Girl Scout Treat

By staff February 1, 2006

A new building makes two statements. The first pertains to the vision of the owner; the second speaks to the skill of the architect. Ideally, the statements are in harmony.

And they are at the new regional headquarters of the Girl Scouts of Gulfcoast Florida. The building, set in a beautiful site at the intersection of Proctor and Cattlemen roads, is a powerful example of the way creatively conceived buildings can express a shared vision.

Guy Peterson/Office for Architecture has provided bold architecture in the service of a strong social-service program. Rising in strong angles from the rich natural landscape and clad in earthy gray steel panels, the signature elements of the complex speak volumes about the energy of the activities taking place within these striking structures. The thrust of the fa├žades of both the administration building and the conference center, which rises through the trees on the west side of the protected wetlands, emanate energy, optimism and welcome.

These architectural elements, which resemble industrial conduits in their strength, face the wetland preserve, and that's no accident. It may even be the source of the creative force one feels everywhere in the complex.

Peterson has not pulled any punches in his design. No one expects "Med-Rev" from this architect, but one might be forgiven for supposing that his firm would choose a less industrial, confrontational architectural vocabulary, ceding dominance to the shady mysteries of the tree cover. Instead, he responded to the strength of the natural environment with a gutsy built environment, one that seems to assume a partnership of equals with its surroundings.

This unusual partnership of nature and architecture could not have been forged without a strong mandate from the client. The CEO of Girl Scouts of Gulfcoast Florida, Sandi Stewart, confirms that mandate in no uncertain terms: "We are both stewards of this land and part of the modern world in which our mission must be accomplished. That is what we want to teach here. We are not your mother's Oldsmobile, frankly, and we want our new buildings to emphasize that."

No one would think of a slavish imitation of the past while touring these buildings, in which virtually every space has a view, direct or indirect, of the tranquil wetlands and their constantly changing population of birds. Public spaces, such as conference rooms, are blessed with dramatic fenestration, such as the Mondrian-esque grid of glass, some transparent, some translucent, some opaque, sheltered beneath the massive overhang of the great gray "conduits" to the outside world. Support services and offices are housed in the simple white connecting spaces and also enjoy indirect views into the tree canopy.

All of these volumes are high, light and airy, even when they're interior service areas, such as the print shop, work and storage spaces and the usual kitchen and sanitary facilities. There's also room for future expansion on the second floor of the administration building, a terrific loft that would excite any up-and-coming artist. At the moment, it's welcome storage space, but its lure is so strong that it will likely be active soon.

A large wooden deck outside the conference room is built around a lovely tree and extends over the edges of the nature preserve. It provides access to a spectacular feature: a winding boardwalk that leads through the wetlands to the Event and Conference center, a separate building with a thrusting, inquisitive gray conduit similar to those of the administration building. Here are flexible meeting spaces, a stage, a computer room, and a second-floor deck that provides a spectacular setting for meetings.

As if handsome functionality were not enough, the buildings were designed to meet the standards of the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) code, to be certified as "green" buildings. Meeting the stringent standards of this program, while somewhat costly at the outset, will save substantial amounts of money in operating costs over future years. Here, too, modern technology is employed to save the environment we have inherited.

Such a program requires vision at every level and commitment to uncompromising standards. Sarasota architect Mark Smith of Smith Architects, a member of the Girl Scout council board, is responsible for taking this program from concept to execution, interviewing architects, developing standards and leading the council's leadership through the selection process. Sandi Stewart says that this, too, wasn't a "Mother's Oldsmobile" procedure.

Responding to that attitude, Peterson decided "not just to present the customary renderings and models, but rather to show how the buildings I envisioned would respond to the organization's mission: giving Girl Scouts a facility which would stimulate their imaginations and respond to their relationship to the world around them, now and in the future."

Architecture today should not be about building monuments. It should be about making us think about our civilization, about linking past and future, leaving a legacy to our children and leading them to consider their legacy, too, before it is too late. There are details in these buildings which may not meet the test of time (those complex windows may look fussy in a few years), but in the main this is an invigorating addition to Sarasota's built environment, a worthy heir to the best of the late and often lamented Sarasota School of Architecture, and a terrific endorsement of the Girl Scout mission.

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