Aesthetics in architecture, like in art, are powerful. How a building looks, how it impacts the viewer, is significant. Whatever is built to replace the aging inverted pyramid that now anchors St. Petersburg's pier will surely become the city's most visible symbol. But architecture for public buildings that depend on tax dollars for construction and operation should consider first the function: Will this proposed project serve the public efficiently and effectively? Will it be a public asset, not just an attractive trophy?
Those are the questions on Friday that should guide the five-member jury that will rank the three concepts submitted as part of the St. Petersburg pier international design competition. The deciding factor should not be aesthetics but whether the design's anticipated function will serve the city and is fiscally viable.
It's important to realize that Friday's decision is not about picking a specific blueprint for the next pier. At this point, the jury's role is to pick the design firm it feels can produce the best pier for the city. It's expected that once a winning team has negotiated a contract with the City Council, significant changes could be made to its design to reflect feedback from the public, along with fiscal realities. None of the extended proposals, for example, can be accomplished with the $50 million the city has set aside for construction.
Part of the calculation of viability must be the long-term operating plan. The two designs that have gained the most public traction — the Lens by Michael Maltzan Architecture of Los Angeles and the Wave by BIG of Denmark — are significantly different in that regard.
The Wave offers an impressive improvement upon the function of the present pier with a smaller iconic building and far more welcoming outdoor space, including water activities. But plans for filling the interior with a collection of restaurants and tourist-type activities evoke the programming that, over time, eventually left the aging pyramid. Can the Wave succeed long-term where the pyramid eventually did not?
The Lens, on the other hand, calls for almost all commercial enterprises to remain on the waterfront land at the base of the pier, reflecting the recommendation from a citizen task force as a way to keep annual operating subsidies lower. It's also a departure from St. Petersburg's pier tradition. Instead of a straight pier leading to a destination building, the Lens is an over-water experience of curving and escalating promenades for pedestrians and bicyclists offering vistas at various elevations — an exciting extension of the city's much-loved waterfront parks. Once open, the pier is expected to cost less to maintain annually, but will residents and tourists embrace it?
Public opinion on pier proposals is clearly mixed. The job of the jury — three design professionals, Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch and City Council member Leslie Curran — is to weigh those considerations but also the long-term interests of the entire city, including the financial viability of the proposals.