Judgment Day

By staff January 1, 2006

Much has been said of late about the revival of Sarasota's downtown, marked by a building frenzy and escalating real estate values. But the excitement has been almost entirely about money. Very little has been said about the architecture generated by this burst of energy, possibly with good reason.

Now, however, downtown Sarasota has an honest-to-goodness modern building, a landmark gateway to Main Street and a world-class statement about the vitality of our community in both business and the arts.

The Courthouse Centre, designed by Todd Sweet of the TOTeMS architectural firm for developer Mark Kauffman and sited at the southwest corner of Main Street and Washington Boulevard (U.S. 301), is a commanding presence, a strong addition to the urban concentration formed by the historic courthouse, the Terrace Building and the new Justice Center. While the new structure is large, it responds well to the scale of the nearby landmarks. It's lower than both the Terrace Building and the Justice Center and is sensitive to the importance of the handsome old courthouse tower.

The sleek, contemporary structure takes its landmark position seriously, depending on playful interaction of surfaces and colors to lighten the visual weight of a building that occupies a large L-shaped lot stretching from Main Street south to Ringling Boulevard and then leaping over a mid-block alley and turning the corner, curving gently to meet the under-appreciated Spanish building facing Links Plaza.

Sweet has given the complex a welcome touch of whimsy, devising a large purple cylindrical shape that seems to pierce the structure at street level, emerging again at the roofline. This device, which relieves the strong horizontality of the building, sports irregularly spaced small windows near the street and a surprise appearance above through a large aperture in the cantilevered mass of the parking garage within.

On the Main Street side, the developer specified what he calls a "pocket park" between the new structure and the historic Crisp building, with wonderful murals by Skip Dyrda (commissioned by Kauffman) that are some of our best public art. Sweet recalls reminding Kauffman that he'd be giving up some 30,000 square feet of marketable space in doing this, but the owner was undeterred, even though the additional space would have been within code requirements.

This space is a real urban piazza, a defined space for social interaction, a place anyone can appreciate even without taking advantage of the outdoor dining available from restaurants on either side. A double line of trees sheltering comfortable benches leads the eye toward a subtly Asian fountain by Wesco of Nokomis. Above the fountain, glass-enclosed elevators glide up and down as passengers watch diners and vice versa. Here we have a communal space of the sort we should expect of a dynamic city, one that reaches toward the future while honoring both its own past and urban tradition.

On the east and south façades, the exterior of the building has been used, in an ingenious and rhythmic way, to express the functions of the spaces within. The garage levels are indicated by cantilevered balcony-like openings painted a soft, warm khaki, while the vertical blocks are predominantly white. Floors containing offices are clearly demarcated by strips of blue-tinted glazing, and the penthouse lofts at the top of the building are treated to double-height terraces set back behind a strong series of rectangular frames.

The effect is both industrial and artistic, particularly when seen with the dynamic purple cylinder and the wonderfully energetic sculpture by John Kennedy, Life is a Balance, on the Washington-and-Main corner. Regrettably, the impact of this fine public art is diminished by the ugly street furniture of crooked signal boxes and traffic signs nearby.

Everywhere surfaces meet, great care has been devoted to the way they join. The architect often created small recesses so they join not like wallpaper, but like sculpture, carefully finished and detailed. This is as true inside the building as outside. In the lobby, Arif Abdulla of the TOTeMS office designed a sculptural wall of gently curved, undulating dark wood panels that surges up through the lofty central area.

The residential floors, called CityScape Condominium, are spectacular, consisting of two-story lofts flooded with natural light and wonderful downtown views. This is contemporary urban luxury, simple and flexible, not afraid to show what it is made of, best exemplified in the tubular air conditioning ducts that soar overhead. Proof of the appeal of this concept is found in the fact that the lofts were sold out quickly, at prices ranging from $400,000 to $650,000.

Graphics throughout are snazzy, and fine modern art from Dr. Kauffman's collection is seen everywhere, as is a scrupulous attention to detail, no matter how minor. Look at the charming rainwater downspouts in the courtyard; they're both amusing and practical.

There's little to be gained by building apartments in the center of town if there are no shops, restaurants and services to be found. Where that has been the case, streets are empty in the evening and residents have to drive elsewhere for shopping, dining and amusement. Office workers, too, have little incentive to remain downtown after work.

The lucky occupants of Courthouse Centre, on the other hand, will have immediate access to trendy restaurants, movies, bookstores and, down the street, a fashionable food market, art galleries and theaters.

This is what our city needs; and, as the success of this building demonstrates, it can be done with style at reasonable cost. Architect Sweet says it well: "This building, we hope, will prove that it is possible to build something different here, and to do so successfully." According to Kauffman, the commission he and his associates gave to the architects was, "Build me a unique structure, a gateway to Sarasota, something we can be proud of." Consider it done.

Filed under
Show Comments