Michele Hooper likened the selection of three or four finalist architecture firms to design the Sarasota Performing Arts Center to “dancing on a pinhead.”
The task force appointed by the SPAC foundation and the city to hold a global search to imagine the new $275 million to $300 million facility had already whittled the field to six from 43 respondents to a request for qualifications. At its May 12 meeting, the task force was working to determine the finalists to come to Sarasota and meet with the committee and the public in person.
All 43 were among the top firms in the world in designing performance, cultural and civic spaces. After more than two hours of discussion, members debated whether to invite three or four of the firms for the final presentations at the end of May.
“It’s a high-class problem to have because I’m sure any of them could do a wonderful job for us,” said Hooper, one of four task force members. “Our job is to narrow this down. We can’t have all of these firms building one building.”
In the end, the task force settled on four finalists: Foster + Partners, Gehry Partners, Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Snøhetta. In the process they eliminated Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Henning Larsen.
The invited firms will meet with the committee and the public on May 31 and June 1 in the Grand Foyer of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. The task force will then deliberate in a public meeting on June 2, when it will recommend a firm to the city for approval and contracting.
The difficulty in narrowing the field is a reflection on the caliber of firms that responded to the RFQ, according to SPAC Foundation Chief Operating Officer Laura Hennessey.
“We are absolutely thrilled that we've had top-notch world-class architects that have responded throughout this process and that are interested in designing something really special for Sarasota,” Hennessey said.
The work of the task force began in October 2022, after which the RFQ was issued. The original field of 43 firms was narrowed to 18, which were sent requests for performance. In March the six semifinalists were selected, and site visits to one building designed by each were made by committee members. Because of sunshine laws, committee members did not travel together nor were they permitted to discuss those visits prior to last week’s meeting.
Hennessey said she and the task force have no preconceived notions of what the design might look like.
“The work of the task force has been to find the right partner,” Hennessey said. "It's a partnership between the city of Sarasota and the Performing Arts Foundation, and on some level with the Bay Park Conservancy as well. The correct partner entails a number of qualities. It's not only their technical and design ability, but also the community engagement ability to work through this process with us.”
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.