Back to School

By staff February 1, 2008

While our local colleges are building a national reputation, few of their designs get a passing grade.

Webster tells us that “campus” is derived from the Latin word for a flat place, a field. Sounds military, doesn’t it, evoking the regimented layout of a Roman legion’s camp rather than the traditional environs of colleges and universities with which the word is customarily associated? Even today, many academic institutions hold forth amid high Gothic halls and ancient oaks, still boasting lush quadrangles, glades and glens rather than a contemporary academic architecture, a far cry from that barren field.

Well, our part of Florida is the real thing: a flat place. So it seems appropriate that campus architecture around here has little use for the spiky stylistic flourishes of the Ivy League. The only Collegiate Gothic building in Sarasota is the old Sarasota High School, currently undergoing a conversion to a modern art museum and instructional spaces for the Ringling College of Art and Design. Marooned in its site along U.S. 41 and obscuring view of the iconic Paul Rudolph “new” high school behind, the building seems more a sad reminder of the past than a vibrant historic landmark, at least until the proposed modernist additions to the core structure are built and occupied.

A newer and still expanding school is Ringling College on the North Trail. If ever there were an institution that just grew, helter-skelter, to meet demands for its excellent instruction, this is it. From its origins in a nearby converted resort hotel to its present-day domination of virtually an entire neighborhood along the same traffic corridor, the college has become an international force to be reckoned with in innovative graphic design.

The hectic pace of its growth, however, has resulted in a chaotic architectural environment, one devoid of a clear identity. The mix of buildings, some purpose-built, many recycled from earlier commercial uses, is similar to that of an urban neighborhood without a building code. The overall look is vaguely Spanish, kinda-sorta, and innocuous. There are a few graceful arcades, but they seem to lead nowhere and shelter no one. A central quadrangle is pleasing, but lacks breathing room; new dormitories are generic.

So, here is the question: Why does a college whose cutting-edge visual design programs are in great demand by Hollywood animation studios contain no building even hinting at architectural trends of the last century? This, in the home of the Sarasota School of Architecture—which, ironically, was never a formal institution at all—seems almost blasphemous. The most challenging design element is the tilted cube sign on U.S. 41, a nice gesture but hardly important enough to broadcast the achievements of the young designers within.

Just up the road, we find another campus that has evolved in an oddly inconsistent manner: New College of Florida. Admittedly, the college has weathered various changes in its status, from independence to association with the University of South Florida and back to a kind of autonomy. The campus reflects these changes in its architecture, veering from the graceful quadrangle of buildings by the illustrious but unpredictable architect I.M. Pei to clunky dormitories from the same firm, to the graceful Ringling family mansions on the bayfront and back to depressingly generic and bland faux-Mediterranean blocks of peach stucco and red roof tiles.

That the overall effect is not displeasing is, in large measure, due to this community's core visionaries: the Ringling family. Without those lovely houses at the end of the long drive, one would be left with only the rather grim structures on the west campus to identify with a school whose adventurous character is better expressed by the Pei quadrangle, a site seldom seen by a public that may never venture beyond the forbidding mass of the Sudakoff activities center facing the back side of the airport.

A bit farther north, the University of South Florida has built a new campus, part of an ambitious program to extend its academic offerings to the south of the mother ship in Tampa. The site of the new academic center includes a lovely landscape which leads, once again, to the bayfront and a charming old house, the Crosley Mansion, a restrained example of the Spanish influence that permeated Sarasota architecture of the early part of the last century.

The new building, unfortunately, is intimidating, surely contrary to the precepts of modern education. Using design elements derived from the Crosley house, the architects have created an enormous building wrapped around a large lawn on the west side, a partial quadrangle clearly intended to bring to mind similar spaces found at distinguished institutions elsewhere. The attempt has failed, sad to say, because of the overbearing visual weight of the wings that meet at the central rotunda. That element, circular and pierced with substantial windows, is quite successful and relatively friendly in the way it leads to the long academic corridors and offices. But one seldom sees students hanging out around the building. Does that say anything about the architecture? You bet.

Farther north, the Bradenton campus of Manatee Community College is friendly and welcoming despite its considerable size and the diversity of its architecture. Perhaps “architecture” is not the correct term to use in describing the calm and graceful consistency of this place. This may be neighborhood planning as much as academic architecture, for the buildings on the large campus have been knitted together by the use of common colors and materials in such a way that structures built many years ago live happily with strong newer buildings, such as the library and the student services complex on the central mall. The sole exception to this welcome unity is, ironically, the rather pedestrian new visual design center. Go figure.

Everywhere else, however, unified graphics, helpful signage, impeccable landscaping and strong horizontal lines are employed to please both spirit and body. And that, after all, is the duty of a college campus, now and always.

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