School Spirit

By staff May 1, 2004

In days gone by, two or three institutional buildings were the heart of any town: the city hall, the police station and the school. In most cases, these buildings were close to each other, sometimes grouped around the town's central square; and along with religious structures, they defined the history, character and ambitions of the community. Today, such groupings are rare, as town centers have been eroded and exploded by the forces of sprawl and the lack of pleasant mass transport.

Sarasota is only now regaining some sense of a municipal center, but it's focused on the commercial rather than the institutional, and often

expressed in bland office buildings and retail establishments. And schools were never really part of the downtown mix: Although the Sarasota School of Architecture produced several outstanding schools, the work was outside the downtown core. Paul Rudolph's addition to Sarasota High School was relegated to a side street, behind the grand old University Gothic main building, itself on the edge of the city center and now in desperate need of rehabilitation.

The other schools built during those heady post-war days responded to the needs of neighborhoods rather than the city as a whole. This trend shows no signs of abating, probably with good reason, as our lives grow more decentralized and we feel the need to create neighborhood cohesion in the absence of old-fashioned municipal solidarity and pride.

It's encouraging to note, however, that the opening up of new population centers in Sarasota County has induced the School Board to commission some very good architecture for the schools that serve them. In these days of constant struggle over school financing, one might not have expected our elected officials to have been as visionary as they have been in at least three recent projects. And one of them carries with it a strong message: Good design can be re-used.

Second-rate architecture doesn't save money, nor does cheap construction; so stay with the good stuff and repeat it as necessary and appropriate.

That idea inspired Heron Creek Middle School in North Port. The explosive growth of the North Port area has challenged local and county officials to move quickly to provide the necessary new schools. They've met the challenge handsomely in several of the new academic centers to have opened there in the past few years. At Heron Creek, architect Michael L. Epstein of Seibert Architects has adapted his design for Sarasota's Brookside Middle School to excellent effect. The structure, notable for the way in which its colorful open stairways and corridors handle traffic circulation, hugs its site without seeming to impose extra weight on the landscape. Surfaces have been further simplified in the repetition, losing the gutters and downspouts that tended to clutter the original version. The result is massive, to be sure, but somehow friendly nonetheless.

Epstein points out some other ways the design has been improved in its second version. The new school provides additional visibility for both students and staff, making it less likely that a student could get lost or avoid supervision. Classes are organized in pods, reducing the distances students have to walk between classes. This is not to imply that they are walled away in small compounds. In fact, corridors have clear visibility, both to the outdoors and to the classrooms, offices and activity areas.

Directly across West Price Boulevard from Heron Creek is the imposing North Port High School and Performing Arts Center. This group of buildings, dominated by the arts center, is remarkably ambitious and forward-looking. Designed by Javier Suarez of the ADP Group, the complex is grouped around a circular courtyard, which is the focal point of corridors leading to the academic centers. Traffic to these centers, called academies because of their nearly self-contained curriculum concentration, is filtered by the school's administrative center, poised between the considerable mass of the performance hall and the sports facilities, each a distinct structure. Future plans call for two more academy wings, resulting in an academic half-circle around the courtyard and its continuation, a colonnaded outdoor assembly space.

The performance hall is impressive. The exterior, sheathed in gray stone and dominated by a high barrel vault roof, says "important." The interior, with its warm colors, fine acoustics and technologically advanced equipment, announces, "This is a world-class space for performance art." The gymnasium and the adjoining athletic facilities, too, have a strong upward thrust, optimistic and exciting.

While the Sarasota County School Board is to be commended for moving forward on such an ambitious project, considerable credit must also be given to North Port city officials, who saw an opportunity to build the performing arts hall they had been planning for some time by working in partnership with the school. This unusual partnership, to date seen only in Port Charlotte and New Port Richey, has made it possible to provide a large (1,000 + seats) state-of-the-art facility to both the student body and the larger community. Great care has been given to using high-quality materials everywhere, thereby reducing maintenance costs. Nothing is luxurious; everything is built to last.

On the northeast side of downtown Sarasota, the new Tuttle Elementary School is another eye-catching addition to the school lineup. Here, architect Fred Frederick, of TRO-The Richie Organization, has given a four-square, fairly standard school a welcome dose of fantasy, designing an entry portal that's both clear and easy to navigate and a riff on kites and sails. The overhangs occur at odd angles, with unexpected overlapping sections, high and cheerful.

"The main entry evokes images of kites on a windy day," says Frederick, "creating a sense of youthful joy.... these elements form a canopy at the front door and establish a clearly recognizable point of entry, which is very important in school design." This is the school as a place to have fun, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. Learning, at its best, is terrifically amusing. And, it seems, good for architecture and community life.

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