Opposites Attract

By staff November 1, 2004

It has been obvious for some time that the most interesting architecture in our area is found in new buildings commissioned by businesses. The reasons for this are most likely timidity and financial exposure. People planning to build a new home do not, it seems, dare to invite an architect to design their "dream house" but, instead, strive to, a) impress their peers and, b) insure strong resale value.

Fortunately, business owners and directors of institutions are less likely to be ensnared by this unfortunate trend. Why? Clearly, resale values are not so critical in this sector of the local economy, but-much more important-successful business persons are successful for the most part because they have vision. Vision is the crucial requirement for an institutional leader, too. These are people who understand that they can demonstrate their community spirit by providing a civic landmark. And if their courage in doing so is rewarded by stronger business and increased contributions, so much the better. There is a lot to like about the idea of doing well by doing good.

Not far from each other, on the north and south edges of Sarasota's expanding urban core, lie a pair of new buildings that illustrate this maxim very well. The fact that they are at opposite poles of architectural style only strengthens the argument that vision matters,

regardless of the particular way in which it may be expressed. Honesty of concept and quality of execution unite disparate styles as they have done always. In downtown Sarasota, the refurbished classical-style Federal Building lives quite happily near City Hall, a Sarasota School of Architecture landmark.

The new home of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, on Fruitville Road between Shade and Tuttle avenues, is an imposing example of the Mediterranean Revival style. Designed by the Lawson Group and anchored by a Tuscan-style tower, this building says, "Look, we are here to stay, a pillar of the community, a stable force for good." The tower, lighted from within at night, reinforces this message in its resemblance to a medieval lighthouse. Set on a large parcel of land which may eventually be developed as a business park,


The building's considerable mass is cleverly divided into several smaller volumes and softened by the arbor-covered walled gardens on its flanks.

Entrance is on the north facade, away from the street, through a graceful porte-cochere defined by gently trapezoidal columns, to a grand central hall. Balconies, rather baroque in the way they curve out into the space overhead, provide circulation to the offices on the second floor, the ground floor being devoted to meeting spaces available to community organizations. The entrance door is quite formal, but the grand staircase one might expect in such a setting is absent; access to the elevator is not obvious but may be improved when art and graphics (not in place when we visited) are installed on the walls.

The meeting rooms on the ground level are large and, in common with the rest of the building, are flooded with natural light. Their French doors give access to charming walled gardens under the arbors seen from the outside. Depending on the season and the time of day, these will be fine spaces for social gatherings or breaks from intense meetings.

The second floor boasts some of the best office space in our city. The rooms are generously proportioned, most have large windows, and their access to visitors is welcoming. Indeed, some offices have interior windows on the lobby side, gently indicating the availability of those working within. Although some details were still being resolved during our visit, it is clear that this is a pleasant place to work.

Architect Don Lawson, in previous conversations about use of the Mediterranean Revival vocabulary in his buildings, has said that the key to its validity lies in the materials employed. Real stone, for example, rather than stuccoed synthetic materials, is both more durable and more honest than the cheaper substitutes. Stone paving, rather than the man-made versions, provides the sense of strength a public building requires.

In the foundation's headquarters, materials are generally of the highest quality. One might quibble about carrying applied plastic mutins (those bars originally used to hold small window panes in a large frame) onto the interior windows; but, building codes having made them mandatory on exterior glazing, their use throughout is understandable (but just barely). Using them next to "real" French doors invites negative comparison, however. Exterior details are excellent throughout, especially in the elegant supports to roof overhangs and in the way in which the various elevations are joined.

This is a building that sets a standard of high-quality traditional design for the burgeoning Fruitville Road area, a place where condominium office parks of lower architectural ambition and achievement so far prevail.

Quite another approach, but one of equally impressive honesty, vision and quality, is seen in the new offices of the Center for Premier Dentistry on Swift Road, just south of Bee Ridge Road. There's no mistaking Dr. Stephen Wieder's commitment to making a modern architecture statement at his practice on this highly visible but small site. There's nothing timid about Mark Sultana's design for DSDG Inc., either, nor is there any reluctance to use quality materials and impeccable finishes to achieve his elevated goals. The nasty secret about modern architecture is that anything other than perfect finish looks cheap; and, because of smooth surfaces and close tolerances where they meet, compromise materials often deteriorate quickly.

Sultana chose to make a virtue of the regulations that govern new construction by creating a graceful, well-proportioned structure above the columns which lift the building above potential flood levels. The space created below is used for a small elevator lobby, covered parking and utilities. Even the mandated water retention pool is covered with a wood deck, both handsome and practical in its use for additional parking. The main mass of the structure includes a setback over the first office level that creates a terrace used for air-conditioning equipment, and a roof line that slants both toward and away from Swift Road, subtly mitigating the boxy effect which could have stifled the airy charm of the design.

Speaking about the exterior finishes, Sultana emphasized his insistence on a high level of quality in their execution, pointing out with pride the clean surface of the supporting columns, the proportions of the scoring which breaks up large expanses of the exterior, and the precise placement of large square windows. The windows on the street side are shaded by sleek metal sunshades hung perpendicular to the facade, providing both interesting shadows on the exterior walls and welcome shade for the interior. Handsome exterior lighting fixtures, too, add to the overall impression that this building knows what it is about.

Details like this require a lot of careful attention. The controls in the elevator, for example, are not the ordinary stuff you see everywhere. Their shapes and materials are jazzy and youthful without being foolishly fashionable.

Inside spaces, supervised by interior decorator Suzanne Sultana, expand on this contemporary theme with a choice of materials, equipment and finishes that is both harmonious and exciting. Creating an environment in which dental patients feel relaxed and comfortable cannot be easy, but it has been achieved here through the use of high-quality fixtures and furnishings.

Everything you see and touch is part of this theme, from the subtle geometric carpeting to the pale sea-foam walls, from high ceilings to the ingenious use of recessed lighting and plasma video in the consultation rooms. Think of it-you're practically lying flat on your back and quite possibly apprehensive. Do you want to stare at a fluorescent light tube or a dreary acoustic ceiling? The same focus on competence and caring is seen in such obvious elements as the elegant credenza in the elevator lobby, the reception counter and the mirrors in the rest rooms.

What should commercial architecture do? Shouldn't it stimulate desire for the product on sale within, whether that be objects or services?

And what is institutional architecture all about? Isn't it supposed to engender confidence in the services provided there? The answers, of course, are "yes." These two buildings, vastly different in their design and purpose, nonetheless respond with excellence of both intent and execution.

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