From the archives: Buildings as art


Publication Date: February 25, 2006

In a town that is known for architecture that once was, the new Herald-Tribune building connects Sarasota to the most forward-thinking designs of the past five years.

Empowered by the computer to create designs that could only be dreamed of by the great architects of the early and middle 20th century, architects today are pushing the envelope in more than just the figurative sense.

The state of the art is also being changed by bigger budgets, the cult of the star architect, the desire of developers to make buildings into landmarks, and the realization that an iconic building can resurrect a city's economy. The result is an image-oriented architecture -- hardly a new phenomenon -- that is both hailed as progressive and derided as showy.
Indeed, modern architecture has come a long way since the 1950s -- the decade in which the Herald-Tribune's new building is rooted.
But while its design, created by the Miami architecture firm Arquitectonica, is informed and inspired by the simple, rectangular Sarasota school modernism of that era, the structure is as progressive, if not more so, than some of the most dynamic new buildings elsewhere in Florida. From its outboard support piers to its wave-like roof, the building is very much of this place and moment. It reinterprets the region's modernist heritage in a contemporary way.
When Tampa architect John Howey, who wrote the 1995 book "The Sarasota School of Architecture," mentioned to a fellow AIA member that he was writing a book about Florida architecture, he was told, "That ought to be a short book."
But while Florida architecture still has a ways to go, it is nothing to laugh at anymore. Many building owners still prefer safe or retro designs, such as Mediterranean Revival. But others are giving progressive architects enough work to put Florida on the radar.
In fact, the "Phaidon World Atlas of Contemporary Architecture," which features work since 1998, spotlights four Florida buildings. Two of them are houses on Casey Key by New York architect Toshiko Mori; another is the American Airlines Arena in Miami by Arquitectonica.
The fourth, the Neugebauer House in Naples, designed by Pritzker Prize-winner Richard Meier, exemplifies how designers are putting extra emphasis on the roofline as a vehicle for drama. Meier's design features a roof that, when viewed from the end, looks something like a giant V, or perhaps a seagull. (The crafty Meier thus found a way around the neighborhood ban against flat roofs -- a modernist staple.)
In Miami, where high-rises are 36 stories or taller, the roof is a place where architects strive for distinction. A condo tower's crown, cap or dome gives the building recognizabilty, even to the point of making landmarks of them.
But shorter buildings, with more roofline in relation to the building's height, afford the architect an even greater potential for giving roofs a sculptural quality.
Arquitectonica's own Miami Children's Museum, on Watson Island in the harbor, is one such building. It has a wavy roofline on one side and a jagged one on the other, made up of staggered rectangular planes.
The Herald-Tribune's roof makes a similar, one-of-a-kind statement. Its jagged profile has drawn a lot of stares and conjecture, and it successfully pulls off architect Bernardo Fort-Brescia's goal of creating a roof that would be interesting to look at from nearby high-rises.
"In cities like we have here, where we have flat land and no topography, very often it's the roofline, the way the building terminates in the sky, that can give the building an identity," says Jean-Francois Lejeune, a professor of architecture at the University of Miami. "That's always been a forte of Arquitectonica."
Says Robert McCarter, a professor at the University of Florida's College of Architecture, "I think it's a natural thing in Florida ... to emphasize the roof, and because if you don't have shade, you can't survive."
Below the roof, notable new Florida buildings include the Nielsen Media Research building in Oldsmar, the Airside "C" terminal at Tampa International Airport, and the Photo-Tech building on Fruitville Road in Sarasota, all by Alfonso Architects of Tampa; the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, by Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum and EHDD Architecture; the Miami City Ballet in Miami Beach, by Arquitectonica; the Espirito Santo Plaza in Miami, by Kohn Pedersen Fox; and, of all things, a Publix supermarket in Miami Beach by Carlos Zapata.
While these buildings are born of modernism, most of them are dramatically different from the early and mid-century buildings of such architects as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Paul Rudolph and even Frank Lloyd Wright.
"Modernism has had its ups and downs in the last 50 years," says Bernardo Fort-Brescia of Arquitectonica. "Its founders were creating an architecture for the people. It was a reaction to pre-industrial architecture, which was really for royalty, the nobility; there was a lot of ornament as an expression of wealth."
Walter Gropius and the modernists of the Bauhaus, trying to bring Europe out of the grime of the Industrial Age, developed modernism as a way to bring architecture to the masses, "and deal with the issues of function and not of pretense," says Fort-Brescia. A building's use determined how it looked. "Form follows function," a quote attributed to Chicago architect Louis Sullivan around 1900, was rule No. 1. Glass, steel and concrete were the favored building materials, giving buildings transparency and clarity of construction.
"Buildings ... became simple, and then there was an evolution, to the extent that they became so simple that people started complaining they're too boring, too sterile," says Fort-Brescia. "It was OK that form followed function, but there also has to be an emotional side to architecture. So architects again started looking at ways of expressing, without falling into the decorative mode of historicist work."
"Historicist" is a dirty word for modern architects. To them, it means flashy, paste-on inventions, such as Mediterranean Revival, or, worse, the post-modernist designs that came along in the 1980s -- the Swan and Dolphin hotels at Disney World among them. The leader of that movement, Robert Venturi, countered Mies van der Rohe's mantra "Less is more" with "Less is a bore."
"Post-modernism tried to revive that whole ornament discussion," says Fort-Brescia. "And there were many buildings ... that deviated from the path of modernity, and tried to revive historical styles.
"But I think that architecture is back on track. It has found its way of remaining true to the principles of modernity, and yet still trying to be expressive ... and not just be so plain that ... it is really only shelter and not architecture. The difference between shelter and architecture is that there's an emotion created by a building that is architecture."
The interesting thing about architecture is that there are almost as many opinions about the state of the art as there are styles of buildings, even under the modernistumbrella. Professors of architecture are among the leading commentators.
"It's true that in the 1950s, you were either modern or anti-modern," says Jean-Francois Lejeune, professor of architecture at the University of Miami. "So at the time in Sarasota, everybody had more or less the same idea about what modern was. Although it started to change, it was still clear.
"Today it is much more complicated. You have people who are so extreme as Frank Gehry. There are many different ways of looking at modern architecture today. And that is the very exciting part of it. There is a lot of imagination, but sometimes it is also a little empty in terms of ... sometimes it seems to me to be pure display of form. It's very baroque to some extent ... and there's not always as much strength in the building that you would hope. ... Buildings are very photogenic. ... Whether or not they are really good buildings, and whether they work well in the city and so on, remains an issue in many ways."
University of Florida architecture professor Robert McCarter, who has just written a book about the legendary modernist Louis Kahn, finds it abhorrent when architects give in to the temptation to open their history books to come up with ideas their clients might like. America has a real problem with this, he says.
"Many countries never attempted to make buildings that have false historical allure," says McCarter, pointing to Finland as an example. "Americans seem to specialize in that. Most of the places you go in the world, there's bad modernism and good modernism, but they're trying to work in a way that's appropriate to the time and the situation, and not dredge up nostalgic imagery of any sort.
"You look at the back end of The New York Times Magazine every Sunday (in the real estate advertisements) and it's just a bunch of images. Florida has a lot more fake historical-looking images than most anywhere else."
Indeed, most picture books of the best modern architecture are heavy with photos from Finland, the Netherlands, Spain, Ireland and New Zealand.
"You could say that America in general, and Florida, is sort of behind the rest of the world when it comes to engaging the possible multi-layers and many possibilities of a modern language or a modern way, particularly in terms of engaging new building materials. Other countries are way ahead of us on green buildings."
"That being said," McCarter adds, "in America, the work that has some kind of vitality is work that is embracing the modern situation. ... The modern world is not a new world, but it constantly reinvents itself."
"But I think it's a pretty exciting time," says Lejeune. "For sure there's a level of creativity and thinking and developing, which is very unmatched in history right now. Perhaps only the 1920s were really at the same level ... where people were really experimenting quite a lot.
"With the advantage of today, you can actually try to do these things, while in the '20s it was very difficult to realize what they were drawing. Now it's possible to finally do the things that were drawn in the 1920s ... and also to conceive of them because of the computer, and also build them. That is quite a unique thing."
As it has done in many professions, the computer has opened new ways of thinking for architects.
"The theme of architecture today," says Santiago Perez, assistant professor of architecture at the University of South Florida, "is what is the relationship between emerging trends in digital experimentation and material practice, and how does it affect our work today, as opposed to the sort of simpler and more purist aesthetic of mid-century modernism?"
Perez, who teaches digital design and fabrication, says architects have always wrestled with the issue of using simple or complicated shapes.
"What's happening today is that the young generation of the material practices -- firms that are looking at new materials -- as well as the young digital practitioners ... those folks are developing a whole new way of looking at the connection between digital exploration and material practice."
Perez and McCarter agree that booming economies, especially in the Far East, have eased the limits on architects, as wealthy clients try to outdo each other with the next tallest skyscraper or the next city-resurrecting museum.
The result is that we have star architects, such as Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster and Herzog & De Meuron. And then there's the king of titanium and hero of Bilbao, Frank Gehry, who followed his Guggenheim Museum in that Spanish city with the similarly sheathed and costly Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
Says Perez, "The whole star-architect sort of culture -- there seems to be an emphasis on the big punch. That's also a function of ... Shanghai and places like that growing in leaps and bounds, and the architects are following the trail.
"If you look at the work of architects who used light wood frame," such as Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler in California and Paul Rudolph in Sarasota, "they were pioneers in more than one sense. But today's architects are having to deal with a sort of rapid economic development of whole new cities, and there's a lot of pressure to produce work that is highly visible and iconic."
It is not all good, says McCarter.
"There certainly are modern architects ... who clearly are flinging forms and having a great time. I'm not convinced by most of Frank Gehry's work. You have to put so much money into it ... in the end you could get three or four buildings for the price of his building ... I'm not sure the result" is worth it.
Beyond the "starchitects," says the University of Miami's Lejeune, there is not enough talent in the middle of the spectrum.
"We don't have, as we did in the '20s, that sort of great, not fancy but well-done, background architecture. Today, we sort of lack the middle ground."
Says McCarter, "It's difficult to measure American work against work from around the world. Clearly the other countries are way ahead of us because the basic building stock is just much higher."

Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: January 30, 2015
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