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The city of Sarasota is best known, architecturally speaking, as the birthplace of a climate-responsive regional style of (largely) residential post-war architecture whose practitioners, among others, most famously included a young Paul Rudolph. However, another giant of modern architecture working outside of this movement, known as the Sarasota School of Architecture, also made his mark on this sunny stretch of Florida’s Gulf Coast during the same era: I.M. Pei.

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Aerial view of Pei Dormitories and Palm Cour at New College, Date unknown. Photo courtesy New College Foundation

In 1963, the Chinese-American architect—a classmate of Rudolph at the Harvard Graduate School of Design who also studied under Walter Gropius—was enlisted to design several buildings, including a trio of interior courtyard-anchored dormitories, at the bayfront campus of the newly established New College of Florida. Pei’s student housing block—comprising the Bates, Johnson, and Rothenberg Residence Halls, now colloquially known as the Pei Dorms—was completed in 1965. Instrumental in bringing Pei to Sarasota was Philip Hanson Hiss III, a local real estate developer and noted patron-promoter of modern architecture who served as chair of the Sarasota Board of Public Instruction at the time. (In March, Toshiko Mori was honored with the inaugural Philip Hanson Hiss Award, a new award program launched by the nonprofit Architecture Sarasota to honor his impact on public education and regional architecture.) Pei, who was named the fifth laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1983, died in 2019 at the age of 102.

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Phillip Hanson Hiss III and I.M. Pei pictured in 1963 campus (1); aerial view of Pei Dormitories under construction at New College in Sarasota, June 25, 1963 (2). Photos courtesy New College Foundation

While the Brutalist-style Pei Dorms at New College are still standing nearly six decades later, the buildings, which are not listed on the National Registry of Historic Places despite their architectural significance, have seen better days. Their deteriorating condition—rampant mold problems generated headlines earlier this year—has prompted Architecture Sarasota to partner with New College to launch Reimagine Pei, a design competition that invites participants to breathe new life into the aging gray-brick buildings. The Palm Court, a central plaza flanked by the residence halls, would also be reimagined as part of larger plan to eventually transform a swath of New College’s East Campus into a new athletic and recreational hub that could also potentially include dining and retail.

Per the open call for submissions, any practicing architect with “the skills to produce designs that will result in a re-use project with structural integrity and aesthetic appeal,” is invited to participate. In early September, three finalist concepts will be selected and showcased at Architecture Sarasota’s headquarters-slash-exhibition and event space, the McCulloch Pavilion, with public programming to follow. In November, the three finalists, who will each receive $10,000 to further hone their concepts, will present their designs, at which point a winning concept will be selected shortly thereafter. As an ideas challenge, there is no guarantee that the selected design will be ultimately realized and there is no guarantee of future work for the winning architect or firm.

To be clear, Reimagine Pei isn’t focused on the buildings’ restoration and continue use as dorms but on their creative reuse. As a competition fact sheet spells out, New College anticipates a “significant intervention and alteration of the structures” with the goal to preserve or “partially memorialize” the exteriors of the repurposed buildings while incorporating the existing Palm Court into the new design.

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Balcony of a girls’ dormitory at the Pei-designed residence halls, circa 2010s. Photo courtesy New College Foundation

“Preserving and celebrating the past does not mean freezing things in time. Rather, places and spaces have to be continually reinvented and repurposed to meet shifting needs and values,” Morris “Marty” Hylton III, president of Architecture Sarasota, elaborated in a statement.

“The Reimagining Pei challenge will begin a new chapter in future campus design at New College,” added Hylton. “One that upholds architecture as a tool to create a greater sense of unity within the college and the wider community in which its campus is embedded.”

Hylton’s mention of unity at New College comes at a notably discordant time for the publicly funded liberal arts honors college, which was seized by allies of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in January with the goal to mold the small, progressive school into a conservative-leaning Christian institution. Efforts to overhaul the Pei dorms, including a $15 million Pei for the Future fundraising campaign launched in early 2021, predate the political takeover of New College. The current competition itself stems from the New College Challenge, a campus makeover initiative that kicked off in April 2022. That year-long experimental program brought together academic teams from six top-tier design and research universities to “create an innovative campus that embodies the aspirations of the school while considering the most pressing needs of the surrounding community.”