Tampa reinterprets its art museum plan

The latest incarnation wins endorsement.

Published May 11, 2007

TAMPA - After seven years of planning and three failed attempts, the Tampa Museum of Art is finally starting to take shape.

California architect Stanley Saitowitz unveiled his design Thursday to the museum's building committee, whose members unanimously endorsed it.

The first phase, which will cost $32.5-million, is a 68, 000-square-foot, three-story, two-building museum. It will sit in Curtis Hixon Park, along the Hillsborough River next to the planned Children's Museum.

The new museum will look something like a metal box sitting on a glass pedestal. The top two levels are walled with aluminum, layered to give it a three-dimensional, airy feel that reflects light differently from every angle.

"Almost like clouds or like water, the museum is this constantly reconfiguring image of itself," said Saitowitz, who was paid $3-million to design the new museum.

At night, built-in fiber-optic lights would illuminate, allowing it to change color and itself become art.

The metal shell floats on a bottom-level lobby of transparent glass. Look through it from one angle and see the University of Tampa. Look through another and see the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

Look at the building from the top of a downtown skyscraper and see a flat roof, covered in grass.

A square hole runs vertically through a portion of the building, allowing a shaft of light to shine through, into the park.

The gallery space was designed to look like a blank canvas, all polished stone floors, simple white walls and glass ceiling. While one gallery room would be made completely of glass, most of the gallery space is enclosed, and the lighting regulated to protect the artwork.

"It'll be a twinkling, shimmering and radiant type of experience," Saitowitz said.

The second phase will widen the project and include a restaurant on the water.

Resounding applause greeted Saitowitz's presentation.

"This is not only a very exciting looking building, but it is a very intelligent building," museum board vice president Sara Richter told the architect. "You've lived up to every expectation. This was worth waiting for."

The museum board will take a final vote to approve the plans Wednesday.

Two years ago, a $72-million art museum plan featuring a design by reknowned architect Rafael Vinoly fell through because of rising costs and financial wrangling between city and museum officials. Subsequent proposals fell flat, too; a move into the century-old federal courthouse building on Florida Avenue lacked public support, and a plan to move into a vacant downtown office tower was too expensive.

In August, Mayor Pam Iorio announced plans to move the museum to Curtis Hixon Park. In April, the City Council approved a lease agreement finalizing the site.

City Council member Linda Saul-Sena saw the designs Thursday and said they were "splendid news" for the museum.

Museum officials say the existing building will be torn down in January, and construction will begin immediately. They hope to finish in early 2009.

The museum needs $15-million to build the first phase of the project, and board chairwoman Cornelia Corbett would not say how much has been raised so far. She would only say her board is well on its way. The museum's goal is to raise $25-million throughout the next two years. The city has pledged $17.5-million and another $1-million to demolish the old museum.

Now that people have seen progress, they'll be more encouraged to start donating, said Hal Flowers, chairman of the museum building committee.

He added, "There's really no obstacle in front of this thing getting done."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at 813 226-3354 or azayas@sptimes.com.