that's proliferated everywhere recently, one is struck by a curious dichotomy: The commercial and institutional architecture is, by and large, excellent; the residential architecture is not. Developers and architects of business structures seem ready to take risks in the interest of creating memorable buildings; residential development, with few exceptions, seems stuck in a cheapened version of the "Mediterranean Revival" mode, ostensibly in response to market demand.

Those of us who believe that architecture in an art, rooted in the desire to live in beautiful surroundings, desperately wish that our architects would do more to convince theirs clients that it's possible to achieve both marketability and beauty, to do well by doing good. The built environment defines who we are as a civilization; when we fill it with junk, we diminish ourselves-and overlook the realith that our behavior is affected by that environment. Ugly cities have more street crime; brutal surroundings produce brutish behavior.

Sermon over, let's look at some examples of new business-built architecture in the area. Nothing here is over-the-top innovative, but some of it is very good. These buildings succeed in one of commercial architecture's primary goals: They express their function in their form. Hardly a new concept, you say? A cliche, you snort? Guilty on both charges, but the point is valid and worth repeating.

The first example, and one that proves that Mediterranean-inspired architecture need not be shallow or banal, is an exceptionally elegant building: Orion Bank's new branch at the corner of Main Street and South Osprey Avenue. Everything about this Lawson Group design is in perfect harmony. The scale is well adjusted to its corner site, in context with the low-rise buildings nearby, including the Reese family's friendly gas station on the opposite corner, one of the few remnants of the "old downtown."

On the north side of Main, the Sun Trust bank building's commanding height and strong ver ticality soon will be joined by an adventurous design promised for the new headquarters of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The Rivolta Group has plans for a strongly modern residential tower to the south. The Lawson design should hold its own quite nicely in these surroundings, thanks to its calm strength and confident proportions. (Probably irrelevant, but also part of downtown lore: This area was also the site of the Smack, the legendary drive-in restaurant and social meeting-place.)

The Orion Bank building could be called Mediterranean Revival, but with a difference, a crucial distinction: attention to quality construction and detail, eschewing the Styrofoam-and-stucco fakery we see so often, mostly in local residential architecture. The Lawson Group has seen to it that the stone is real, the wood solid, the interior flooring of high quality, in response to the clear priorities expressed by the client. Their insistence on "real" materials led to the recruitment of a team of artisans skilled in the traditional arts of cutting and fitting the stone and other materials used.

And now for something completely different: the Photo-Tech international headquarters nearing completion at press time. This building, on Fruitville Road to the east of Beneva Road, says "high tech" loud and clear, owing nothing to Mediterranean influences and everything to international modernism. Designed by Angel del Monte of Tampa-based Alfonso Architects, the structure is almost entirely transparent, taking full advantage of its heavily wooded site. Set back from the busy roadway, the structure has been placed in such a way as to save a magnificent oak tree. The tree's massive branches seem to command the horizontal lines that define the building, linking the opaque blocks at either end with the massive glass expanses of the center sect ion.

Peter Turo, chief executive of Photo-Tech, explains his concept: "a work atmosphere that stimulates creativity with its floods of natural light and the use of common materials in uncommon ways." Floors of polished concrete contrast with a brilliant red kitchen made in Italy; antique steel doors enclose a gallery of old cameras, one of the few dark spaces in the building. Amusing photo-graphics will identify utility spaces and rest rooms. "It should be a pleasure to work here," says Turo, defining the role of business architecture succinctly.

Another striking modern structure is nearing completion in the heart of the "medical district" south of downtown. The new parking garage for Sarasota Memorial Hospital, designed by Darrell McLain of the BMK firm, manages to respect the urban context in which it is situated while making a strong statement about form and function. The site, at the corner of South Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) and Hillview Street, has both traffic corridor and neighborhood relevan ce, linking as it does a high- density, fast-moving automotive artery with a low-rise, human- scale mixed-use neighborhood, one in which considerable amounts of money have been spent to bring a pedestrian-friendly character to the area.

McLain has useda design vocabulary that takes some cues from the hospital addition just to the north, especially the slick rectangular elements of the exterior finish and the bow-front glass sections. The gently curved bay windows of the older building are evoked here in the grilled vertical bays that skillfully break up the inevitable horizontal mass of the parking structure. The grille work, which also shields the stair towers, changes character from nearly transparent to nearly opaque, depending on the angle of the light and the time of day, further diminishing the perceived mass of the building.

On the Hillview Street side, landscaping, brick pavers and a charming small round-about slow traffic and create an effective transition from the pressure of Tamiami Tra il to the relative quiet of the restaurant row which anchors the neighborhood.

Among other good things in the commercial realm: the snazzy new Porsche/Audi/Volkswagen dealership on the South Trail, Suncoast Motorsports. If ever a building shouted "Hey, Big Spender," this one certainly does. It's an enormous thing, but the way the front facade has been articulated into smaller masses, each identified with one of the trademarks, is ingenious and eye-catching. Metallic surfaces, bright color and bold fenestration add to the glamorous effect.

Another pleasure: the brick facade of the Harley-Davidson dealership out on Cattlemen Road, just south of Fruitville Road and west of I-75. Basically, this is just a standard warehouse, but the retro front, in rich red brick, is wonderfully evocative of Easy Rider spirit and mid-life crisis.

Not far away, Benderson Development's facelift on the old outlet mall at University Parkway at I-75 is giving the place an entirely new look, t hat of a cinematic post-modern downtown. The transformation is being accomplished by the application of new fronts, some of them very amusing, to the existing stores. Various finishes and styles are mixed with a surprising amount of wit and charm, aiming at creating a pedestrian "neighborhood" to attract shoppers from the constantly expanding development east of the interstate.

Final facelift: the superb restoration of the Two Senoritas restaurant on lower Main Street. The old Alcazar building hasn't looked so sexy in many a year.

Final word: Oops! Having praised the lovely restoration of the Federal Building on Orange Avenue, we must now ask those responsible to remove some of the potted trees that have sprouted all over the terraces around it. All that vegetation obscures the beautiful lines of the building and is not consistent with the Greek-Revival style. Urbanist Andres Duany was right, alas, when he accused us of over-furnishing our public spaces. Enough, already!

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