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Architect About Town

Architectural screens in transformation

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

Ever notice those decorative concrete screens used on older homes around town? The semi-transparent block walls typically found on homes built in the 1950s and ’60s?

Architectural screens found on commercial buildings and residences are aesthetically pleasing, but more often than not, they are versatile and functional and fun. I often wonder — why did they fall out of fashion?

In hot climates, a variety of architectural sun protection screens appeared during the midcentury in an assortment of materials and styles; the most common were masonry walls, wood louvers and metal grilles.

Here, screens were often made of 16-inch square semi-open concrete block, referred to as “screen or solar block” — standardized off-the-shelf decorative units sold locally. But exclusive patterns were sometimes produced for a distinctive look.

On occasion, bricks were used. Laid at various angles, airspace made brick walls semi-transparent as well. Suddenly load-bearing brick and block walls appeared lightweight and delicate.

Metal screens and wood louvers crafted during this era were used as infill panels, vertically and horizontally. Whether modestly linear or designed with complex organic forms, they were elegant and transparent functional works of art with that space age, futuristic feel of the era.

While architectural screens created to filter harsh sunlight have early roots in Islamic architecture, midcentury screens are a distinctly American product that became very appealing in Sun Belt communities, including Southwest Florida.

Interestingly, patterns were individual to their own region. Hundreds of different designs were manufactured but what they all had in common was geometric repetition — regularized patterns put together to form more complex rhythmic configurations.

Whatever the material or pattern, these screens are multifunctional. Not only do they provide sun protection, but they offer diffused light and security without windows or shutters while providing permanent ventilation.

Initially they can appear static, but the patterns ensure endless variation. Depending on the time of day and season, shadows alter the surface and the appearance of the cutouts, while behind the screens, intricate shadows and reflections evolve and transform.

On my own street, which has an unusually high number of midcentury CBS (concrete block stucco) homes built in the late ’50s, courtyard entries are common. Screen blocks, in a variety of patterns, create semi-private outdoor rooms. These permeable walls guarantee breezes flow through open windows beyond and light gently transfers from one space into the next, blurring the line between inside and out.

Fortunately, architectural screens are not something of the past, nor have they fallen out of favor. In fact, they are currently experiencing a remarkable resurgence and advances in technology are allowing for endless reinterpretations.

They have progressed; now they fold, revolve, bend and slide and can be found made of mesh, wood, and woven or perforated metal in a multitude of patterns, or made of resin and twisted and turned into sculptural forms. They’re handrails, space separators, lights, protection from impact, horizontally hung as a ceiling or simply ornamentation or art — and are still used as defense against the sun.

The architectural screen isn’t lost, and elsewhere, it is undergoing an amazing technical evolution.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA