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Architect About Town

Southwest Florida structures say a lot; Buildings have place, purpose in our lives

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

There is a small part of London that will be forever Southwest Florida.

I know, because I built it.

When I moved to London in 1989, although I was born in the Midwest, I'd already spent a good part of my life in Florida -- not to mention Italy -- and I'm not one of those northern girls who likes to hibernate 10 months of the year. I made a pact with my English architect husband that I'd stay in his miserable gray country only if we could design and build a house that allowed me to pretend that I still lived in Florida.

So that's what we did.

Together, two architects designed and built a white stucco house organized around an indoor courtyard, with doors that opened to the outside and windows that stretched to the ceiling 20 feet above. And the ceiling was glass -- despite all assurances by our architect colleagues that a glass ceiling in waterlogged England was ridiculous.

All the rooms on the ground and second floor opened onto the indoor courtyard, which was flooded with light even on the inevitable rainy days. We filled the inner courtyard with tropical plants: bougainvillea, palms, hibiscus and orchids.

Just imagine my beautifully lit, open, airy modern house smack in the middle of a 19th century London churchyard, closed in on two sides by the original stone wall of the vicar's garden and the other sides by the high walls of the adjacent Gothic buildings.

It wasn't exactly typical for architecturally conservative London, and people took notice of it. The press came and wrote about it, and it was featured in the national papers.

And the amazing thing was that it worked. Against all expectations, I had my modern tropical refuge in the middle of the dour British climate.

My affinity for this Florida style started decades ago, with first visit to Sanibel was in 1972. I moved to Fort Myers after gaining my architecture degree in the 1980s. I had been fortunate enough to live and work in Florida before I built my first house, and had the opportunity to study the simple principles of design that make a positive impact on how we live in any climate.

But when I left Florida, moved to England and started my own architectural practice, I felt constantly torn. I loved my life abroad, but I missed Florida.

Nonetheless, I stuck it out in London for 15 years and established my own award-winning architectural practice, which drew attention in Europe and in the United States. In my first independent practice I worked 80-hour weeks, integrating those lessons I had learned in my early days in Florida into my designs -- and fantasizing about sunshine.

In 2003, I packed up my son and my portfolio and returned to Southwest Florida. We stepped off the plane on a glorious sunny day in December, and I never looked back.

Enrolling my son in the local school, I took a job with the same architectural practice I had worked with before I left for England. And I've now realized a lifelong dream and established my own multidisciplinary design company here at home. My business card specifies architecture, design, lighting, furniture, graphics -- but if the right treehouse came along, I'd design that too. Or an art exhibition. Or an outdoor marketplace. And you see that I'm a writer, too.

Architecture is defined as the design of structures, but it's more than that. As an architectural columnist, I'm here to get the discussion going.

The design of a building can inspire rapture or provoke disgust. It can start conversations that continue long after the building has outgrown -- or no longer fulfills -- its original role.

Buildings have a purpose and a place in our lives. And some move beyond the most basic function of architecture, that of shelter, to embody broad philosophical trends that have changed human history. Others aspire to the artistic, and their designs resonate through time.

Like its residents, Southwest Florida architecture reflects a variety of backgrounds. Local architects have made their mark on our cityscapes and neighborhoods. So have architects whose names are known throughout the world. Development is changing the face of Southwest Florida, and innovative design is moving back into the realm of our ancestors, those who lived today's "green" lifestyle.

I'll address all of that and more, including national or even international trends that have an impact here. And I want to hear from you, too. Tell me what local architecture moves you, turns your head, makes you wonder.

We're surrounded by architecture and its legacy. Let's learn about it, and learn from it, together.

Aside from the sunshine, I think that's why I came home.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA