This design is a winner

Published May 19, 2007

The design for Tampa's new art museum accomplishes what anyone could have hoped for when this saga began seven years ago.

Architect Stanley Saitowitz has conceived an architectural stunner the community can afford and a practical museum for a collection and a city whose cultural identity has room to evolve.

Saitowitz's plan calls for a three-story, 68,000-square foot facility along the Hillsborough River in downtown's Curtis Hixon Park. The top floors, wrapped in layers of woven aluminum skin, sit atop an 18-foot-tall lobby of transparent glass. Natural light gleaming in gives the museum a clean feel and softens its presence on the waterfront. Though we opposed building on the park - the mayor wanted to cut costs by using city land and the museum wanted the visibility -- Saitowitz did not overwhelm the green space and used glass to maximize sight lines across the park and river.

The building's appeal would draw visitors downtown; built-in lights could illuminate the museum at night and make it a destination the downtown needs. Mechanical systems would be enclosed. Residents looking down from condo towers would see a rooftop of grass and umbrellas, not air conditioning units or storage. The exhibition space would double over time from the present facility and newer, airy galleries would better show the museum's glass and sculpture collections.

This design combines beauty and function, and the $32.5-million price tag is half what the failed Vinoly plan would have cost two years ago. That should help it succeed. With the city committing $17.5-million, the museum needs to raise $25-million in the next two years to cover construction and fund a $10-million endowment. By halving its capital expense, the museum can turn its attention toward the bigger picture - showcasing quality art, attracting better exhibits and expanding its lecture and outreach series.

Having a design on the table that is both exciting and doable should help the museum reach its goal to break ground in January and complete construction in April 2009. Museum leaders need to show they learned from the Vinoly fiasco that public support is critical. They should be open about fundraising and cost overruns or delays, particularly since this marks the first phase of a museum complex that could grow another 50,000 square feet and require more public park space. But for now, the community has a design worth celebrating.