14 June 2010

Should architecture look like here and now or there and then?

Quick! Where are these places?

Note how cheesy the following look when compared to the originals.

The Eiffel Tower, The Grand Canal and the Hofbrauhaus look better because they're real. They look the way they do because the culture and the era that begat them worked together to produce a building or series of buildings that belong where they are.

Great architecture is great architecture because it remains true to culture and time. Or so I say anyway.

I read yet another glowing review of a development in the Florida Panhandle called Alys Beach the other day. Without fail, every glowing review exclaims that Alys Beach looks like Antigua or Bermuda or Turkey or Greece. No one says it looks like Panama City Beach, Florida because it doesn't. Even though Alys Beach is in Panama City, Alys Beach could be anywhere with sand and clear water. It exists in a kind of geographic limbo. I think that's a bad thing, but apparently I'm alone in that opinion.

The Florida Panhandle (and everywhere else for that matter) has a vernacular architecture. Vernacular architecture reflects and expresses the culture of the people who made it and it uses indigenous building materials. Florida vernacular looks nothing like Alys Beach's pretend beach town and it looks nothing like most of what gets built down here now.

I am the last person in  the world who thinks that houses in 2010 should look like houses built in 1910 regardless of location, but those old forms have lessons to teach about working with a location instead of against it. A house or a building can look like 2010 while still taking its cue from the local past.

Florida vernacular, or Cracker Style, grew from the region. Vernacular houses sit on masonry pylons to help keep them cool. They have wide overhangs to keep out the intense sunlight. They feature wide wraparound porches to keep people outside when it's hot. Some of the practices from a century ago could stand a revival. Here are some examples of historic Florida architecture.

Imagine homes built from materials sourced locally. Or homes that encouraged neighborly interaction. Or homes that encouraged residents to sleep with the windows open. Such an architecture wouldn't need arbitrary LEED points to be sustainable but what's even more important is that such houses would belong.

A house that could be anywhere gets lived in by people who could be anywhere and makes it all too easy not to care about community. If suburban Phoenix looks like Suburban LA looks like Suburban Chicago looks like Suburban Boston looks like Suburban Atlanta, what is there to hold people to a place? Where's home when everything looks like everywhere else?

So as the little towns that make up the Florida Panhandle continue to wither and die, places like Alys Beach can't build fast enough. Wouldn't it be great if the New Urbanists stopped recreating the livable towns of a bygone era and instead rescued and revitalized the ones that already exist? Wouldn't it be great if the buying public could see the value in living in a real place?


  1. Well, the good news is that they didn't go with the "Tuscan-look" at least, but I'm not sure why authenticity is so hard to come by.
    Great post and I love your cracker house images.

  2. Authenticity's hard to come by for the same reason Macaroni Grill and the Olive Garden are so popular --people prefer nostalgia and predictability over authenticity.

  3. Your Florida vernacular reminds me of our Queenslanders -- of course, the climate is very similar, but those houses were reputedly up on stilts to prevent snakes coming in!
    Thing is, the best of old vernacular suited the climate and lifestyle as best they could at the time. Modern houses aren't built to suit the climate at all, don't work that well with our lifestyles, and often make no attempt, as you point out, to sit quietly alongside past architectural styles.
    Sydney vernacular architecture is the single-storey hipped-roof brick bungalow. Blocks of units went up in the 1960s but kept the brickwork and hipped roof. Now, the new unit blocks are built to similar plans to the 1960s ones but are much taller and have flat roofs and lots of painted white concrete. And they all magically adhere to our new sustainability standards too, which tells you all you need to know about *them*!
    I think I'd better stop now before I get angry...

  4. Overall I agree with your comments that local design is an ideal source of design inspiration; however, in the case of Alys Beach, I think that the quality of design and construction makes it something to be applauded and sets a bar that I wish more new construction strove for. What is authenticity except quality?

    While Alys Beach is not built in the traditional Florida frame vernacular, it is based on architecture from similar climates, much like the well-adapted Mediterranean Revival style that Mizner brought to Florida in the 1920s.
    Well done architecture suited for the climate works fine for me for new construction (since it is so rare here in Florida), although I also wish that as much care and thought went into revitalization and new construction within existing historic FL towns and cities. But when something new is built (and you know it will be), I prefer it to strive for a higher quality of design and construction like Alys Beach's architecture, which does incorporate operable windows and the use of loggias and other passive shading devices to help reduce heat gain.

  5. hah, Bravewolf and I were writing some stuff for a client in Florida real estate and we nicknamed Alys Beach "Stepford" because it was just a little "too" idyllic for our taste. The pictures that we came across with people in them were downright scary!

  6. Your beef with this place is that you saw pictures of it? Spend a day there. You may find that these building are quite well adapted to their place, a resort setting on the Gulf Coast.

  7. The architecture firm who designed the structure in one of the pictures you showed from Alys Beach won a prestigious Shutze award bestowed by the SE Institute of Classical Architecture - for this very Alys beach structure. There is fierce competition for this award, and it is bestowed upon firms who design with the very best of classicist principles.

    What I love about American architecture is that we take the best of tradition, and interpret it for our environment and taste. The examples you used of recreating the Eiffel tower and the Grand Canal in Venice are meant to be exaggerated recreations - cartoon like buildings for entertainment value - in Las Vegas.

    I find the Alys beach pictures to be beautiful, and the cracker houses to be unattractive, for what it's worth.

    Perhaps there is a nobility to the modest and sensibly scaled. Perhaps there is a bias against expensive and extravagant architecture. But, I do think that there is some apples to oranges comparisons going on here.

  8. Paul,

    I enjoyed this post, and I am totally on board with you regarding respect for vernacular architecture. Furthermore, I am also a strong advocate of preserving and using those very same old buildings that embody and define that architecture.

    There's much talk these days about sustainable building practices. Clearly, that's a positive thing. But what I find unfortunate is that "sustainable" is frequently taken to imply a need for new construction and the replacement of what was. I also find that ironic, in the sense that so many old buildings of the past had proven their sustainability over the course of many generations. It's only when they run up against contemporary expectations that they are suddenly deemed unsustainable and worthy of replacement.

    On a slightly different note, I loved your Cracker Style photos, in part because my dad's family came from South Georgia, and we spent many a summer in places like the Florida Panhandle, Savannah GA, Jekyll Island, etc. So I have a certain fondness for certain southern vernacular architectures. How any one can claim them to be unattractive is a bit beyond me.


  9. Chookie: I love it when you provide a Queensland perspective on things around here. I can imagine that a Queenslander and a Cracker house have a lot of similarities. Each sprung from a similar time and climate.

    Jo-Ann: Thanks for weighing in. As a preservationist I value your opinion. If my options are Alys Beach as it looks now and the more typical spit-and-drywall that gets built along the beach I'd pick Alys Beach's style. My problem isn't so much its architectural style as it is Alys Beach's attempt to recreate a seaside village. Well, it's not a village, it's a housing development. There's a profound difference and my beef with such developments is that they aren't connected to the communities where they find themselves.

    Nim: I saw the same photos. It is a bit too Stepford-y.

    Anon: Is it a resort or a residential neighborhood? Does it add to the community of Panama City?

    Holly: My including the images of world landmarks and their Las Vegas and Disney imitations makes the point I wanted to make. It's one thing to take an influence from a place, it's another entirely when an attempt is made to recreate a place. I'm not saying that all construction along the Gulf Coast should look like Cracker Houses (which I love), because they shouldn't. It's not 1920 anymore and those houses don't lend themselves to modern life very easily. There are however, lessons aplenty in the Cracker houses and towns that dot the Panhandle. Developments such as Alys Beach don't anchor people to a place, to their neighbors or to the communities where they find themselves. Planned communities isolate people into us and them regardless of their architectural styles. Planned communities are here to stay regrettably, so I say it might be a good thing for a community if they fit in a bit more and if they weren't developed at the expense of the dying towns that surround them. I don't care how many awards a project gets, the result of them is further isolation and further divisiveness.

    I would love to see the development of modern vernaculars not just on the Panhandle, but everywhere.

    John: Thanks. It never ceases to amaze me that in an attempt to recreate a European village, whole pretend towns get build at one time according to some theme of what a European village ought to be. What makes a European village so charming and appealing is that it was built over centuries by many hands, it was never scrapped and rebuilt completely. European cities and towns exemplify creative reuse and it's that very reuse that draws Americans to them in the first place.

  10. Well spoken. Perfect stated. I couldn't agree more.

  11. "Cracker architecture"? - that's BRILLIANT.

  12. Cracker was a descriptor long before it was a pejorative.

  13. Hi Paul
    I know it's nearly a year later but, I just came across this post. I have to say that, I really like your precedent photos of the Florida Vernacular. For such a simple style, I've seen designers miss it by a long shot for some unknown reason.

    I'm actually designing for a new project that incorporates FL Vern. as one of my styles. It's so refreshing to work with simplicity and leave all the "lick-n-stick" architecture behind. I mean, who really wants a house done up like a birthday cake anyway?

    Super great post and cheers to you.

    -David Pillsbury


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