Saving the Cityscape

By staff April 1, 2004

When was the last time a new social services building made an architectural statement, here or anywhere? As a rule, these structures express their function in deadly dull form. Seldom do they lift the spirits of the casual observer, the employee or the beneficiary of the services dispensed within.

It may be that the agencies responsible for these buildings are intimidated by their own mission, wary of any display of quality design that might be misinterpreted as wasteful. "Safer to blend in," they seem to say, with the dreary surroundings, the disadvantaged zones in which they often find themselves.

"Nonsense!" says the new Salvation Army center on 10th Street and Central Avenue, in the up-and-coming Rosemary District north of Fruitville Road. "Stand proud!" In fact, there is nothing about these buildings that seeks anonymity; on the contrary, this is a highly visible campus, a group of structures that celebrate their architecture and their site. In doing so, they express confidence in both the importance of their function and the dignity of their mission. By not receding into a standard urban fabric, they enliven and enrich the neighborhood, adding momentum to the renewal of the streets around them.

Look at the way in which these graceful buildings, belying the large amounts of space they contain, are grouped on the site around magnificent mature trees, looking as if they have been co-existing there for years. Note the variety of building shape and mass, contrasting strong rectangular forms with an off-center circular core, playing diagonal outdoor corridors against the strict rhythm of the main, connecting arcade. See how the weight of the central structure is lightened by great expanses of windows, high and low, and punctuated with an elevator tower crowned, as is the entire campus, with a graceful peaked roof, deep overhangs and boldly overscaled downspouts.

Color, too, is applied with wit and energy. A great swatch of rusty red around the "back porch" and a dash of mustard-gold lighten the impact of the warm gray that covers most of the rest of the complex, relieved by bright teal roofs and those bold vertical gutters.

Inside, too, color and lavish washes of natural light remove most traces of the standard social services style while improving functionality and maintenance. The glass panels that surround the check-in desk and decorate the balustrade above the large central dome are sand-blasted with a rolling waves motif, elegant and witty. Corridors and dormitories are wide and high, airy, clean, light. Even the shower rooms resist the almost-inevitable institutional look by the clever use of richly colored, floor-to-ceiling tile, clean and elegant.

The project, designed by Paul Worrell of The Maddox Group, presented several challenges to the architects: the site itself, with those inconvenient but essential trees; the requirement that maintenance costs be kept low; and the fact that this is, after all, transient housing with all the potential for social problems that implies. Worrell concedes that the criteria set by the Salvation Army imposed a significant challenge to his team. "The diversity of functions within these buildings, the comfort issues raised by interactions of people in various degrees of distress, the need for easy communication with clients and staff-all these really forced us to look at the commission in new and creative ways," he says. "We have designed schools before, but never this kind of social service facility. We are pleased with the result, pleased that we could meet the needs of a very demanding client."

Bryan Pope, general manager of the facility for the Sarasota Area Command of the Salvation Army, concedes that this complex is not typical of other Salvation Army centers, not what he calls the "usual institutional box." The project, he says, "improved almost every aspect of our operations: maintenance, communications, accessibility and efficiency. This is quite a high-tech building, built of high-quality materials to eliminate problems in later years." The Salvation Army recognizes, he adds, that the new complex and its clients could disturb or threaten residents and businesses in the neighborhood. "But I am happy to say that we have encountered very little opposition to our plans, in contrast to the resistance we found in Jacksonville," he says. "It seems people here understand that part of our mission is to contribute to the revival of this area."

The campus is at the end of Central Avenue, where it terminates in 10th Street. The entrance from Central, through a garden gate and on a diagonal, is welcoming, leading to a covered shelter in which clients can wait for check-in or simply rest out of the elements. The fence that encloses the property is non-threatening and well-designed, of high quality. Perhaps the only structure that needs a bit of cheering up is the detached building of apartments for families working toward moving back to permanent housing. That structure is plain and boxy, and the interior corridor is pretty grim, but the little herb garden on the Lemon Avenue side is a start toward giving it a lift. A bit of color here couldn't hurt and would lift the spirits of both those living in it and passing by.

Architecture has, after all, an important civic function in addition to its original use. These days, most people understand that the built environment affects our behavior. This is as true of an upscale residential street as it is of a busy downtown, as important for a school as it is for a social service agency. The Salvation Army has set high standards in its critically important sector of our civic life, standards to be met by other agencies in the future. Think about it-they could have opted for yet another round of Mediterranean


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