Architecture has always been about materials like wood, stone and brick, but most often it is the form, or shape, of a building that gets the most attention.
New computer programs have given architects great power to create nearly whatever forms they can imagine, with engineers making sure the dots stay connected.
For all but the biggest-budget buildings, however, there are only so many variations of the basic box that are feasible. In recent years, though, architects have found they can get new mileage from standard geometry by using materials — some old, some new — in creative ways.
“Clients are requesting richer architectural expressions,” said architect Jerry Sparkman of Sarasota’s Sweet Sparkman Architects. “Stucco boxes can be great, but enough is enough.”
Specifically, materials used for cladding, rather than support, can give fresh meaning to buildings and delight new audiences.
“Modern architecture is a constant search for the ‘new,’ ” said Christopher Wilson, who teaches architectural history at Ringling College of Art + Design in Sarasota. “There is a new pleasure in materials. When trying to come up with new things, architects have form, and materials. We’ve gotten over the see-what-the-computer-can-do phase.”
The new Basch Visual Arts Center at Ringling College and the 2016 Center for Asian Art at The Ringling in Sarasota are splendid examples.
At the Asian art museum, the shape could not be simpler — what mathematicians call a cuboid, or what the rest of us call a rectangular box. But the 2,736 custom-made, emerald-colored, exterior terra cotta tiles are what give the building its drama.
“We wanted this building to be something unique in the world, and a work of art,” Dr. Stephen High, The Ringling’s executive director, told the Herald-Tribune shortly before the building opened. “We are a collection of art objects, and our buildings should reflect that.”
The tiles, weighing as much as 68 pounds, were designed by computer, pressed in molds and finished by hand. There were dozens of iterations before the final design was agreed upon, said Sparkman. Sweet Sparkman Architects are the local consultants to the Boston architecture firm Machado Silvetti.
“Rodolfo (Machado) at one point saw some of the glazed terra cotta on Ca’ d’Zan,” Sparkman said, “so there was the historic precedent that he was interested in. He also was looking at the jade collection, so the green was an inspiration. He started exploring how to use glazed tiles on the addition to reference the Ca’ d’Zan and the jade collection.”
“We don’t use formula,” said Machado in explaining the building’s design. “We think from scratch. What do you want the building to do, to say? The message of the building is a programmatic requirement.
“I wanted the building to be about Asia, and wanted it to be new and modern and 21st century. And also of the place, of the culture: green like an Asian garden, and ‘Florida’ with the sensualness of the curvatures” of the tiles.
Computer modeling makes such work possible, said University of Florida architecture professor Martin Gold.
“There has been an evolution of the technology, particularly with parametric modeling,” Gold said. “The Asian Art Museum is an example of parametric modeling of the form, putting in the parameters and then studying it in the computer. And then using a very traditional material — the terra cotta.
“It is a blending of two things. Skins (cladding) that are hyper-unique, if you will, you don’t have to draw every one of those details. The computer will draw it as a 3-D model if you give it all the parameters. The more sophisticated the parameters, the more sophisticated the skin.
“The materiality is important, but that exploration is driven by this new technique of drawing these kinds of sophisticated skins.”
In Sarasota, Sparkman and architect John Bryant of Sweet Sparkman Architects gave the new $9.2 million Basch Visual Arts Center at Ringling College a world-class look without a world-class price tag. They did it by cladding the building, which recently opened on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, just east of U.S. 41, with panels made of zinc. (The shape is a bit deconstructivist, too, and definitely contemporary.)
Bryant originated the idea of using zinc, which can last 300 years as a siding and also is mold- and fungus-resistant. Cuts in the cladding are painted red.
“The tone of zinc is beautiful to me,” Sparkman said, “because it is kind of a soft, matte metal that looks like it could have been applied 300 years ago, or yesterday. It hangs off Parisian mansard roofs, but it also hangs off beautiful contemporary buildings,” such as the Sykes Chapel at the University of Tampa and the NASA Orbiter Museum at the Kennedy Space Center.
“We were looking at different artist workshop spaces — glass blowing, ceramics, sculpture, etc. — as we began to design the building,” said Bryant. “Often these spaces were housed within simple and utilitarian metal-clad buildings.
“We wanted the Basch Visual Arts Center to evoke some of the simplicity, utility and ‘rawness’ of that kind of creative space. We found a beauty in the juxtaposition of the raw metal building and the beautiful art that was created within. In the completed building, this is expressed through the red ‘accent’ cuts that striate the gray metal cladding.”
Bryant said factory-painted aluminum is the most common metal cladding used locally, but the paint tends to fade.
“We wanted to use a more special material for such a signature building,” he said. “We loved the look of zinc. It has an organic, almost leathery appearance. The material is used in its natural form, so it never needs to be painted. Zinc will patina and darken slightly over time because of natural oxidation. There are zinc roofs in Europe that have lasted hundreds of years. We wanted to give Ringling College a material that would be long lasting and low maintenance.”
Aluminum was boldly applied in 2010 when the Tampa Museum of Art opened with a landmark design by architect Stanley Saitowitz of San Francisco. It is geometrically straightforward, but the delight — aside from the 40-foot-wide cantilevered plaza overhang — comes from the two layers of aluminum panels, each punctuated with thousands of 3-inch circular perforations.
“I didn’t want the facade to present any image or any particular kind of meaning,” said Saitowitz, of San Francisco’s Natoma Architects, at the opening of the building. “The idea of the two layers of perforated metal, which are shifted to create moiré patterns, was to provide a kind of lively and changing facade.
“So it is almost like looking at the flowing of water. Clouds actually reflect and create another layer of patterning on the moiré. So it was trying to make something that works like nature, but is a machine.”
Saitowitz was perhaps inspired by the 2005 H.M. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, with Fong + Chan. It is clad in perforated copper.
Behind it is a water-resistant membrane over the concrete wall assembly.
Architects are now “able to separate the materiality from structural requirements,” UF’s Gold said. “It is almost the opposite, in one way, of modernism, where we expressed the structure as part of the ornament of the building.
“Now, there is this idea of, what is the quality of the material? It has a richness and an integrity about it. We separate the requirements of the structure and the waterproofing and the other stuff that usually makes it not a useful material.”
In other words, the cladding holds up nothing but itself, while still keeping the bulk of the rain and sun off the walls.
Thinking out of the box
Even brick is finding fresh applications. Victor Lundy, a star of the “Sarasota School” in the 1950s, loved to offset them or turn them on end for a fresh take on the brick wall, as he did at Bee Ridge Presbyterian Church, and Sweet Sparkman Architects did something similar for its recent addition to Fruitville Elementary School.
There, rows of bricks jut from the wall an inch or two to create a frill-free architectural detail that accents an otherwise monotonous field of bricks.
Modern architecture is all about materials. In the 1850s, the Crystal Palace in London used iron and glass to create a large, exciting structure of lightness and detail. Gustav Eiffel created the ultimate expression of structure with his iron Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1889. The invention of plate glass, reinforced concrete, plywood and other modern building materials and inventions gave rise to the modern movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
During Sarasota’s midcentury architectural awakening, architects such as Paul Rudolph and Victor Lundy used plywood, laminated beams and sheets of glass to create such buildings as St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, the Sanderling Beach Club cabanas, the first Riverview High School and dozens of houses that made the sliding-glass door popular.
Eventually, Rudolph graduated to concrete structures, such as his addition to Sarasota High School, as the Brutalist era replaced the clean, spare modernism of the Bauhaus and the International Style. Homebuilders, if not using wood, loved concrete block-and-stucco houses for strength and ease of construction. Indeed, white stucco in its many shades became the order of the day.
When postmodernism gained prominence, in rejection of the spare modernist buildings, shape and ornament returned to buildings. Function was no longer the message. Postmodernists not only stated the obvious, they relished it. Look only to the Swan and Dolphin hotels at Disney World, topped with statues of a swan and a dolphin.
But postmodernism has had its day. Now architects are turning away from cliché and are celebrating forms that may be simple, or may pirouette like a ballerina, and dressing them in materials that enhance the allure.
Glass is again at the top of the menu, but not in large sheets. The Prada building in New York, by Herzog & de Meuron Architects, is sheathed in hundreds of artistic glass panels, set diagonally. The Basel, Switzerland, firm also has used glass in the Allianz Arena stadium in Munich. The “Bird’s Nest” stadium in Beijing, built for the 2008 Olympics, uses metal rods to imitate the twigs employed by birds in building their homes.
Frosted glass also is being used for walls that are both stationary or movable.
Above it all, though, remains a principle that was at the center of the Sarasota School movement: honesty in the use of materials. The integrity of a well-thought-out building is a moving target in the age of composites and computer-enhanced design.
“It’s an exploration,” Gold said. “We have ideas about the integrity of the materials, but we have more freedom now with a tool, the computer modeling, that is very sophisticated. It is an exploration, an experimentation.
“When people experiment, there are going to be maybe some times when they didn’t get all the way there,” he added. “I hope people will not be too hard on the architects who don’t quite make it in spite of all the experimentation.
“We don’t want anything bad to happen. But we have to make sure that something good can happen.”