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As St. Pete learns with Lens, building icon isn’t easy

BY JOSH BOATWRIGHT
Tribune staff

Published:   |   Updated: August 23, 2013 at 07:58 AM

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ST. PETERSBURG — Love it or hate it, most people here would probably agree that the Lens would be like no other pier in the world.

Its two overlapping bridges would stretch over the water out to a 90-foot white canopy with ridges resembling giant sails, similar to boats harbored nearby at the marina.

The image of a crown-like pier rising over the water would become an icon identified with St. Petersburg throughout the world, like St. Louis’ soaring arch or Paris’s beloved Eiffel Tower, supporters say.

Those revered structures were despised by many at the outset, but their avant-garde designs didn’t go up for a popular vote — nor have hardly any public buildings that are now considered iconic, architectural historians say.

After years of discussion and an international competition, the fate of St. Petersburg’s would-be icon lies in the hands of residents, who will vote Tuesday on whether to cancel the city’s contract for the new pier.

Should voters reject Michael Maltzan Architecture’s design, it may prompt future architects to reconsider how they sell such grand projects to the general public, historians say.

“It’s usually just a few people that decide what cities look like,” said Tracy Campbell, a history professor at the University of Kentucky, who published a book this year on the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

“If it does fail, I think it’s going to make architects and planners rethink how they propose projects like this. They’ll now have to appeal to 50.1 percent of people rather than just a jury.”

That’s exactly what local architect Lisa Wannemacher has sought to do since opposition began forming nearly two years ago, after the Lens beat out two other proposals in an international design competition.

Wannemacher’s architectural firm is working with Maltzan’s California-based team to design the $50 million Lens.

She’s spoken to thousands of residents at public forums, working to reassure people about the soundness of the new pier’s engineering and tweaking the design to accommodate requests for more dining and boat docks.

But convincing thousands of city residents, many of whom have no background in architecture or engineering, to embrace an unusual and novel project such as the Lens is a challenge few architects face.

“If we put all of our public works projects up to public vote, nothing would ever, ever get done,” Wannemacher said.

Several architectural historians interviewed for this story couldn’t think of any examples of iconic architecture that was subjected to a popular vote.

The majority of so-called “iconic” buildings constructed in modern times has either been funded privately or was selected by juries of experts and elected officials, said Richard Guy Wilson, chair of the architectural history department at the University of Virginia.

There’s good reason to believe many of those famous structures would never have been built if they’d been decided by popular vote.

The French government backed the building of the Eiffel Tower ahead of a world’s fair in Paris 1889.

Meant to show the triumph of scientific progress, the steel tower was reviled by leading intellectuals and political parties that opposed the government, Wilson said.

There are some lingering doubts that St. Louis residents actually approved the funds to build their iconic arch.

The Arch was proposed during the Great Depression as a job creator, but residents had to first approve a bond for $7.5 million toward the $50 million project that would be subsidized by the federal government, an enormous sum of money in the 1930s, Campbell said.

Approval for the bond narrowly gained the two-thirds majority needed, but many of the “yes” votes were fraudulent, according to published reports. Lawsuits ensued, but a court upheld the results.

When architect Eero Saarinen won a design competition in 1947 with his proposal for a 630-foot freestanding arch, critics likened it to a giant croquette wicket.

Echoes of Lens’ critics can be heard in letters written by architects at the time, who said the city could do better.

The promised economic boost never materialized at the time, and the land remained an empty parking lot until the Arch was finished in 1965.

Today, though, it’s nearly impossible to think of St. Louis without thinking of the Arch.

“A lot of design projects are met with ridicule from the beginning, but in time they become timeless icons that are beloved,” said Campbell.

St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce president Chris Steinocher believes something like that could happen with the Lens.

In a city where tourism is the No. 1 economic driver, the new pier could become an icon for both the city and the Tampa Bay region, Steinocher said.

The project’s architects insist that the new pier is aimed foremost at capturing the imagination of future residents and visitors. After all, it’s meant to stand for 75 years.

“This iconic pier may be a generation ahead of its time, but that’s who we’re designing it for,” said Wannemacher.

Many say the Lens doesn’t reflect the history of the city’s waterfront and worry that this new inventive design will be a long-lasting mistake. But its distinctiveness is the very thing that would make it iconic, Wannamacher said.

“If we had designed something that had been done before, it would no longer be iconic,” she said.

For the 23,000 people who signed an earlier petition seeking to save the existing pier, the 1973 inverted pyramid might considered iconic. That building’s design was a departure from the Mediterranean-revival style of the Million Dollar Pier that preceded it.

Many people have great affection for the 40-year-old structure, and for many locals and tourists it has become a symbol of St. Petersburg.

Many of the more than 20,000 people who signed the petition that forced Tuesday’s referendum seem skeptical the Lens can attain the level of international recognition its proponents promise.

Marty Normile, the retired head of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, says it’s presumptuous to set out to build an icon. Buildings and places only become iconic after people ascribe that status to them over time, he said.

“All of this discussion about comparing it with the Eiffel Tower and the Opera House in Sydney is silly,” said Normile.

Normile, like many opponents of the Lens, believes residents would find little to do out on what they contend is an open-air art piece.

“In the end, after the novelty wore off, I think it would be a disappointment,” he said. “It has no function. It has no real purpose.”

Maltzan’s architectural reputation notwithstanding, the idea that the Lens will become an international architectural icon is probably overblown, said Carol Krinsky, a professor of art history at New York University.

Most people are looking for activities when choosing a destination, and an artfully-designed building over water won’t be a strong enough draw, Krinsky said.

“St. Petersburg is not Manhattan, Berlin, Shanghai, Kyoto, Sydney, London, Paris, or Rome, so this project is not going to put the city on the international map of must-see places,” she said.

Even if the Lens does reach iconic status, that doesn’t mean city residents will embrace it.

The temple-like Portland Building in Oregon is widely studied as a quintessential example of post-modern architecture, with its dramatic columns and grid of tiny windows. In 2011, it was inducted into the National Register of Historic Places.

But many Portlanders hate it, and city officials have contemplated its destruction since it was built in 1982, according to Meredith Clausen, a University of Washington architectural history professor who has researched the building.

A jury selected well-known architect Michael Graves to build the 15-story civic building in the middle of downtown Portland.

As with the Lens, Graves’ proposal offered an inventive design at a lower price than his competitors.

Residents and architectural experts complained that Graves’ building didn’t fit with the city’s surroundings, that its stucco exteriors would wear out in the wet Pacific Northwest weather and that its design constituted merely “an experiment in architectural fad and fashion,” according to a draft journal article written by Clausen.

Many of their concerns proved valid. Design flaws caused the roof to leak, and engineers would find a decade later that the building did not meet the city’s earthquake codes, even when it was constructed, according to Clausen’s research.

Facing millions of dollars in repairs, the Portland City Council considered abandoning the $22.4 million building.

Maltzan and Wannemacher have faced similar doubts in St. Petersburg, ranging from worries that the Lens won’t withstand hurricanes to concerns about its white concrete canopy becoming weathered and ugly.

Wannemacher points out that the architectural team is still in the design process – a process in which the city has already invested more than $3 million — and that every element of the building has undergone rigorous scientific testing.

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-1277

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