Dean Rowe’s MOSI museum today

H. Dean Rowe’s Museum Of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa, desibuilt in 1978, was once a lonely outpost on Fletcher Avenue just before USF.  Today it’s surrounded by strip commercial, and the museum itself has expanded. The original structure is now a science magnet school with a new museum and other institutional facilities, but Rowe’s original remarkable structure has stood the test of time and created a singular space in Florida.

Rowe's structure, viewed from the plaza connecting it to a later addition

The building itself is dominated by two very large space frame roofs.  These are supported by cylindrical columns, some quite tall, that vary in length to allow the roof to fold down on its two long sides.  Rowe’s original concept was to shape the air, thermally venting it up between the two space frames and out.

The roof planes are not massive but rather have delicacy about them.  There’s something about the way the latticelike roof structure perches on the columns that is light, rather than heavy.   It serves to de-emphasize the roof even though it is large and dominates the space around it.

Under this roof, a series of trays stack up – two on one side, and three on the other.  The walls of these trays are infilled with concrete block, and all of this is left natural unpainted.  The scale of the roof makes these components, in turn, seem human in scale.  The softly curving ramp is a sculptural element at one end.

Interior space of the museum

Exposed utility systems – ducts, conduits, pipes – crisscross and are painted different colors to highlight them, a la Pompidou Center.  The building is, in fact, a subtle reference to this iconic Rogers & Piano museum.

Later, Antoine Predock added to the building, allowing Rowe’s original work to be converted to a school.  Rowe’s museum was a terrifically hard builing to build an addition to.  The way the roof slid over the building’s edges and captured vast amounts of space on either side must have been difficult to add to.  The two buildings touch but do not have a public access between them, and the only experience of them together is the plaza on the south side.

Predock’s roof forms and natural concrete reference Rowe’s design, but are subtly different.  Concrete corners in Predock’s are completely filled, rather than cut at 45 degree angles, a more difficult task for the workers but making the forms and shapes feel crisp.  Predock used a lot of stainless steel for steps, wall, and roof material, a new material blending well with the other aesthetic.

Predock’s single expressive form is a sphere of blue curtainwall, which is partly peeled and layered, to house a movie theater.  Occuring at one end of the structure, it provides a punch.

Unfortunately, every other addition since Predock has tended to dilute the power of the earlier work.  There’s a one-story blue roof building that looks like a shopping center; a ropes course structure that looks like it came out of a catalog, and a few other structures that clump around the main building.  Most stay a respectful distance.

Rowe’s structure is very, very simple in design, but hard for a viewer to grasp.  It took a few simple rules and made very unique spaces, a singularity of design, and Predock’s museum doesn’t really make things any clearerl  Like many of Rowe’s buildings, it references little in traditional architectural vocabulary, and instead creates its own completely.  This is one of its great strengths.  Only modern materials and technologies are used, and they are used to complete advantage:  the space frame was invented to carry very large spans, and it does elegantly.  Concrete was modernized to allow for unusual shapes and it has many; and the effect is a uncelebrated icon of twentieth century achievements.  The fact that it is in Florida simply reinforces the West Coast experimentalism that started with the Sarasota School in the 1940s and extended into a new generation.

I wish they took better care of Rowe’s  building, for it is full of dust and the walls are smeared with multicolored tropical mildew and goo.  At its base, the building has acquired the accoutrements of public schools – plastic playground equipment, chain link fences, random locked storage units.  It has the somewhat desultory air of a crashed airplane, its wings drooping over the landscape and reinhabited by innocent locals.

School bus dropoff area

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