While we were stuck in downtown Clearwater's heinous traffic recently, my friend looked around and sighed. "Even Clearwater has a better downtown than Tampa," she said. She's right. And it's getting better fast. Beautiful old buildings are human scale and provide overhangs to protect pedestrians from sun and rain and to invite lingering in the public realm.
Plus, Clearwater has that dazzling view of the harbor, nicely framed by the gorgeous, albeit troubled, new Memorial Causeway bridge-in-progress.
And now the town has a new piece of Architecture with a capital A: Clearwater's main library building at 100 N. Osceola Ave., designed by the much celebrated Robert A.M. Stern. It opened last weekend to well-deserved fanfare.
The first word that came to mind when I saw it was "playful." There's something immediately engaging and fun about the way it embraces the site and welcomes the visitor. There's a sense of humor and exuberance in its wonderfully wacky, wavy aqua roof that swoops out over the west side of the building and flips a jaunty salute to the turquoise waves of Clearwater Harbor below. Columns the color of coral angle upward from the base of the building, supporting the wave, repeating the marine theme and providing a warm accent echoed in the trellis on the rooftop terrace. The luminous white skin of the exterior glows in the sun like the sand on Clearwater Beach.
Some architects are content to create buildings that are really monumental sculptures, with little regard for utility or the comfort of the people who must occupy them. They are more about the architect than the site or the user. That is emphatically not the case with this building.
Everything about it seems designed to relax and delight the occupant. "I love this building," says Carol Cortright, marketing director for the library. "Every day I find some new view or nook I didn't see before."
It might take several visits to even want to look for those hidden spots, though, because the central feature of this building is that it offers the most spectacular view in the entire bay area that is open to the public for free. The building is situated horizontally along the bluff overlooking Coachman Park to maximize the dramatic vistas from the building.
The western exposure is shielded from the sun by a canopy (part of the aqua wave) and louvers designed to keep out the sun's glaring rays while admitting the fabulous view. You do not have to spend one red cent to spend the entire day there, looking out over Coachman Park, Clearwater Harbor, the new bridge, Clearwater Beach and the Gulf of Mexico beyond. To the northwest, you can see as far as Caladesi and Honeymoon islands.
Of course, if you want to spend a little scratch, you can get a cup of coffee and a nosh at Joffrey's, the cafe that occupies the building's focal point: a four-story central atrium with a grand staircase snaking up the northern wall. The atrium opens out to a covered outdoor terrace overlooking The View. What a place to be for a fireworks show, a concert in the park, or just a sunset.
This building is, quite simply, an incredible gift to the public from the city of Clearwater and Robert A.M. Stern. It will likely become a central gathering place for city life.
I saw only two things that may end up being a drawback. I visited the library before it opened, so it was quiet. But the atrium has fairly lively acoustics, so it's going to be loud when people gather, and that noise will likely carry throughout most public areas of the library. More scholarly visitors may have difficulty finding a quiet spot where they can concentrate.
The other potential problem is with the rooftop terrace, which is not generally open to the public but will be available to rent for private functions. It has a spectacular view and will make a great party spot. But there's no covered area, which means you could spend quite a lot for a party and have it rained out.
When you're able to tear your eyes away from The View, you can begin to appreciate the other ways the architect seeks to engage the imagination in the building's details and in its chic furniture, which he also designed. You could spend a day looking at all the visual references to the sea, to Clearwater and to classical architecture and traditional library furniture.
In addition to having a truly excellent new public building, Clearwater scored a cultural coup by hiring one of the most interesting and innovative architects and planners of our time to design it: Robert A.M. Stern, Dean of the Yale University School of Architecture. Stern has written or edited 24 books, hosted a PBS series and was a pioneer of the postmodern movement. He's designed hundreds of unique homes, public buildings and corporate headquarters — and master planned communities, including Disney's new urbanist utopia, Celebration. His student, Andres Duany, designed Seaside.
The new library will offer lots of good programs, which you can learn about by visiting www.myclearwater.com/cpl. One of the most fun is called Films on the Bluff. In a large conference room equipped with plasma screen televisions, the library will show new foreign and independent films that have not yet reached bay area screens or rental outlets. After they're screened, they'll be available on videotape or DVD for checkout from the library. The series debuts at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 11, with Inch Allah' Dimanche, a French film about a young Algerian mother living in France. Upcoming films will be listed on the library's website.
But you don't need to attend an event or even look at a book to enjoy this fantastic new building. Just visiting it is a cultural experience.
But, culture aside, it's worth a trip just for the view.
Contract Contributing Editor Susan F. Edwards at [email protected].