The crop of architecturally progressive buildings going up in Sarasota defy the kind of easy labels that help laypeople understand them.
They obviously fall under the vast modernist umbrella, but the modernism of today is much, much different — in expression and execution if not philosophy — from that of 50 years ago. The honest and creative use of materials and new technology is still there. But the emotion is bolder and less restrained.
Buildings like the Center for Asian Art at the Ringling Museum and the Alfred R. Goldstein Library at Ringling College have pushed local architecture into the realm of what is being called neo-modern, or contemporary, design.
The most prominent new example of this is the Richard and Barbara Basch Visual Arts Center at the Ringling College of Art + Design, completed earlier this year by Sweet Sparkman Architects, a rising Sarasota firm headed by Todd Sweet and Jerry Sparkman.
With its zinc-coated wall panels and slightly deconstructed forms (building sections that are distinct and almost stand alone), it could be argued that it is the most daring new building in the area.
“The project is quite transformative in terms of bringing artistic production to the center of campus,” said Martin Gold of the University of Florida’s CityLab Sarasota architecture program, “using the program spaces and architecture to form well-defined urban spaces.”
“The design is well-conceived on many different levels,” said acclaimed Miami architect Max Strang, who recently opened an office in Sarasota. “It is exciting to see how the architects capture the optimism and sophistication of an expanding Ringling College.”
Located in the center of the Ringling College campus, a block east of U.S. 41 on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, the north-facing building houses the fine arts program. That is appropriate, because that is the central program of the college’s curriculum. The 38,000-square-foot, three-story building, which cost about $9 million, contains studios for glass sculpture, ceramics, woodworking, printmaking, photography and digital fabrication. It also has classrooms.
The Basch Center is really two buildings — one of three stories and one of a single story that contains a gallery — that are connected by a sheltering roof over a breezeway. From there, a view corridor unifies the campus from the Ulla Searing Center to the north to the Academic Center to the south. “I would argue that the planning proposal is a nod to the successful campus spatial strategies of I.M. Pei just up the road (with the Pei Dormitories at New College), while using a more contemporary and playful architectural language,” Gold said.
“The spatial connections between the production spaces and exterior social spaces are well-considered and detailed as well, balancing circulation corridors and more casual campus spaces — lawns and courts.” Architect Jerry Sparkman said the sleek, dark gray façade shelters the sometimes gritty art disciplines inside. The exterior of the building is clad in environmentally friendly, long-lasting zinc panels — a choice by staff architect John Bryant — that are cut with deep, angled gouges painted dark red. A large cantilevered overhang provides shady public space for student interactions between classes. Inside is a digital lab.
“I especially appreciate the visual access to the new gallery and the shaded entry foyer on MLK Way, formed by the cantilevered mass above — a formal entry gesture,” Gold said. “These are counterpoised with informally spilling the program spaces out into the lawn on the south side.”
“In a subtle, understated way, it really makes a beautiful statement,” said Siesta Key resident A. Colin Flood, an outspoken critic of local architecture, on Facebook. “Even though it is just ‘the Box,’ they have really made it seem like a sophisticated one.”
Once one examines the building, the question remains: How to label it? Contemporary? Neo-modern? Millennial modern? Architects, in general, don’t like such labels, but their audiences — the rest of us — find them useful in defining the build environment.
“I see it as contemporary architecture. I don’t have a label other than that,” Sparkman said. “It is an architecture that allows us to explore ideas that feel relevant today. You don’t usually get to use architecture to explore other mediums.
“It is an architecture that uses the functions within the building, the program, to really test the architecture. That building is filled with woodworking, with printing, with glass-making, ceramics, these traditional artistic practices, and somehow we were able to look at those as a way to influence the architecture. It is an architecture that is born out of understanding what the building is about.”
Sparkman gave “one hundred thousand percent” credit to Ringling College President Dr. Larry Thompson and his team for allowing the architecture firm full design freedom. “They managed to guide us and never once did they ever cut us off from trying ways to be creative,” Sparkman said. “They nailed the role of the client. What you want is to enable architects to do their best and never cut them off. That is a hard role for a client. Sometimes clients just don’t quite know how to do that.
“Ringling sat back and gave us guidance, but never cut us off. There is a message there, which is if our community aspires to great things, the client has to step up with us. And they did. We met them at a place where none of us knew where we were headed, but we were all willing to go there. It was fun.” The fun included building more than a dozen models of the building’s various design-studio iterations, and looking for efficiencies without sacrificing artistic value in a structure whose sole reason for being is art.
“Go back to Larry Thompson, in an infamous value-engineering meeting,” Sparkman said to illustrate the point. “There were a bunch of skylights that were proposed, and he looked at me and asked, ‘Hey, Jerry, tell me what’s important. Are the skylights important?’ I said, ‘No, not really.’ He said, “Is the zinc important.” I said yes. He said, ‘OK, keep that.’ It was that direct.”
Rather than just putting the zinc panels on the front of the building, the structure is clad with them on the sides and the back, too. It is as if, Sparkman said, the Basch is carved from a block of zinc. The curving shape of the western wing, the cantilevers and the cutouts pull the project, and Sarasota architecture as a whole, further into the mindset of the best architecture being done around the world today.
“I hope the Basch Visual Arts Center makes you wonder, makes you curious,” Sparkman said. “If there are any regrets I have, it was when we didn’t stick ourselves out far enough and be willing to take some arrows. If you read that into the building, then great. I am unsettled by beautiful, yet derivative architecture. There are great architects working here, but they need to look at each other less and find other sources of inspiration.
“Guy Peterson does beautiful work. You don’t need to try to do it any better than him. He’s got it. Don’t go there. Go somewhere else. Find your own voice. That is a hard thing to do, but it is worth it. “I hope we make architecture that tells somebody something that maybe they didn’t know or understand before. Break down your own parameters and barriers. You might fail, but that is the risk.”