Holy integrated circuit! The Sarasota County School District giveth and taketh away in spectacular fashion.
Having decided to take away Riverview High School—an icon of modern architecture—the district has now given us the Suncoast Polytechnical High School, a visionary new building dedicated to technology-driven education within a distinctly untraditional environment.
Sited just north of Proctor Road, on the North County Technical Center campus shared with the Sarasota County Technical Institute on Beneva Road, SPHS surged out of the ground with record speed, suddenly presenting its startling angular profile to intrigued passers-by. The 70,000-square-foot-plus facility, which includes a covered open-air gymnasium, was completed in roughly 10 months and within a budget of approximately $16 million, surely something of a record for a project of this type, especially one boasting such sophisticated technical facilities.
Designed by SchenkelShultz Arch-itecture and built by Willis A. Smith Construction, SPHS is notable for both the visible and the hidden elements of its innovative concept. With a capacity of 600 students in grades nine through 12, classes will be able to offer an unusual degree of personal attention, a critical ingredient in a curriculum focused on career preparation for such fields as biomedical science, computer programming, gaming/simulation/animation and geospatial/geographic information systems technology.
To serve these ambitious goals, the building provides 100 percent wireless Internet access everywhere, 2,000 computer network connections under the raised floors, and interactive screens in all instructional areas, as well as three technology and four science labs furnished with the latest in modular furniture and equipment.
All of this would be of, well, academic interest only, were it not for the bold architectural vision the SchenkelShultz firm has brought to the commission. It would have been relatively easy to enclose all this advanced technology and instructional equipment in a vapid envelope, a bland "learning factory." And it might have cost less to do so, but such a strategy would have been extremely detrimental to the school’s mission: to provide students with the tools and ambition to compete in the new world of opportunities.
That new world is well expressed in the soaring volumes and airy spaces everywhere, starting with the lofty atrium that’s the entrance core of the building, filled with natural light and providing places for students to work with their wireless computer access on any project in the technology-driven curriculum. During my recent visit, I saw many of them sitting on the floor in small groups, collaborating on assignments and socializing.
Classrooms are spacious and, again, filled with natural light from tall windows and shared glass partitions. These learning areas can be opened to each other and to common areas as the need arises.
On that visit, I was hosted by the dynamic and eloquent SPHS principal, Dr. Jennifer Putnam, and architect Kasey Teimouri. But our presence in classrooms, common areas and even laboratories was scarcely noticed, so intent were the students on their work. So much for the old theory that students are easily distracted and should be kept in a box. Not if they are truly engaged and working in an environment as rich in facilities and creatively engineered space as this one. Furthermore, they can take pride in the environmentally sensitive "green" principles at work everywhere, some of which are based on the free movement of light and air.
Yes, the interior finishes of the building are sometimes rather conventional, occasionally displaying evidence of budgetary restraint in their fittings and fixtures, but the spaces are dynamic and full of life, admirably suited to the sometimes daunting challenges presented by teaching to the world of tomorrow. It is increasingly evident that the old fixed disciplines are no longer valid in the contemporary workplace. Multitasking, it seems, is not just text-messaging while walking or—alas—while listening to conversation or music.
Take, for example, a course called "Integrated Science," a mixture of chemistry, biology and physics, jumbled together as they are in a typical business situation. Classrooms, labs and resource rooms have been designed with this multidisciplinary future in mind, the result being a place with its own creative energy, typical of the "real world" awaiting these young people.
That creative energy is perhaps best expressed on the exterior of the building, a whimsical take on academic architecture. Teimouri and the SchenkelShultz team have provided oddly shaped windows and playful colors, the forms indicating the learning "neighborhoods" within the building, each of which has its own character and a certain amount of autonomy. In the best gesture of all, the monumental entrance, a high canopy supported by five slender columns, clearly a playful expression of the grand entrances of the past, is flanked by the school’s initials in bold modernist typography against a deep red wall.
What’s so great about that, you ask? Well, the final letter "S" doesn’t fit. It hangs out in space, floating in the future.
Sarasota’s Richard Storm has won awards from the Florida Society of Professional Journalists and the Florida Magazine Association for this column.