Indigenous Design

Architecture in the twenty-first century can be intensely local—but only if we stop, look, and understand site and regional conditions.

Sudden downpours seem to appear out of the clear blue skies. Tall pines whisper in the wind while shrubbery grows so lush it’s like a jungle camouflage guarding a home’s privacy as it provides protection from the elements. Sandy soil, aquatint waters, flashes of purples and reds and yellows, intense heat under the sun, and a surprising coolness in the shade make Sarasota, Florida, a subtropical paradise. These unique local conditions were once celebrated by the mid-twentieth-century architects who built there before the profession was seduced by air-­conditioning. Now the Sarasota School’s pioneering work—a melding of Modern modularity and technology with sensitive siting, daylighting, natural ventilation, and aggressive shading against the relentless sunshine—may serve as a prototype for twenty-first-century innovation, giving new meaning to site-specific architecture.

Later this year the school board of Sarasota County will decide if its city will once again be the model for progressive thinking. It is expected to vote on a new design that promises to bring back, update, and adapt the shockingly neglected and bastardized Riverview High School. Designed by Paul Rudolph and built in 1958, the school brought international attention to this quiet Florida arts colony. With its free-flowing spaces and openness to nature and movement, the building reflected the experimental ethos of the time.

Now a booming city of high-rises topped with pergolas, Sarasota could be anywhere—if the natural setting didn’t give us some clues to its location. But this unique place, like other American towns and cities, is looking to redefine itself for the great environmental shift that is shaping our century.

In 2006, Sarasota County challenged its building industry to become carbon-neutral by 2030, with far-reaching implications for what gets built here. The quest for sustainability is at the heart of the new Riverview design.

Proposed by Diane Lewis, a New York architect and a Rudolph fan known for her investigations of inserting public spaces within historic contexts, the new plan considers the 1958 design as a prototype for twenty-first-century innovation. She suggests adding to the site-specific features of the original building by providing a shaded parking lot. (The original plan was to demolish the Rudolph building and turn the site into a parking lot.) Lewis also provides a distinctly local detail to the landscaping by surrounding the original school with a white, heat-reflective, crushed-shell paving. In addition to bringing back high-tech versions of the original skylights, clerestories, and operable window walls, Lewis clearly took to heart the school board’s stipulation that the renovated building be repurposed for a new function.

During her extensive research, Lewis discovered that Riverview High is known for its comprehensive music program and is a Music Demonstration School for the state of Florida. So she proposes to create a Music Quadrangle,where local students can commingle with their fellows and professional musicians from around the world, creating a learning and performance center that promises to be an enormously valuable cultural resource for both the city and the state. Organic in its design concept and proposed use, the new scheme has gained the support of local cultural institutions as well as politicians. Now its fate is up to the school board.

An oppressive question hangs heavily in the balmy Sarasota air: Can the same school board that approved the sealed-up fortress—the current post-Columbine school design—understand what Lewis and her stellar team is giving them?

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