Sarasota’s reputation as a center for contemporary architecture has taken a bit of a beating in recent years. The glory years of the Sarasota School of Architecture, when the nation’s top architectural talent was based here, turning out notable designs for residences and schools, have passed. The current inventory of domestic buildings certainly does not fill the gap, too often resorting to repetitious versions of specious "Spanish Mediterranean Revival" styles. School design, once the focus of our international acclaim, has fared somewhat better, but has not attracted the attention lavished on Paul Rudolph’s work, such as the Sarasota High School addition he did in the ’60s.
Now, however, a new sector has begun to emerge as a possible heir to the Sarasota School’s heritage: medical buildings. It’s no secret that Sarasota has an enormously active medical community (hence the jokes about finding a doctor’s office on every street corner). Though inconsistent, the level of design quality is on the rise. This welcome trend is particularly apparent on the stretch of U.S. 41 between Sarasota Memorial Hospital at Waldemere Street and the intersection at Siesta Drive.
This "Medical Mile" has attracted several handsome new buildings of late, creating a corridor with a clearly defined and welcoming purpose. It’s a model of sensible urbanism and good institutional/corporate design. Current architectural thought calls for commercial zones to make their purpose clear to the passer-by, to be easily accessible and of human scale, even if they are large. These buildings meet those criteria quite handily, and are good-looking as well.
Starting at the north end, look at the newish section of Sarasota Memorial Hospital, that group of volumes and shapes that abut Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41). Hospitals so often carry a heavy dose of institutional gloom that they frighten the patient before anyone in a white coat appears. Architect Guy Peterson, however, has found a way to make the building cheerful and even playful, using large expanses of glass and graceful bowed facades to avoid what could have been a depressing monumentalism. At the south end of this new "Medical Mile" lies Peterson’s very handsome Center for Digestive Diseases, one of the most successful new buildings in town, and one that skillfully avoids any resemblance to its name. Here, too, the architect has arranged the elements of the overall design in such a way that they are visually nearly weightless, touching each other and the earth beneath with the lightest possible impact. Obviously, technology is at work here, but it is very stylish technology indeed.
Between these two anchor buildings is a very handsome addition to the offices of Sarasota Pathology by Hoyt Architects, in which a new skin is wrapped around the existing structure, linking it to the new portion with elegant sun shades and horizontal expanses of glass. While serious in its impact (perhaps appropriately so), the building has become sleek and stylish without sacrificing the important sense of solid reassurance to the patient. Unfortunately, it faces a very peculiar, clunky new parking garage across the street, a substandard addition to the neighborhood.
Not as new, but important to the increasing attractiveness of the area, are the Center for Sight and the Center for Plastic Surgery. The first is a product of Stuart Barger’s Sarasota office; the second is a design from Richard Lyttle. Barger’s building, while European-Mediterranean in style, is modern in the way its clean lines and balanced mass sit on the site and meet the street. Dr. David Shoemaker of the Center for Sight says that his group sought to create a "brand identification" with the project, demonstrating a commitment to providing an atmosphere of calm, order and discipline to the patient. He maintains that the outcome of any responsible medical procedure cannot be left to chance, and that the structure in which the procedure takes place is part of the confidence-building atmosphere essential to a positive result. Shoemaker and his associates seek to de-mystify the procedure through both the physical and the psychological environment they create.
Lyttle’s design for the Center for Plastic Surgery accomplishes the same results with a different and more modern architectural vocabulary, presenting a smooth, metallic surface with minimal gloss to the street. This is another building that shows its technological side by its choice of color and materials. The important welcome gestures, however, are in the airy entrance atrium on the north side and a large expanse of glass facing lush landscaping around the private patient’s entrance on the east façade, away from the busy street. Here, too, we see non-intimidating design without resorting to the use of "Spanish Mediterranean" pastiche.
Both of these buildings, when added to the lively spirit of the other structures in the Medical Mile, might indicate that Sarasota has found a new direction for its architectural talent, a direction that could restore the city’s reputation as a design center. If that happens, it would signal recovery from a long period of architectural stagnation. It may be too soon to announce a miracle cure, but the patient looks much better, thank you.