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Surprise, surprise: Tampa takes a classy leap

sandra thompson
THOMPSON
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By SANDRA THOMPSON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 3, 2001


I don't know about you, but after almost two months of picking up the morning newspaper as if it's a toxic thing, with news of war and anthrax and economic disaster, I've been dying for some good news.

There is some.

Remember those heady days of last spring when we saw visions of our city's downtown transformed into a real waterfront city, with a dynamic cultural arts district whose crowning jewel is to be the new Tampa Museum of Art?

With downtown looking as dreary as ever, it might seem nothing's been happening since then, but, in fact, the world has turned. We can be assured the new museum will be a for-sure smashing architectural statement.

Earlier this week, four architectural firms were chosen from 33 as finalists to design the new building. Every one of them has done impressive work around the country, and, in some cases, the world. While they are not the biggest names in international architecture, it's because we want it that way. In fact, we rejected (get this, we rejected them, a good feeling for a change) some of the biggest -- such as the firms of Michael Graves, Cesar Pelli and I.M. Pei.

Of course it's much more important who was chosen.

The four firms' proposal packages were a joy to flip through, with photographs of architecture that surpasses what we're used to seeing around here. Arquitectonica, the Miami firm that was ranked first, had a proposal the thickness of a city phone book. Lots of what you see in Miami is Arquitectonica; one recent project there is the performing hall for the Miami Ballet. (The firm received a letter of thanks from director Edward Villela, who, in his handwriting, added, "You guys are my heroes!") Arquitectonica is partnering with the Tampa firm Rowe Architects. Of the four firms, three have local partners, for the convenience of a near-site office or availability of Florida-licensed architects for technical support.

Second on the tally is Polshek Partnership, a New York firm, partnering with Gersham Smith. Polshek did the stunning huge glass cube that is the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the Museum of Natural History in New York.

There was a tie for third between a downtown New York firm, Rafael Vinoly (the Queens Museum of Art, the Kimmel Performing Arts Center in Philadelphia), and the Boston firm Machado and Silvetti, with local partners Gould Evans.

These are the people who did the choosing: Emily Kass, the museum director; Jose Gelats, museum curator and architect; Greg Thomas, president of the museum board; Steve Schreiber, head of the USF architecture department; Renee Williams of the Cultural Arts District effort; and Dave Parkinson, the city's deputy director of Public Works. Wednesday their top choices were accepted by the city's certifications committee, which makes it all official.

A year or so ago, when asked if she wanted to go with a top international architect, Emily Kass said she might prefer a relatively new architect who showed great promise. Of this group, Kass said this week, Machado and Silvetti would be the closest. They did the Utah Museum and are doing the renovation of the Getty Villa in Los Angeles. One of the reasons for choosing them is their alliance with Olin Partnership, the landscape architects who designed the site for the Getty Museum -- a spectacular position high on a hill overlooking L.A.

"We have an incredible site with a 360-degree view," Kass effused. "The architects we chose stated as their goal having the site define the image of the building."

Hurrah.

One of the four firms will be chosen after they give their presentations to a city selection committee on Nov. 20 at the convention center.

You can go -- or wait for the museum opening, sometime in 2006.

- Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. She can be reached at tampa@sptimes.com. City Life appears on Saturday.

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