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Architect About Town

Buildings send out clear messages

Architect About Town - Special to the Fort Myers News-Press

Can architecture speak to us? 

Of course they don’t talk, but it is certainly possible for a building to communicate. By effectively incorporating architectural vocabulary, a well-designed building can send out clear messages.

But what kind of messages?

Obvious examples are religious buildings. Their particular architectural vocabulary — bell towers, domes, steeply pitched roofs and steeples — have, over the centuries, become symbols of the invitation to worship. 

Today, modern counterparts still use a similar vocabulary to identify their function: familiar forms and materials, the expressive use of glass and light, and height — a universal gesture toward the heavens. It’s a visual language the public recognizes, even if it’s abstract.

Governments often invest in good architecture to house a variety of needs: schools, post offices, emergency service buildings, hospitals and importantly, those structures housing legislative and administrative activities. 

The best of these lawmaking buildings remind us that they stand for democracy. 

Think of the classic courthouse that dominates a town square, publicly announcing the central role of democracy in a community.

As architectural tastes change, these buildings often conform to current styles of design, but the architectural characteristics remain the same. They are likely to be constructed of enduring materials, often stone or brick, speaking to us of permanence and stability.

Symmetrical designs, a legacy of ancient Greek architecture symbolizing democracy, express principles of order, balance and security. No matter the period or style, they are likely to dominate their surroundings.

Sometimes, a building can communicate the wrong message. Think of the ornate office buildings designed to imitate Italian villas. Should a place of work evoke false promises of rest and relaxation and the hope of charming courtyards filled with bougainvillea?

Generic retail centers don’t identify function, and applying random architectural styles and ornamentation does not take advantage of the opportunity to explain what’s happening inside the store.

Apple Inc. understands the power of branding its message in and on its stores, known as “architecture as billboard.” The consumer electronics company has
become a pioneer of building innovation and style that matches its values and provides a place to retail its cutting edge products.

Apple’s giant glass cube on Fifth Avenue in New York, the hanging glass walls at The Grove in Los Angeles and the glass stair in the London store all say high-tech, great design, hip, modern. Even at Coconut Point, Apple remained committed to this branding philosophy by applying a sleek modern entrance of aluminum and glass in a very Mediterranean-styled retail center.

Two new car dealerships, BMW and Mercedes, have recently opened new showrooms in Fort Myers. Clean, modern and confident architectural design reflects a commitment to manufacturing legendary, state-of–the-art automobiles.

Office and retail buildings that do not rely on architectural language depend on signage to communicate. The results are roads cluttered with advertisements that bombard and overload our senses: images, words and colors all competing for attention of drivers. Signs may be cheap, but simple architectural guidance can prove far more cost-effective.

It’s not surprising that sometimes, architecture will scream to be heard.

Remember buildings that were designed to resemble the product sold inside? These types of buildings flourished by mid-century, as business looked for ways to capture the attention of a public who began passing buildings at 35 mph. Once found all over the country, these buildings were labeled “roadside architecture.”

A local example is found in San Carlos. The Twistee Treat, designed like a giant ice cream cone, shouts, without words, just what can be found there.

Less obvious is the use of architectural language to create a memorable landmark. Who hasn’t driven past the modern office building on College Parkway with the wavy yellow roof? A simple and elegant office building serving the client’s needs, topped off with a colorful floating roof that provides shade and, a bold identity.

Whether you like the building or not, it makes an impression — an architectural signpost more effective than any road sign.

At times a building will subtly convey its function. The transformation of a neglected Art Deco apartment block on McGregor Boulevard into the headquarters of Parker Mudgett Smith Architects is an exceptional, understated renovation. It makes a huge impact on a mixed-use area that’s long been only a through route to downtown.

Now, it’s an attractive example of “building as billboard.” There is no sign to shout, “Architects Inside.” Instead the company name is quietly located on a low wall in front. Mint green, chosen to reflect the time period of the building, catches the eye. A planned interior night light will highlight architectural models inside: a straightforward technique that identifies the profession of the new occupants all night long.

You’d expect an architect to create a decent building, but good architects will design buildings that talk to the community.

A well-designed building is a tool that can communicate a message, a brand or market a business. And it isn’t about applying style, but the ability to be clever with architectural vocabulary.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA