The New Bully on the Block

By staff May 1, 2006

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune's new headquarters misses the mark. Literally.

Confession: I used to pore over books about the 1939 New York World's Fair. Its soaring Trylon and Perisphere centerpiece and the General Motors Motorama display captivated me with their architectural flair and brash optimism. (This on the eve of the Second World War, mind you!)

The mushroom-like tower that dominated the Brussels fair years later is still in use, although Buckminster Fuller's astonishing United States Pavilion, one of his enormous geodesic domes, is gone. The sad ruins of Philip Johnson's New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows, a relic of the second New York fair, symbolize all too well the decline in our conviction that adventurous technology and soaring architecture can change our lives.

The last vestiges of this kind of experimental architecture are found now in Olympic venues, especially the stadiums (think Athens or Turin), and all over Spain, where everything from art museums to airports has been exploding with wit and flair. Nearer home, we have Orlando's Epcot, where Walt Disney planned the city of the future, a kind of permanent world's fair, with futuristic monorails and geodesic domes.

So when I learned that the Herald-Tribune had hired the adventurous Miami-based Arquitectonica to design their new building, I knew that excitement was on its way, even if I was not sure what kind of excitement, given the firm's reputation for flashy Miami Vice trendiness.

Well, the excitement has arrived, in the form of a bold structure that would not be out of place at an international exhibition. The problem is that it does not belong on Main Street Sarasota.

What we have here is the difference between architecture and urban planning. The design of a building, however interesting it may be in the abstract, cannot be divorced from its eventual context in the fabric of the city in which it is placed. This is not a question of modern versus traditional architecture, not a debate about style, but about civic duty.

The Herald-Tribune building gives the unfortunate impression that it was dropped on the site without concern for its key position on Sarasota's central thoroughfare. Seen from almost any angle, it disrupts the line of the street in an aggressive and unfriendly manner. Because it does not meet the street perpendicular to the sidewalk-one of the key principles of successful urban planning-it projects a standoffish attitude, the look of a bully. On the most memorable streets in the world, the streets that make us feel that we are walking through a hospitable outdoor living room, the building façades are continuous and parallel, or nearly so, leading the eye to our destination or to the street's terminus.

Main streets such as New York's Fifth Avenue, the Champs-Elysées, London's Bond Street and Rome's Via del Corso, have this compelling characteristic that encourages the pedestrian experience (think Turin again). So do the shopping streets in Providence, R.I., and Charleston, S.C., thought to be exemplars of sensitive planning and development.

When the downtown vista is broken up by gaps in the continuous street wall, distances seem greater and less walkable, the human presence less welcome. Exceptions made in New York that allowed important buildings to be set in plazas, back from the common property line, created a regrettable pompous monumentality, especially on the Avenue of the Americas or, alas, Park Avenue, where even a treasure such as the Seagram Building does not seem to welcome the visitor.

Urban context apart, the Herald-Tribune building seems not simply World's Fair exuberant, but gimmicky. Looking at the fussy details, such as the "origami" roofline (not just folded, but also tilted) and the forest of irregularly spaced supporting columns outside the glass box, one might wonder what the architects thought justified such tricks.

This building is truly massive, not in itself inappropriate to one of the community's most visible institutions; but the way in which its bulk is expressed makes it seem overbearing, an impression made more vivid by its angled placement and failure to meet the street in a way consistent with its neighbors. By using long stripes of different-colored glazing on the side and rear exterior walls of the box, its length is emphasized, its industrial visual impact increased.

The entrance plaza on Main Street, oddly inaccessible in the middle, lies under the highest rise of the immense roof. While this may be meant to be a welcoming gesture, the sheer scale of the space diminishes the passer-by and dwarfs the visitor. Once again, we are looking at the effect of scale on the downtown experience. Such overwhelming height may be appropriate in a cathedral or even an airport concorse, where it's intended to control and awe the visitor, but not at our hometown paper. The sculptural eggs scattered on the plaza and in the lobby, while charming, do little to make the space less forbidding.

A similar psychological force, most likely unintentional, is at work in the interiors, especially the soaring, soberly handsome lobby, where the sheer scale of the space and the lack of seating eliminate any impulse to misbehave, and the third-floor editorial offices, which stretch virtually uninterrupted from the Main Street façade to the back glass wall looking out on Second Street. The high ceiling there, reflecting the various planes of the roof line, is dazzling but ultimately adds to the impression that these offices are a journalism factory.

To be fair, it's clearly the objective of the architects (and the owners) to use these vast interior spaces to foster a sense of common purpose and interaction among the writers, editors and business staff. Time will tell if that's the case, or if the lack of both visual and auditory privacy is counterproductive. One is reminded of the enormous central office hall of Frank Lloyd Wright's Johnson Wax tower in Racine, Wis., a building that never functioned as intended, a common Wright problem.

Much has been done to provide easy and collegial access for employees at every level, both in the workspaces and in the break rooms, lounges and conference spaces. Almost nothing is invisible, nothing off-limits. Innovative automatic window shades zip up and down to respond to the impact of sunlight on the enormous glass walls, and air-conditioning vents in the floors give employees greater control over their immediate surroundings. Some trendy furniture and paint colors will soon look outmoded, but the interior fixtures and fittings are slick and solid.

What we have here, for better or worse, is an important building, one built with good intentions, abundant architectural energy and a lot of money. What we don't have is a sensitive addition to the hospitable downtown we are trying to build for the future.

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