Museum Context Counts

As with most writers, I’m an expert on nothing, an amateur on everything. That includes architecture.

I know what I like – classic – and what I don’t – contemporary. Enough of the Frank Lloyd Wrong knockoffs and monuments to marketing and ego. But, yes, I will certainly concede, the matter of taste really matters.

What I don’t think is so relative, however, is context. Does a project fit or is it an aesthetic wedgie? You know; you’ve seen them. The Super Dome that’s all too proximate to the French Quarter in New Orleans. That inverted pyramid on St. Petersburg’s classy waterfront. Faux Mediterranean Revival metastasizing all over South Tampa. A post-modern loophole in historic Hyde Park.

That’s why I think it might be significant – well, not irrelevant – that I really like the new contemporary design of the Tampa Museum of Art. And, truth be told, I had really wanted the retrofit at the old federal courthouse to work. And, yes, I really thought that $7-million Rafael Vinoly design was as cheesy as the “mother-of-all-carports” raillery was meant to make it seem.

The new $32.5-million, 68,000-square-foot TMA first phase, scheduled for completion in April 2009, is the architectural inspiration of Stanley Saitowitz of San Francisco. It will be sheathed in pierced aluminum and appear to shimmer from sunlight. Within its metal skin will be programmable LED lighting. It will play off of the sky and the water. The interior lobby will feature a two-story, hologram-like atrium. A landscaped roof will become a lush amenity. An outdoor sculpture garden will overlook the Hillsborough River.

Saitowitz didn’t make excuses for the “Beer Can” building or the Poe Garage or the Ashley Speedway. He simply plowed ahead with an animated vision. He called the riverfront site a “charged and amazing place” in his keynote address at last week’s annual Tampa Downtown Partnership luncheon. He presented a slide show that was top heavy with his urban-infill and city-scapes portfolio. “Integrate,” “blend” and “connect” – as in “into landscapes,” “with the environment” and “to nature” seemed his mantra.

His TMA model embodied his words. Mayor Pam Iorio, whose only stake in what happens on the riverfront is her legacy, was in full beam mode.

Saitowitz also said that he believed in “architecture as infrastructure.” It’s why, he acknowledged, that he typically designs buildings without parking. It’s his way of “fostering transportation” other than via automobile.

As if to underscore that point, one of Saitowitz’s TMA renderings shows the museum as a light-rail stop. Talk about context.

Talk about a vision.

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