Line in the Sand

By staff July 1, 2006

For a community that takes pride in trumpeting our cultural riches, we seem plagued by a strange condition. I refer to our architectural amnesia, which prevents our leaders from attempting to preserve our architectural heritage, including the few remaining examples of the internationally renowned Sarasota School of Architecture.

For a time, it was fashionable to lament the loss of several iconic structures: the Lido Beach Pavilion, the John Ringling Towers, the Coastline Railroad Station, for example. Even that chic hand-wringing seems to have subsided. When a misguided and potentially disastrous proposal was recently floated to replace the graceful promenade and planters that form the ceremonial entrance to Jack West's superb City Hall with a multilevel parking garage, protests were well under the vociferous level the absurd idea deserves. Worse still, the initial presentation referred with admiration to the new garage about to open in downtown Bradenton, a Med-Rev-ish design replete with Styrofoam-and-stucco "decorative elements."

Now, it seems, a decision has been made in principle by the Sarasota County School Board to replace what may well be some of the most important buildings ever designed by the dean of Sarasota School architects, Paul Rudolph. The complex in the demolition cannon's sights is none other than Riverview High School, an architectural creation famous worldwide for its innovative and sustainable design.

Built in 1958 as part of the extraordinary wave of school construction led by the visionary Philip Hiss, Riverview was Rudolph's first major commission in Florida. The young architect had already created an international reputation for design that was both functional and compatible with its surroundings, using both traditional and new technology.

As built, Riverview was a tranquil and inward-looking campus, with the structures constructed around a large courtyard placed among tall pine trees and native vegetation. The buildings, for all their severe modernity, seemed to have grown on the site, employing the slim verticality of the trees as the main design element while remaining sleek and close to the ground.

The most important feature of this design was the way it addressed the problems posed by Sarasota's climate. Taking his cues from historic precedents set in other warm zones, Rudolph created a new version of the Middle Eastern "wind tower" concept, in which cool air is drawn in from shaded terraces or surfaces by natural convection, while the hot air rises through rooftop apertures.

At Riverview, the glass surfaces on the exterior of the buildings were protected by a series of carefully calibrated shields, which kept direct sunlight off the glass for most of the day. The windows opened, both as sliding glass doors and as louvered jalousies set near the ceiling. Walkways linking the classrooms were topped with monitors that opened to allow natural light into the corridors and classrooms while allowing warm air to flow up and out. The entire complex was flooded with natural light and air, requiring little artificial lighting and no air-conditioning.

In later years, for reasons best left unknown, the sunshades were removed, the roof openings were covered, massive air-conditioning ducts were added and the windows were sealed. The interior walkways became dark corridors, and the building began to show signs of neglect, or at least disaffection. Having fallen out of love with the building, people began to consider it a hopeless case and to talk of the need to replace it.

Let's get right to the point: Riverview High School, in addition to its immense value as part of our vaunted cultural arts heritage, can be made functional again and probably at a cost equal to, or less than, the cost of a new structure. Estimates for a new structure have already soared to $90 million, fueled by the rising costs of building materials; and several leading local architects maintain that in view of those rapidly rising costs, preservation could actually be the cheaper route. Equally important, Riverview High School can be made to serve our students again in the way it did in the past.

Sarasota architect Mark Smith was a student at Riverview in the early 1970s. "The second floor seemed to float in the pine trees, full of wonderful light and air, a magical place," he remembers. "The walkways that led to the classrooms were like bridges, suspended in this great atmosphere. And I could never understand how the structure, especially the steel elements which held the sunscreens, could be so light and airy. The idea of air-conditioning never occurred to us. My daughter attends the school now, and she never fails to call it dirty, dark and depressing. It's amazing what we have done to this marvelous building."

We can reverse the damage and make this a building students will once again cherish. Modern technology can be added without destroying the architectural concept, since most of the interior partitions are not bearing walls. Air conditioning can be made unobtrusive and used only to supplement the natural convection systems and sunshades of the original design if they are returned to their essential functions. A welcoming and secure environment can be restored by once again admitting the natural light that brought the stately pines and verdant lawns along the waterway into the classroom spaces. Safety can be strengthened by using the Rudolph quadrangle as the entry point for both restored and much-needed new classrooms and offices.

All of this is possible, if only the community would insist that a proper study be made by architects and engineers whose work in sustainable buildings is well-known to both local firms and specialized consultants, before rushing ahead toward a point of no return.

The result could be a double whammy: first, providing a topnotch learning environment for our children and, second, putting a great architectural icon back to work.

The world is watching what we do here, and not for the first time. Respected architectural publications, including Architectural Record, and such newspapers as The Times of London have deplored the threat to the history of American architecture posed by this rush to the wrecking ball. Many architects of both local and national reputation have spoken out and formed a citizen task force to demand careful consideration be paid to enlightened rehabilitation of this fine campus.

We must not fail. This should be our line in the sand. What could be more appropriate to our beachside community, which owes so much of its growth and prosperity to its artistic landmarks and legacy, than to reverse our ridiculous and often-ridiculed cultural memory loss?

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