Learn from Styles of the Past


In my April column, I highlighted the city of Sanibel’s design codes. I mentioned how size could negatively impact the character of a neighborhood. I noted that as architects we are trained to build appropriately for the environment, but I’d like to explain because it is more than size that makes a building suitable for its location.

In another column, I touched on how municipalities write “standards” to help communities create and control their identity through architecture.

These design standards offer suggestions for materials, colors, heights and other architectural elements. But the standards do not always address another important consideration: Is the building appropriate for its location?

What do I mean by appropriate?

An appropriate structure should be styled in such a way that contributes rather than detracts from the overall aesthetic of the surrounding neighborhood. This includes size and mass, as well as styling or cosmetics. In addition, the building should be functional for the climate. In South Florida, this means we must address our subtropical climate.

Whether an office, a shopping center, a fire station, a custom home or developer home, an appropriate structure meets the needs of the user and responds to its environment.

An architect is trained to interpret the user’s needs and integrate these into an appropriate building that can be functional, now and in the future. However, the site and location require analysis and the built and natural characteristics considered: vegetation, views, the direction of the winds, the position of the sun combined with an appreciation of the adjacent structures.

“Appropriate” is to create harmony within the built and un-built environment. That’s the goal.

These days, designers often pick a few architectural elements from a “design standards” list created by their town or city. Interestingly, it’s rarely explained why these elements have been put on the list or how to choose them. It is essential to gain an understanding and appreciation of the historical function of these architectural elements, so we can be better informed about how to choose them.

So far in this column, I have looked backward to Florida Cracker and the early Spanish Revival architecture to understand how in their original form, they are suitable for Florida’s harsh climate.

Although contrasting in style, both are functional, providing shelter and shade from the searing Southwest Florida sun. They have different elements: porticoes, courtyards, shady porches, high sloping roofs and other aspects that contributed to survival in a hot and humid climate before air conditioning.

The architectural elements of these older buildings had a function, a purpose – they addressed the climate. However, with the invention of the air conditioner, it became less important to consider or imitate the practical elements of these early buildings.

By looking backward as we move forward, we gain a better understanding of early buildings in our region. Why is it that our wise ancestors were able to build so many beautiful structures that function so well in the harsh Florida climate?

And, if we build appropriately for the climate we live in, we will reduce our consumption of energy. And, what better time to incorporate efficient and energy-conscious building practices than when global warming is at the forefront of political and personal agendas?

If we only pick and choose architectural pieces from a list or a catalogue and apply them to a building, it becomes mere appliqué, and we lose the purpose of the building element that was so important in the first place.

Look at how architectural ornamentation is used sometimes today: arches, towers, terra cotta. Do they provide shade and promote ventilation?

The result is concrete boxes with architectural elements randomly applied and frustrated occupants with very expensive cooling bills!

Once we understand and appreciate their original functions again, we will be able to integrate architectural elements that will serve the purpose for which they were intended. All buildings that incorporate these practices, no matter what style they are, will be more appropriate, if the function of the architectural elements is honest.

I am not suggesting that we must replicate precisely the styles of the past, but learn from them. Designing a building can be a complex problem. We don’t need to add to that complexity by imposing a particular style.

Instinctively, then, the result will be a style appropriate for its specific location. Buildings will be functional, aesthetic and diverse. Southwest Florida deserves an architectural identity that is as unique and beautiful as our slice of paradise.