HAROLD BUBIL: Our new tower: it’s the best, they say

22 Aug 2017 3:55 PM | AIA Gulfcoast (Administrator)

By Harold Bubil
Real estate editor

Posted Aug 13, 2017 at 5:09 AM Updated Aug 17, 2017 at 8:49 AM

We are always tempted to hype something that is new, or new to us, as “the best.” Especially when the topic is architecture.

So when the woman in charge of the organizing committee for the 2017 World Rowing Championships said the new finish tower at Nathan Benderson Park is considered “the best in the world,” I thought, “Now that is a bold statement.”

I asked Meredith Scerba to explain, following a Tuesday press tour of the new tower, designed by Guy Peterson OFA with Fawley Bryant as architect of record.

She made a convincing case, as did Damien Blumetti, AIA, who performed construction administration for the Peterson firm.

“We could not have hosted the world rowing championships without this building,” said Scerba, noting that representatives of the sport’s governing body made the “best in the world” statement following a recent visit.

“FISA is thrilled; they are overwhelmed. It is beautiful and functional,” Scerba said. (FISA is the acronym for Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron, or World Rowing Federation.)

“FISA has an extremely strict requirement for its finish towers,” Blumetti said. “They have to be a certain height, the camera has to be at a certain angle. They need the ability to open the windows to view the finish line. Requirements for where the judges sit.”

The finish tower, which really should have a name but doesn’t yet, and perhaps should be referred to as the finish-line tower, exceeds FISA’s requirements.

“So many of the finish towers have been designed specifically for those requirements,” Blumetti said. “This is a whole new genre of building for FISA. They have not seen something of this scale, and I think that is why they are deeming it the most impressive building. It’s not just for rowing.”

The sport’s “technology and requirements keep changing,” Scerba said, noting that for existing venues, the finish towers are retrofitted rather than replaced. “This one is brand new, and the tallest with the most functional space,” at 102 feet and 25,000 total square feet, including the expansive outdoor terraces for race viewing.

“They usually don’t have VIP/hospitality (space) in the finish tower,” Scerba said. “It becomes part of the whole experience. People get to go into an exclusive building that typically (at other venues) is locked down except for people running the competition. This one is integrated. It’s built for the long term and multi-purpose” use of SANCA, the nonprofit that runs Nathan Benderson Park.

The tower’s design — described on my Facebook page by one commenter as “looking like his houses, except bigger” — is textbook Guy Peterson. The structure is functionally expressed with a reserved dignity, but also has a sculptural tone, given that it sits all by itself at the north end of the mile-long Benderson Park rowing course.

The nearest large object is University Town Center mall, a half mile to the north.

“This project represents something that is totally unique to me,” Peterson said. “The power of the building is accentuated by its presence on the site and the power of the big, open spaces. It becomes a beacon for rowing and for our community to enhance our built environment.

“The flexibility of the building is something I’m really proud of. It’s the most unusual and unique building I have had a chance to work on.”

Peterson’s houses have, at times, been controversial, with their explorations of geometry in gleaming white stucco. The Spencer House on Prospect Street at Orange Avenue is one of them, and his new mansion project that is under construction on the north end of Siesta Key is getting attention from neighbors and boaters.

“I would rather design a building that people don’t like than one they don’t notice,” Peterson has told me in the past.

That will not be a problem at Nathan Benderson Park. There is little existing built environment, so there are no neighbors to upset. And, considering its location near I-75, the tower will be hard to not notice.

“The iconic nature of it is that it sits in this wide open space,” Peterson said. “It is not provocative, it’s functional. My goal was to build something that is obviously timeless, and, 20 years from now, not look like it was designed in 2017.”

In preparing to design the structure, Peterson visited a fairly new finish tower of 7,500 square feet in Oklahoma City, and also one in Minneapolis.

For the 2019 championships in Hungary, the firm BIVAK has designed not a finish tower, per se, but a long, skinny pavilion that looks like a large rowing shell hoisted on scaffolds.

Peterson resisted such design puns.

“Vincent James, an architect I admire, did the Minneapolis Rowing Club (tower), which is a simple wood structure,” Peterson said. “But the ceiling rotates like the skeleton of a shell, like paddles going through the water. There is a structural analogy to the act of rowing in the building, which I think is magical.

“A building like this, I did not feel the need to make it look like an oar or do something like that. It would have been contrived. I wanted the building to be functional, but yet also expand its functionality. They are going to have concerts out here, and you can stand up here and watch.

“It meets more than just the requirements. But constraints inspire creativity.”

“There is a simplicity to it,” said Damien Blumetti. “We tried to pick up on the horizontality of the site, because the length of this venue is impressive.”

Fact: The finish tower appears to sit atop a manmade island, but actually it is supported by pilings that are driven 70 feet to bedrock. While the sand stabilizes the pilings against lateral movement, the sandy island does not support the weight of the $5 million structure, said Stu Henderson of Fawley Bryant.

The $5 million tower was paid for by the non-profit Nathan Benderson Community Park Foundation.

About 40,000 people are expected to either compete in, support or attend the World Rowing Championships from Sept. 24-Oct. 1.

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