Architecture styles often blend, merge

I think it is important to look at architectural styles today. What is being built? Are the buildings appropriate for how we live and work in Southwest Florida? Are buildings today as well-suited to the sub-tropical climate as the early architecture built purely for function?

Last fall, I was asked to give a talk at a local community development department with Amy Nowacki, who was then president of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) — the national professional organization of architects. We had been asked to talk about the definitions of architectural terminology: What is a portico? What is a cupola? Arches? Loggias?

It was requested we give definitions from an architect’s perspective.

Most local community development departments these days are writing “design standards” — guidelines to help communities create an identity through their architecture. In theory, guidelines encourage better building aesthetics by suggesting alternatives to metal buildings or big concrete boxes, and the addition of architectural elements — details that add interest and break up large expanses of blank walls.

Design standards will usually outline heights, lengths, materials, colors and architectural elements. Some are obligatory; others must be chosen from a list — say two or three elements from a list of 15.

Often the standards provide rules that steer new developments toward a certain style In South Florida, the design standards often advocate architectural components from Mediterranean style architecture, so it seemed like a good style to use as an example.

What is Mediterranean architecture? It seems that all stucco and terra cotta roof buildings are classified as Mediterranean these days. But is the architecture here what they build now, or ever built in the Mediterranean?

To be frank, no. I’ve been to the countries along the Mediterranean and I can assure you they are not building “Mediterranean architecture.” Rather, what is found all over the southern United States is a diluted evolution of Spanish Colonial and Mediterranean Revival styles.

Spanish Colonial Revival uses elements from the early architecture of mainland Spain, Mexico and the countries of South America. Although there is some Moorish (i.e., Arab) influence from the 12th century it is nearly entirely influenced by the Spanish style from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Mediterranean Revival is more eclectic. Still true in form to traditional Spanish buildings, Mediterranean also incorporates references from places like Rome, Florence and Venice. The differences can be identified in the ornamentation or in the decorative craftsmanship: the cast stone moldings; the wrought ironwork used for window grilles, railings, gates and trims; and the touches of terra cotta details.

Since the construction of the first Spanish Colonial style buildings on Florida’s east coast in the late 19th century, revival styles have been used in the design of commercial buildings, hotels and houses. Thick masonry walls and stucco exteriors, low-pitched terra cotta tiled roofs, arches and small porches are are all characteristic of this style. So are loggias, open courtyards and tall double hung windows protected with canvas awnings or unprotected smaller decorative windows on outside walls.

However, these elements were not just randomly appropriated. Originally, each architectural element was chosen to minimize heat gain and promote cooling. Courtyards allowed the buildings to be turned inward — they could be opened up internally and easily ventilated.

Loggias and porticoes — corridors created by a set of arches or columns, open to the outside — allowed windows to be deeply set and shaded. The roofs were a combination of low-pitched hipped, gabled or shed roofs mixed with areas of flat roof. Little or no overhanging eaves left openings on the exterior unprotected, so canvas awnings or small sloping roofs over doors and entrances kept the rain and sun out.

Genuine terra cotta roof tiles would withstand the hot sun and reduce the transfer of heat to the interiors. Small balconies and porches with decorative wrought iron railings allowed breezes to circulate air on the upper floors. And it is important not to forget that careful consideration of the landscaping was critical to maximizing shade.

The ornate details of Spanish and Mediterranean Revival were in complete contrast to the pure and simple aesthetic of Florida Cracker style discussed in last month’s column. Both styles, however, were functional — providing shelter and shade from the hot sun.


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