As the charter boat idled its engine, a dolphin peeked through the glassy surface of Tampa Bay. Minutes later, a manatee did the same.
The boat's passengers aimed their smart phones and snapped photos. Clad in dark suits and chic dress shirts, Michael Maltzan, Adriaan Geuze and Bjarke Ingels looked every bit the world-class architects that they are.
On Monday afternoon, however, they were also tourists.
"I haven't been here before," said Maltzan, the 51-year-old head of the Los Angeles architecture firm that bears his name. "It helps to understand the city at its deepest levels — its hopes, dreams — by looking at it with fresh eyes. That will drive these designs."
The architects are in town this week to catch their first glimpse of the Pier, the city landmark one of them will redesign. They are the three finalists in a competition that is part of a $50 million project to demolish the current inverted pyramid and replace it with … something.
How great, how big, how iconic it will be is up to the winning design, which will be chosen next year. Until then, Maltzan, Geuze and Ingels will ponder how to reconceive the Pier with the help of designers and local architects they have enlisted to be on their teams.
Geuze is a 50-year-old landscape architect from the Netherlands who is the lead designer for the West 8 firm in New York City. He wondered why there were so few people at the Pier and in the nearby waterfront parks, despite the pleasant 90 degrees and cool breeze.
Out in Tampa Bay, he stared back at the Pier. His take?
"It looks like the mother ship landed," Geuze said. "And it's a little Mondriaan-esque."
Geuze was name-dropping fellow Dutchman Pieter Cornelis "Piet" Mondriaan, a painter in the early 20th century known for his horizontal and vertical lines and use of three primary colors, definitely Pier-like.
Ingels is a 36-year-old founding partner of BIG, an architectural firm based in Denmark and New York City. He was basking in the Florida sun, a respite from his native Copenhagen. Despite its four seasons, he says it's winter there every night. He fancied the Don CeSar — "a pink pleasure palace" — and the Pier trolley, "a bus made to look like a train."
The Pier itself he puzzled over.
"A pyramid, upside down in the water. That's an example of something that's surreal. That's unusual."
After their hourlong boat tour, the architects attended an evening reception at the Salvador Dali Museum. After a 10-minute welcome introduction by Mayor Bill Foster, Gary Mormino, a professor of history at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, gave an overview of the city's waterfront and downtown.
"Every generation creates its own Pier," Mormino said Monday before his speech. "The Pier is more than an extension of the waterfront. It's a crystalization of the values of that society."
In the 1880s, Mormino said, the wooden St. Petersburg Pier was mostly about economic development, exemplified by the railroad line that ended there.
By the time of the construction of the Million Dollar Pier in the 1920s, leisure and catering to senior citizens were new phenomena in American life.
"The Protestant work ethic had always defined America," Mormino said. "For the first time, there were a sizable number of Americans who were coming down to Florida as tourists. St. Pete was one of the first cities to capitalize on senior citizens."
How the architects will design a replacement for the 1973 inverted-pyramid design will help shape St. Petersburg's civic life for years to come, Mormino said.
"As a destination, a place where you have events and meetings, the Pier hasn't functioned that way in a long time," he said. "It'll be interesting to see what the architects come up with, and then how the public reacts to the designs."
Each architect and their teams will get paid $50,000 to compete. Their designs are due by the end of November.
But all the pressure will come later. On Monday, they got to enjoy St. Petersburg the way they want future generations to enjoy the Pier.
"We saw manatees and dolphins," Ingels said after boat ride ended. "Very cool."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or email@example.com.