regionalism

architecture - climate and region; some thoughts on southern mansions

I have been thinking  a lot lately about vernacular architecture and indigenous responses to local climate.  By that I mean how a building and design practice, over time, has found architectural solutions to solve some of the problems posed by heat and cold, sunlight and shadow, aridity and humidity.  Reading through some older posts on my delving into the possibility of trying to define a Colorado vernacular, it strikes me that very few of those examples I identified tackled the issues of heat and solar gain.  That might sound like a recent concern, more one of energy use and sustainability, but a few quick glances at traditional southern architecture reveals design/technological solutions that we have largely forgotten in the age of air-conditioning.

Boulder Modern - talk by Mark Gerwing, local architect

First Christian church

First Christian church

I am giving a public talk on February 19th on a brief history of Modern Architecture in Boulder at the public library Canyon Theater.  I have given a version of this talk in the past, with emphasis on preservation of the recent past.  This time around I have rewritten the focus of the talk to present the work of some of Boulder earliest Modernist architects as a harbinger of the growth of a regionalist style.

Kenneth Frampton presciently set forth the idea of a type of critical regionalism that he felt would become one of the dominant paradigms for architecture as far back as the early 1980's.  I am certainly no academic scholar, but it is abundantly clear to me that a majority of the most interesting architecture produced over the last three decades in this country has come out of far-flung offices that embody Frampton's notion of Critical Regionalism.  Even a very cursory glance at the work of Will Bruder and Rick Joy down the southwest or Clark and Menefee and the late Sam Mockbee in the South reveals architectural practices that have extended the lessons of classic Modernism and have imbued them with the local vernacular architecture as well as very particular regional concerns.  In fact, most regions of the country have developed just this kind of very place specific architecture that consistently produce the most interesting work, albeit not the most breathlessly praised trends of the architectural press.

Willard 05

Willard 05

However, all that being said, it has seemed curious to me that the Rocky Mountain West does not seemed to have produced similarly informed, critical practices that have coalesced into a critical mass that could be seen as a regionalist style or approach.  At least not in the present tense.

P1070325

P1070325

Boulder, Colorado, nestled against the Front Range, was a sleepy little college town with its founding based in mining and agriculture.  It was not that dissimilar from many similarly situated little cities, from Missoula, Montana to Ft. Collins and Colorado Springs, Colorado, south to Albuquerque.  From 1950 to 1970 however, radical transforms in population, transportation, local technology and an unprecendented growth building spree, allowed for a flourishing architectural culture that I believe was the avant garde of a nascent Mountain West critical regional style.

Mark Gerwing lecture invite revised

Mark Gerwing lecture invite revised

All of that is a very long introduction to what I hope will be a more brief, and certainly more entertaining talk.  Of particular interest to me is trying to place some remarkable buildings within their cultural context, from sox hops to the sexual revolution, in this time of great national and international upheaval - changes both frightening and thrilling.  If nothing else, I will be showing some pictures of some really cool buildings.

Regional architecture - Florida Keys, by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects

Keys5

Keys5

I have often written about my interest in regionally specific architecture, especially vernacular forms that derive from local climatic conditions or materials availability.  I recently spent some time in the Florida Keys and in my typically geeky architecture fashion, spent almost as much time looking at the local historic buildings as I did relaxing on the beach.

Keys4

Keys4

Like any relatively isolated region, the architecture of the Keys, and especially Key West, is dominated by its largest growth period, starting with the late Victorian era and extending to the Depression.  As a result, the typologies of houses you find are almost exclusively wood-framed, simply-gabled homes with painted lap siding and more-or-less overly wrought scroll details.  While there are plenty of houses from other periods, these basic vernacular houses became the standard that has been replicated, often less successfully.  The funky mid-century commercial architecture of the Keys, including the building-as-sign googly constructions date from the 1950's and 60's when the Overseas Highway surplanted the train and boat as the dominant mode of access to the Keys, are more often found at the beginning of the island chain, closer to Key Largo.

Keys1

Keys1

As in so many older sea-faring communities, the predominance of horizontal wood siding reminds one of the hulls of boats and the gable-fronted houses resemble so many upturned boats.  Of particular interest to me are the use of shutters and porches to mitigate the harsh Caribbean sun while still allowing ample breezes to move through the structures.  Unlike Italian house shutters, the Keys shutters are plantation style, often not individually operable but top-hung as a panel that can kick out at the bottom.

Keys2

Keys2

Of course here in the Keys, the shutters do not just provide sun control, but are necessary protections for the Gulf storms and occasional hurricane.  For that reason they can be found on doors and windows within porches, well beyond the areas where sun shading would be necessary.  These shutters provide a kind of vertical emphasis to the buildings that contrasts with the predominant horizontal siding and decorative rails.  The overall effect is of a lightly sprung craft, held in tension, that takes the kind of maintenance and attention that only a boat-owner could appreciate.

Keys3

Keys3

The older portions of Key West are also fairly urban and dense, with house fronts mere steps from public sidewalks.  The shutters are also used to create privacy while keeping doors and windows open.  As in the photo above, the subtle delineation of public and private spaces, from sidewalk to private walk to porch to interior, works in about ten feet of space, each layer carefully playing its role.

This kind of attention to the details of public and private space are often lumped into the concepts of New Urbanism.  But, as you can see, some good old fashioned urbanism is successfully at work, design solutions worked out over years of lived experience that architects would do well to study. And shutters that actually work, not just applique patterns, a fearful architect's pet peeve.

by Boulder architects M. Gerwing Architects

architecture - climate and region; some thoughts on southern mansions

I have been thinking  a lot lately about vernacular architecture and indigenous responses to local climate.  By that I mean how a building and design practice, over time, has found architectural solutions to solve some of the problems posed by heat and cold, sunlight and shadow, aridity and humidity.  Reading through some older posts on my delving into the possibility of trying to define a Colorado vernacular, it strikes me that very few of those examples I identified tackled the issues of heat and solar gain.  That might sound like a recent concern, more one of energy use and sustainability, but a few quick glances at traditional southern architecture reveals design/technological solutions that we have largely forgotten in the age of air-conditioning.

These are images of traditional southern plantation houses in Louisiana from the book Ghosts Along The Mississippi by Clarence John Laughlin.  The book's oddities aside, it is a great document of these traditional houses many of whom are no longer standing.

The large wrapping porches and porticos of all these houses block the direct sun from hitting windows and exterior walls and create  a deeply shadowed interstitial space between interior and exterior.  The "technology" of the deep overhang results in a new kind of spatial experience, partly interior, partly exterior, which radically breaks down the stark privacy of the Georgian forms from which these models take much of their architectural character. It is maybe tragically ironic that these houses where slaves were an essential part of the culture and economy have in a sense a more casual relationship between public and private than their English precedents where servants were equally present but interior and exterior were sharply delineated.

Of course some of these houses owe more of their architectural lineage to Greek antecedents, but in ancient Greece's equally slave-owning culture, emphasis is directed inward to courtyards, not outward as in these southern Tara-like mansions.  Certainly the veranda was a convenient place for a plantation owner to survey his fields and from which to greet visitors, but the impetus for the porches was more climate-driven than programmatic.

More than echoing their Georgian and ancient Greek architectural origins, maybe these southern mansions, with their large, single roof forms owe more to that other model of agricultural manor house, the Palladian villa.  Although those villas of central Italy and the Veneto do not sport large, overhanging  porticos, like their southern mansion  cousins, they are singular buildings in the landscape, dominating the perspective in a single large architectural form.

The southern mansion prototype has become such a stark visual cliche that it is difficult to look beyond the ridiculous bad copies that it has inspired and look a little more carefully at the architecture.  And of course its association with slavery forever banishes the southern traditional mansion into a dusty drawer of architectural history.  However, a closer examination of its form and materials in response to climate and its adaptation and transformation of formal architectural modes grafted onto vernacular practice is a worthwhile study.  I am not suggesting that we adopt the form and replicate, South Fork ranch-like, a hybridized bastard McMansion morphology, but let's not throw the architectural baby out with the cultural bathwater.

(images by Clarence John Laughlin from Ghosts Along The Mississippi)