Architectural firm with offices in Italy and Paris selected to design Sarasota Performing Arts Center for Bay Park

City of Sarasota procurement staff and attorneys working on contract with Renzo Piano Building Workshop

It took just a bit longer than 30 minutes on June 1 for a Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation task force to agree that the Renzo Piano Building Workshop is its top choice to design a new venue that is planned in the City of Sarasota’s 53-acre Bay Park on the waterfront.

The official vote was 3-1, with task force member Mark Famiglio naming Foster + Partners Limited as his top choice.

In response to a Sarasota News Leader inquiry, Jan Thornburg, general manager of the city’s Communications Department, wrote in a June 6 email, “The City’s Procurement Division and attorneys already are in the process of negotiating with Renzo Piano Group. Once an agreement is reached, a contract will be brought to the City Commission for consideration.”

Jenne K. Britell, vice chair of the task force, joined two other members — Michelle Hooper and Mary Bensel, executive director of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall — in voting for Renzo, which has offices in Genoa, Italy, and Paris.

The second choice, Foster, is based in London.

The Renzo Piano Building Workshop designed the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and The Shard in London, a Foundation news release noted.

Among the criteria used for the selection were the following, as pointed out during the June 1 task force meeting:

  • The firm must have “[d]esigned and built a performance venue or civic/cultural project of similar size or complexity.”
  • It must have completed “a project that is part of a master plan with substantial landscape components and site/building access complexities.”
  • The firm must have completed “a project that demonstrates and incorporates environmentally sustainable and resilient design strategies.”

On June 1, Britell and Bensel both spoke of how impressed they were with Renzo’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens, Greece, which includes a children’s library.

“It’s so children-oriented,” Britell pointed out of that library. Yet, she added, adults were enjoying it, as well, when she visited the center. “The whole place was very much welcoming … That, to me, was very important,” she said of the Cultural Center.

“I have to agree on that point, Jenne,” Bensel responded.

The Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece share the Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, as noted on the Renzo Piano website.

Bensel added that she hopes the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center (SPAC) will offer “an experience, not just [performances].”

Famiglio told his fellow task force members that he stayed up until 2:30 a.m. that day, thinking about the three finalists, all of whom had made presentations to the task force and interested members of the public the previous day. (The third finalist was Snohetta of Oslo.)

One major reason he felt Foster should be the top pick, Famiglio explained, is its connection to Paul Rudolph, who gained fame worldwide for his designs in what is known as the Sarasota School of Architecture.

“One of [co-founder Norman Foster’s] heroes is Paul Rudolph,” Famiglio pointed out of Foster + Partners. “There’s Sarasota School of Architecture screaming out of a lot of his stuff.”

Britell noted that she was unaware until recently that Rudolph chaired the Yale University Department of Architecture for six years.

“His work runs deeply here,” Famiglio replied. “It seemed important [from the outset], and it seems even more important now.”

While he initially was concerned about the size of the Foster firm, Famiglio continued, “I can understand why they have such a big office.” That is a function of all of the transportation projects they undertake, he explained.

Moreover, Famiglio said, Buckminster Fuller was another hero of Foster. As a child, Famiglio added, “I just saw [Fuller] as a real genius …”

Nonetheless, Famiglio acknowledged of Renzo Piano, the founding partner and chair of his eponymous firm, “I see his work … as some of the greatest art. It’s just beautiful, absolutely wonderful.”

Hooper admitted to her “to-ing and fro-ing and to-ing and fro-ing” the previous night. Her top two choices were Foster and Renzo, she said. Renzo and his team, Hooper continued, “deliver on what their clients are asking for in a way that is elegant and is for the ages.”

Bensel concurred with her on that.

Hooper added that she wished everyone could visit the Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens. “It is beyond compare in delivering on the results.”

Moreover, she pointed out, during his remarks the previous day, Renzo had “a very thoughtful perspective on what we need in Sarasota.”

Yet another factor in Renzo’s favor, she continued, is that his firm takes on only two new projects a year. That tells her, Hooper added, “You’re going to get their undivided attention.”

And she noted that she believes the Renzo Piano Building Workshop will provide some flavor of the Sarasota School of Architecture in its design for The Bay Park.

Foster was her second choice, Hooper said.

Then Famiglio pointed out that fundraising for the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center should be a big factor in the task force’s decision. That was another reason he put Foster atop his list, he indicated.

Britell told her colleagues that her son-in-law used to be on staff at The Whitney Museum in New York City; he still held that position when Renzo was working on the new Whitney, she pointed out.

She added that her son-in-law had noted that Renzo assigned a senior architect of the firm to maintain oversight of that project.

Moreover, Britell said, “The Whitney was finished on time and on budget. … It’s an extraordinary building. … It was responsible for the regeneration of that neighborhood.”

Given the quality of the three finalists, Famiglio said, “We can’t make a wrong choice. (Early during the discussion, Hooper noted, “We could take a dart; make this a very short meeting … and we would be happy with any one of the three.”)

Nonetheless, he added, “I think we would be remiss” in choosing Renzo over Foster.

Foster’s structures are “more attuned to the weather and the climate here,” he pointed out.

Finally, based on the comments, Britell announced that Renzo had won the votes of the majority. As she understood the task force’s responsibilities, she added, “We do not have to be unanimous.”

Past, present and future

As the News Leader has reported, the Foundation has been working for years to replace the Van Wezel with a new venue that is larger and — Foundation members believe — more likely to be able to compete with other facilities for top draws, including touring Broadway shows.

In April 2022, the Sarasota City Commission approved a partnership agreement with the Foundation — on a 3-2 vote — to lay out the general terms of that process. The city is committed to paying for half of the expense of the SPAC, which — Foundation members have acknowledged — could be between $300 million and $350 million.

The Foundation task force was appointed last year to handle the selection of the architect for the new venue.

Cortez Crosby, project manager with the Paratus Group in New York Citywhich is serving as a consultant to the Foundation — noted during the task force’s June 1 meeting that the goal of the selection process was to choose the firm best suited to come up with “an exceptional design” that incorporates the mission of the Foundation. As shown on the Foundation website’s homepage, that mission is “to create and sustain a vibrant performing arts campus at The Bay, advance education, and enrich communities by inspiring minds through the power of the arts.”

(During the June 1 meeting, Bensel of the Van Wezel credited Paratus with enabling the task force to garner interest in the SPAC project from major architectural firms around the world.)

Along with providing performances, the SPAC will be extensively involved in arts education, Foundation leaders have stressed to the City Commission.

Renzo Piano was among 43 firms that submitted applications to the task force in response to a Request for Proposals that the City of Sarasota Procurement staff advertised last year. The task force invited 18 of the firms to submit formal proposals. Then, the group narrowed the pool to six, with the intent of making site visits and reference checks.

Finally, the three finalists were named, with the direction that they send teams to Sarasota to make public presentations.