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Architect About Town

Tropical Modern sounds perfect for here

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

The recession is forcing us to rethink our perceptions of what is essential, and in building design there has been a similar adjustment. Prospective clients ask for buildings less extravagant than the oversized sealed boxes of recent decades. They’re searching for something more appropriate for themselves and the environment.

But in 2010, what is the architectural solution in Florida’s subtropics?

In Asia, a climate-sensitive architectural style called “Tropical Modern” has been explored since the 1950s. Despite its suitability to our sub-tropical environment, few regional architects have considered this approach here. Many resorts on the east coast of Florida and new condominiums in Miami have successfully experimented with this style, and on our coast, the new Bungalows at the Naples Grand Resort allude to it.

Tropical Modern refers to a variety of structures with different uses, including commercial, residential and resorts. Although an innovative building style, elements of traditional architecture of a region can be easily identified. Yet it is distinguished from the local vernacular by subtly fusing the positive aspects of the historical with modern architectural vocabulary and materials.

These buildings are designed to be a natural defense against the harsh elements of the tropics and subtropics while maximizing the advantage of living in a warm and sunny environment.

Water, exterior courtyards, open floor plans, white surfaces reflecting the sun and shade are consistent elements of Tropical Modern.

The common thread of all tropical modern design is the acknowledgement that the sun is hot; therefore, shade is paramount; deep porches, extra-wide eaves, verandas, covered walks, lanais and canopies are incorporated to offset the heat. Shelter from the sun also means shelter from summer rains. 

Encouraging cross-breezes is a critical component of the design. Strategically located windows and large sliding doors facilitate ventilation while providing transparency, views and daylight.

Beyond these sliding glass doors, living areas extend outside onto porches, gardens and breezeways, creating a seamless transition between indoor and outdoor space.

Tropical Modern differs from the traditional by incorporating simple clean lines. And unadorned details are made richer — inside and out — by combining sensuous local materials with metal, stucco, glass and dark woods. 

Symmetry is not a priority. Instead, every building component, i.e. walls, doors and windows, can be purposefully located. The result is a fluidity of space and light flowing in, out and around.

Critically, Tropical Modern effortlessly integrates itself in to the landscape and creates a harmonious relationship with nature. Architecture and landscape merge. 

Doesn’t it seem an appealing architectural response for Southwest Florida, with its subtropical climate and lush vegetation?

Florida Modernism of the mid-century explored similar ideas. If we look back at this style and at climate-friendly Florida Cracker structures, it is possible to glean their most successful elements and integrate them with current architectural principles and eco-conscious technology for naturally tropical designs.

Ironically, Tropical Modern is not new here. In the late ’70s and ’80s, this style was explored on the islands and still looks fresh and contemporary today. During the past 20 years, regretfully, this approach seems to have been abandoned.

In many hot and humid climates, the evolution of Tropical Modern architecture has exploded into a responsive building style that is garnering international attention for being energy-efficient and sensitive to the environment.

We can and should take the opportunity to again explore the possibilities of integrating building and landscape, blending the old with the new. The outcome? A refreshing architectural solution that is responsive to its place, and undoubtedly of its time.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA