For my first post on the Lookup Collective, I thought what better way to start than by writing a somewhat personal entry. With this month’s theme of ‘Couples,’ I remembered the influence renowned modernist architect Ieoh Ming “I.M.” Pei directly had on my formative college years in Sarasota, Florida. Just as the architecture of his modern dorm complex (built 1965-1967) intended, I forged many long-term friendships while I lived there during my first year at New College, including one with my partner of the past eight years.
The Pei dorm complex, which includes accompanying classrooms and a student center, remains legally unprotected from demolition or redevelopment. Rather than by obtaining national register, let alone national historic landmark status, the buildings fly below the radar as property of the state university system due to their central importance to the smallest school within this system, by a wide margin.
To give the school some context, Phil Hiss, then chairman of both the Sarasota County school board and board of trustees of New College, along with other civic leaders of Sarasota founded the school in 1960 on waterfront land which had been gradually bequeathed to the state of Florida following the deaths of the Ringling Brothers’ families, of Barnum & Bailey circus fame. The land included three of the four grand 1920s winter estates, the exception being the Florida State University-managed Cà D’Zan. All four, including John and Mable Ringling’s art collection and museum, would later be included in the 1982 National Register historic district listing of their estates. The school’s charter class of 101 students were admitted into their three-year program in 1964. Hiss chose Sarasota Herald-Tribune publisher David Lindsay, Jr. to chair the trustees’ architecture and building committee, and together, they selected I.M. Pei over other modernist architects including John Carl Warnecke and Louis Kahn to design the new dorm complex for the incoming class. While ownership of the school changed hands within the state a few times thereafter, the small size of the school remained, with only around 800 students consistently enrolled at a time since their most recent independence from the University of South Florida in 2001.
The three-pronged residential dorm complex Pei designed is where every freshman class is encouraged to live together as they first acclimate to the school, and his design intent functions well to this day. Rather than simply holding several hallways of dorm rooms within a skeleton-frame steel structure, each of the three two-story complexes are shaped with reinforced concrete, gardened walkways connect the ‘fishbowl’ rooms which lacked private balconies, while two cantilevered ‘double-balcony’ rooms face to the inner plaza, and five face outward to the rest of campus. On the first floor, balcony spaces were provided for outward-facing rooms with a concrete ‘T’ to create several ‘single-balcony’ rooms. While the dorms are essentially the same three different building footprints configured in mirror image to one another, this inventive modernist design allows for the most obligatory contact with your neighbors, while also providing a private bathroom, balcony or garden space for each room. While limited, almost hidden exits are also meant to facilitate the most contact, I would meet my long-term partner across one of these T-balconies, while we were spending time with our respective friends in neighboring rooms. Away from the bustle of weekend parties in the central courtyard which contained 24 royal palms, we would first get to know each other while spending time in a cozy garden balcony underneath one of these cantilevered interior balconies.
Pei’s ambitions for the dorms extended far beyond the final budget, however, and concession had to made for locating the dorm rooms further inland, east of the Tamiami Trail, on vacant land leased to the university from the nearby airport authority, rather than on stilts above the Sarasota Bay, as he wanted. He also wanted to tear down the Edith and Charles Ringling family estates as part of the plan, but New College President George Baughman opposed, claiming it was the only landmark the college had. Pei did get his way when it came to the color palette, however. He acquired concrete with enough additives to the aggregate to turn it tan-colored, in order to match the color of the structural, slip-coated brick laid in a thicker, Flemish bond. The balconies would contain hollow, unglazed terra-cotta set inside the concrete, to reinforce and allow light through their sides, rather than steel which would remain to reinforce the ledges. These anachronisms, and in particular their arrangement into hidden alcoves and courtyards, meant to elicit a tightly-knit, preindustrial mediterranean village, perhaps matching the Cà D’Zan which immediately evoked the Veneto.
“New College is the greatest challenge I have ever faced,” Pei said in the Sept. 24, 1963, Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “It is easy to build an additional building on a campus where the environment already exists. Here we have to create environment. If we are successful, New College will gain for many hundreds of years. We must not fail.” Despite these ambitions, Pei would resign his New York-based office from the project in 1967, due to the persistent funding cuts and constraints to their broad, modernist vision.
I agree with Pei in that the built result of his design is still far from perfect, but such is the lived experience of much, if not all, modernist architecture. Often a weatherproof chair would be placed just outside of either of the gaps between the three building typologies to serve as an extra entrance and exit, essentially circumventing Pei’s design intent. The drainage system and catch basin built into the foundation of his dorms didn’t work perfectly, but this flaw eventually had them transform into New College legend as the Pei dorm “tunnels,” featuring graffiti which also dates back to the 1960s. As a student, each of the three Pei ‘courts’ has its own unique social atmosphere and feel to it. Most infamously, the original construction of Pei’s courts used glazed interior tiles across these exterior spaces. Bearing in mind the frequent, short thunderstorms of the Florida Suncoast, the tiles quickly became known as ‘deadly.’ At one point before my senior year, we learned how these despised tiles would finally be replaced with appropriate exterior ones, but during the last weekend before the complete removal of these tiles, we removed the four which created the center of Palm Court, lovingly dubbed the “Center of the Universe,” due to our shared love of New College’s past. I’m still in possession of one of these four red tiles to this day.
Pei will turn one century old on April 26th. He remains the preeminent living member of the Modernist generation of architects, and is likely the only person who deservingly still pulls off Le Corbusier glasses. While his dorm project for a “New College” in Sarasota might have been disappointing for him, I’d still like to thank him for the forced interactions today.
Arthur, Furman C. “New College: The First Three Decades.” The New College Foundation, 1995.
Bubil, Harold. “New College’s Iconic Pei Dorms Ready for Another 50 Years.” The Sarasota Herald-Tribune. 9 November 2015. http://realestate.heraldtribune.com/2015/11/09/new-colleges-iconic-pei-dorms-ready-for-another-50-years/.
Bubil, Harold. “SAF Tours Pei Campus at New College.” 5 January 2014. http://realestate.heraldtribune.com/2014/01/05/saf-tours-pei-campus-at-new-college/.
“Pei Dorms Approach 50th Birthday.” New College Catalyst. 1 April 2015. http://ncfcatalyst.com/pei-dorms-approach-50th-birthday/
Sarasota Architectural Foundation. https://saf.wildapricot.org/
Wiseman, Carter. The Architecture of I.M. Pei. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1990.