Less than 24 hours after the three finalist firms made in-person presentations, the SPAC Architect Selection Task Force reconvened last Thursday to select Genoa, Italy-based Renzo Piano Building Workshop as its preferred architect to design the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center.
It took seven months of meetings, international travel and debate to narrow the field of 43 candidate architecture firms to one.
“OK, now what?” task force member Michelle Hooper asked, perhaps rhetorically.
The answer from facilitator Cortez Crosby of consulting firm Paratus Group, was, predictably, nothing.
“Officially, your task is complete. You all have been sunsetted,” Crosby said.
The day, however, is only dawning for the realization of the new SPAC, which is planned for the northeast corner of what is now a parking lot for the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Estimated at $275 million to $300 million, the public-private venture to replace the Van Wezel as the city’s primary live performance venue remains in its infancy.
“I think the opportunity that we have here is once in a lifetime to be able to impact not only the community but also the arts here in Sarasota,” Hooper said during the selection meeting. "I just think we need to recognize that we have to choose one, but all three are really, really world class."
Regarding the caliber of the finalist firms, Famiglio added, “This is amazing that we're even able to do this. I still can't get over it.”
At its May 12 meeting, the task force narrowed six semifinalists down to four finalists, but one of the four, Gehry Partners, likely sensing it was a long shot based on the discussion among task force members, declined to participate in the final presentation.
That left Snohetta, Foster + Partners and Renzo Piano Building Workshop, named after founder Renzo Piano, for in-person presentations in the Grand Foyer of the Van Wezel. Hooper, Famiglio and fellow task force members Jenne Britell and Mary Bensel were left to sleep on their thoughts overnight — although they said they didn’t get that much sleep — before making their decision last Thursday.
An abundance of riches
The choice of Renzo Piano wasn’t unanimous. Famiglio preferred Foster + Partners, which designed the iconic Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California, and the new PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach. The second choice of Foster + Partners, though, was unanimous, leaving Snohetta third in line.
That’s important because the process now turns to the city’s procurement staff to negotiate the contract with Renzo Piano. If the two sides cannot agree to terms, the city would then turn to Foster + Partners and then Snohetta.
If it comes down to that, the task force reiterated it would be comfortable with any of the three firms.
“We have an abundance of riches here in terms of the firms that we have before us to choose from,” said Hooper. “We could take a dart board and make this a very short meeting. We could take a dart, close our eyes, and we would be happy with any one of the three.”
With offices in Genoa, Italy, and Paris, France, Renzo Piano Building Workshop is led by 12 partners. The practice permanently employs about 100 architects and 30 support staff including 3D visualization artists, BIM managers, model makers, archivists and administrative and secretarial staff.
A boutique-style firm, Renzo Piano takes on only about two new projects per year, although several ongoing projects overlap, pulling resources from across the firm to collaborate on the designs. Among its global projects is the Academy of Motion Pictures, which includes two theaters. That project, which was highlighted in its presentation to the task force, was completed in 2021.
The SPAC is planned to include a 2,100-seat main hall, a 300-seat flexible performance space and a total of 165,000 square feet of building utilizing inside and outside education, event and rooftop spaces. It will be owned by the city, the capital project funded by private donations, grants and tax increment finance revenues on a district surrounding The Bay, the city’s 53-acre waterfront park.
A welcoming place
From the outset of the discussion, it was clear Renzo Piano was favored by three of the four task force members, the firm’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens, Greece, stood out from their site visits. Famiglio, though, was set on Foster + Partners, in no small part to his connection with the Sarasota School of Architecture, which was a mid-century movement toward modern design pioneered by architects Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell.
Firm principal Norman Foster studied under Rudolph at Yale University. That influence of modern design is reflected in Foster's Apple and PGA Tour building designs.
“In his video, Foster himself said that he was going to take this personally, and one of his heroes is Paul Rudolph,” Famiglio said. “We were able to see that emulated in some of his work.”
Bensel admitted to leaning toward Foster as well during her overnight vacillations, but in the end favored Renzo Piano.
Britell said more than the building itself, it was how people interacted with the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center that left a lasting impression.
“When we saw the cultural center in Athens, it reflected extraordinary vision and sensitivity to a whole range of issues," Britell said. "And it was filled with people, not just children but also the grown-ups. It just was welcoming. I talked to some of the people in Athens at the hotel and one of the assistant managers asked why we were there. When we told him and he said, ‘I love that place. I go there when I'm happy and I go there when I'm sad,’ and I thought it is very alive. It’s very welcoming.”
That Bensel said, is consistent with the city’s vision for The Bay.
“What I hope for this community with a new performing arts center is that we offer an experience, not just a performance, but an experience,” she said. “I think with The Bay Park that is coming more and more to fruition.”
Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.