The New Kids in Town

By staff June 1, 2007

Somehow, in the midst of constant chatter about the state of downtown Sarasota, several new condominium buildings have risen, apparently serenely, above the fray. And, to be honest, they are pretty good citizens. What’s more, they’re not carriers of the dreaded Med-Rev disease, our architectural acne.

One of the most controversial of these, 1350 Main—famous for having “sold out” in 90 minutes and notorious for its arcades—is surprisingly pleasing. Occupying one of the most important corners in town, Main Street at South Palm Avenue (second only to Five Points as a crucial and symbolic intersection), the building rises directly from the sidewalk, creating a podium over the arcades to house parking, while the residential tower is set back from the property line in such a way as to diminish its impact on the pedestrian experience. Not to nag, of course, but isn’t this what the often-cursed downtown master plan is all about?

The style, clean and vaguely Beaux-Arts, is inoffensive (not a minor consideration, given the hulks hanging over Five Points) and executed at a high level of quality. The ceremonial entrance at the corner is not an empty gesture, since it seems likely that many of the residents will use it as they come and go from the busy street outside, with its restaurants, shops and galleries. Most of our residential high-rises are entered almost entirely from their parking garages, leaving their lobbies frozen in a kind of Madame Tussaud’s limbo, almost never disturbed by a human presence. The entrance as an active meeting place is a welcome change. The curved facade above culminates in a charming lighthouse with a conical hat.

And—are you ready for this?—those infamous arcades are actually elegant, full of light and air, inviting strollers and shoppers to look at the wares soon to be displayed in the retail spaces. Amazing detail: The arcade ceilings are wood—warm, non-threatening wood. What was all the fuss about? Can we just forget it and return to the sensible recommendations of the plan, so that new buildings, such as the North Palm Avenue parking thing (whatever that may turn out to be, after several centuries of debate), might have some of these sensible and authentic Mediterranean street amenities?

The Savoy on Palm is nearby, on a quiet stretch of South Palm Avenue. Its sleek lines, evoking the Art Moderne design of the great ocean liners of the 1930s, are very attractive, somehow de-emphasizing its considerable bulk. Much was said about the size of this building when it was announced, especially as the structure relates to the modest scale of the Burns Court area behind it. While it’s true that the building conforms to the code in place at that time, it seems the developers and architects were sensitive to the way architecture could mitigate its size and improve its reputation in the neighborhood.

There’s a jaunty air to the building, partly the result of the judicious use of curved surfaces, such as the terraces on the front facade and the asymmetrical lines of the roof parapets. The ways the glass panels and railings that define the terraces are adjusted in size at each level are intriguing, as are the snazzy fins along the top of the facade on either side of the flagpole. The French used to call their great ships, such as the glorious Normandie, “Grands Transatlantiques,” a phrase that comes to mind as one contemplates the chic lines of this building. Even the lettering of the name above the lofty main entrance and the grand scale of the lobby recall the design influences of 1935, the year the Normandie entered trans-Atlantic service.

 On the other side of the historic Burns Court district, the Kanaya building on South Orange Avenue embodies quite a different look, somehow a bit oriental and mysterious, partly due to the contrasting detailing of the upper facade and the twin arches over the rooftop recreational areas. The developers of this complex have taken care to publicize the attention given to how the orientation and layout of a building can affect the atmosphere within. Some call this “karma,” others talk of “feng shui,” but the implications are the same:  Something in us reacts to the space around us, positively or negatively. We all know the feeling, when we enter a room and immediately feel at ease or do not.

Time will tell if the building does in fact embody a sense of well-being as prescribed by Eastern philosophies. From an architectural point of view, it’s reasonably attractive, meeting the sidewalk in a relatively friendly manner. Placing the garage entrance next to the front door is unfortunate but may have been unavoidable. The green awnings over windows on the lower floors are a bit fussy, but they do reduce the institutional look of the rest of the facade.

Farther east, on the corner of Ringling Boulevard and South Osprey Avenue, Rivo at Ringling is a substantial new presence in midtown. (Full disclosure: I have a professional relationship with the developer, Piero Rivolta, having served as a marketing consultant for his Rivolta Group for several years. That being said, I honestly believe that the building is very successful.)

Built to a design concept developed by Renzo Rivolta, the condominium moves even further away from the pervasive “Mediterranean Revival” look we see everywhere than do the other new buildings noted above. Odd, when you think of it, that a family from Italy (nothing could be more “Mediterranean”) should expand the local design envelope so dramatically. Set in a large space that’s nearly an entire block in surface, Rivo at Ringling rises from its garage base in a series of curved masses. Rounded corners, half-circle windows and other details evoke the developer’s long association with other industrial design, including sports cars and yachts. The lines of the building are intensely modern, with a strong sense of classical proportion devoid of imitation.

The result is both dramatic and self-assured, large and friendly—rather like Piero Rivolta himself.

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