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Modernism in the Tropics

Tropical Modern architecture has a spirit to it like no other form of Modernism, but what is it that gives these structures this life? Is it the elements, the materials, or is it the way that they relate to their larger regional context – and not just physical context but spiritual, cultural, and environmental context as well. Homes built with this Tropical Modern sensibility are at one with nature, with their surroundings, and are perfectly balanced with the people that inhabit them.


Miami House by Brillhart Architecture

Design in the Tropics

When discussing Modernism in the Topics, you must first start in the same way that Modernist architects started their discussion of designing in the tropics – with the tropics itself. As discussed in the previous section, Modernism was about freedom of design from historical precedents primarily based in European and Western countries – so when it came to the tropics there was already a history of building with these imported European styles. The colonizers brought with them their building traditions, usually better suited for other climates and locales. These archetypes were built in disregard to environmental comfort and cultural sensitivity. Over time they were slightly adjusted or altered to better meet the new climate, but because they were built for and by people whose day-to-day customs and rituals were not attuned to this new living, they were stifled from being innovative or truly accommodating. As Marc Treib explains in

the book, Hawaiian Modern, these imported styles of architecture were meant autonomous – based off of orders and theory, not site and environment.


There is a long tradition of an autonomous architecture – that is, an architecture evolved from issues of form and symbolism rather than location and climate. Neoclassicism and International Style modernism share this particular trait, as both attitudes often denied certain constraints characteristic of the specific site, at least to some degree. To architects with these beliefs, the image of the building was the primary basis for an appropriate architectural idiom. In the case of Hawai’i, in the early years of colonization this often meant a reference to a steeply pitched roof, perhaps of thatch in the native manner. During the 1920s, however, architects designing commercial and institutional buildings employed a modified version of the California Mission – perhaps better termed Mediterranean – style in which an increased number of windows perforated the thick masonry walls, the pitch of the tile roof was reduced, and the patio became a common plan type. These modifications functioned better climatically as well, thus securing an experiential bonus. In all, we might have say that the imagist group adapts an idea of an autonomous architecture, often alien to the site, to the particularities of the place – but it does not necessarily deny any of the environmental benefits that might be gained in the process. (1)

Modernism designed with sensitivity to location was a way for these tropical inhabitants to rid themselves of imported ideas and start anew. Not the International Style form of Modernism, but the regionalist Modernism, became the platform not only for a new type of living, but a liberty from non-indigenous architectural traditions. As Raul A. Barreneche explains in his book, The Tropical Modern House,


As foreign powers began importing established architectural traditions to their new colonies in the fifteenth century, Spanish villas, French chateaus, and British bungalows started springing up in Central and South America, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. Some European housing types were altered to better suit the year-round heat of their new locations, for instance, adding shady courtyards and verandas that offered more space for outdoor living. As modernism came onto the scene in the mid-twentieth century, many European colonies in the tropics were shedding their European rulers and emerging as independent countries. Modernism represented a clean break not only from neoclassism as a style, but also the associations with colonial domination. As a chance for newly independent nations to establish their own architectural identity, the movement flourished in former colonies from Sri Lanka to Singapore to Thailand. (2)

So when the architects of the region, during the mid-twentieth century, started creating a new architectural tradition with a sensibility to its locale and place, they started with two primary strategies. The two strategies were vocabulary and climate. They first looked to the architectural elements and forms of the indigenous and folk architecture of the region. Picking up elements and vocabulary to use on their designs connected them with local traditions. The second thing they did was take note and considerations of the environment and context. Considerations of climate, landscape and culture. (3)


The first strategy was then to look at the vernacular architecture of the location. The vernacular architecture is devoid of outside influence and built to accommodate the lifestyles and climate of the location. Looking to it for design inspiration helps to inform architects and designers what are the minimum necessities for living in this location. Because one of the main goals of Modernism is to improve human life with as little structure as possible, observing what are the essentials to inhabiting a climate is key. As Treib further explains about the vernacular/folk architecture of the tropics,



Historically, folk architecture in hot and wet climate throughout the world addressed the exigencies of climate with a minimal structure that supported a roof with effective insulating properties, perhaps adding an elevated living platform to remove the inhabitants from the intrusion of vermin and surface moisture. In sum, one lived under an insulating umbrella, keeping sun and rain at bay while admitting as much moving air as possible. Forms such as these are common in areas as geographically diverse as the southern regions of Florida and Japan. In Florida the Seminole Indians built their chickees (Fig. 11) with precisely this typology, stacking palm fronds to thatch their roofs. The Japanese people sophisticated this basic type over several centuries, and within their wood-framed houses sliding panels shaped fluid spaces that fostered maximum exposure to the winds. Deep roof overhangs protected the vulnerable paper screens and the interior spaces, which were expanded outward by a transitional area in the form of a veranda.


In Hawaii, by contrast, the native peoples constructed simple huts of thatch that sat directly on the ground. Rather than open and elevated structures, the Hawaiians constructed their dwellings of wooden poles lashed together with ropes of twisted fiber and sheathed with whatever vegetal material lay at hand, including grasses, sugar cane, and ti leaves. The inclined planes that comprised both walls and roof could be straight or slightly bowed, and the huts took the form today called an A-frame. Although simple to

construct by following the tradition pattern, the inclined roof/wall surfaces

offered little internal headroom. One dwelling type maintained open gable ends

to admit cooling breezes; in others, however, doors at either end were the only

apertures for egress and ventilation. Over time the house form assumed a more

sophisticated guise, using true walls supporting a pitched roof to gain increased

and more practical interior volume.. Given its enclosure, the form of the

Hawaiian dwelling suggests that more life often took place outside rather than

within the shelter, and the house was thus more a retreat than a stage for daily

living. As a whole, the villages demonstrated little sense of planning for visual effect. (3) But to merely copy the vernacular or folk architecture wouldn’t be accommodating to the lifestyles of the times. People expect a greater level of comfort and modernity to their dwellings than a grass shack.


Traditional Florida Chickee and Hawaiian Hale

And still the idea of creating a house from nature, in nature, open to the four winds but sheltering, comforting and satisfying, is a model for many electing to put up a house in the tropics. They are not seeking to build from sticks and driftwood, of course, but to have a house that embodies some of the elemental spirit of the handmade hut. (4)


Tropical Modernism

The second strategy is to more directly address climate and setting. This is one of the main attributes to Tropical Modernism that makes it so successful. The sensibility to climate, the environment, and the setting creates passive structures that through their awareness are able to minimally provide maximum comfort to their inhabitants. Because the climate of the tropics is so unique and ideal, it is the overwriting force that defines Modernism in the Tropics. As Hochstim explains about the designing for the climate in Florida:


Hot temperatures, high humidity, and insects make it necessary to plan outdoor

extensions carefully in order for them to be usable. Before air conditioning

became affordable, houses were cooled by being properly orientated to the

breezes, with interior rooms arranged to allow for free airflow through the

house and openings protected from sun and rain. Outdoor areas require

protective insect screening. While such architectural interventions were

necessary for the comfort of the inhabitants, the common Florida houses

derived from models that originated outside of Florida, did not include them.

Modern architecture, on the other hand, with its fresh approach to functional

problem solving and its freedom from restrictions imposed by styles, provided

excellent solutions to Florida living. The most prevalent approach was to

organize floor plans to avoid interior hallways. That meant making houses one

room deep to allow easy cross-ventilation. Large windows with operable louvers

of wood or glass provided flexible control of air and light. Sliding glass doors

became walls that parted, uniting indoors with screened outdoor terraces. Wide

roof overhands shaded walls and openings while giving protection from

frequent summer rains. In the hands of talented designers, these functional

requirements transformed into a new architecture closely related to the

mainstream of modernism, but uniquely expressive of Florida’s climate and lifestyle(7)



The tropics, and even just a single region within the tropics, have many different microclimates however. The varying and diverse topography creates many different environmental zones that require different design responses. Within the region that is the tropics, “there are large, thriving cities – Kuala Lumpur, Auckland, Bangkok, Sydney, Singapore, Melbourne, Jakarta – and stunning untouched landscapes, from the stark emptiness of the Australian outback and the snow-capped peaks of New Zealand’s aptly named Remarkables range to Indonesia’s jagged volcanic islands and Thailand’s dense tropical jungles.” (7) All of these different regions with their different cultural and climatic conditions all lead to their own form of architectural response. As Barreneche explains,


But contemporary modern houses in these disparate lands do have common threads. They share an openness and simpatico spirit with the tenets of Modernism – fluid, informal spaces, porous boundaries between indoors and outdoors, and freedom from the burden of too much history – while still remaining true to the particulars of place (8)

It is the spirit of the tropics that makes modernism work so well, as an architectural idiom, even more so than other regions of the world. Modernism is about being minimal, and in a land where nature is the dominant feature, a house that stands in contrast to nature seems out of character. Designing to be subservient to nature – incorporating and integrating it – makes for a more harmonious dwelling. “In fact, the more clean-lined and restrained the architecture, the more subservient it becomes to the richness of the natural environment and the more brilliant the contrast. (9)


Modernism is about getting rid of decoration and ornamentation, and in a place like the tropics, this makes the surroundings that much more vibrant. Look to the vegetation that inhabits the tropics, “The coconut palm itself, with its linear trunk and bushy top, can be read as the happy marriage of stark and lush that the modernist building in the tropical settingconveys.” (10)






Graham Hart: Tropical Modern Residential Architecture

(1) Marc Treib, “Of Climate and Contour: Ossipoff’s Architecture and the Hawaiian Environment.” In Hawaiian Modern: The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff ed. Dean Sakamoto (New Haven: Honolulu Acadmey of Arts, Yale University Press, 2007), 72.

(2) Raul A. Barreneche, The Tropical Modern House (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2011), 15. (3) Trieb, Hawaiian Modern: The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff, 71

(4) Trieb, Hawaiian Modern: The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff, 74 (5) Richard Powers and Phyluss Richardson, Living Modern Tropical: A Sourcebook of Stylish Interiors (New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc. 2012), 7.

(6)Hochstim, Florida Modern, 26-27

(7)Barreneche, Pacific Modern, 7 (8)Barreneche, Pacific Modern, 7

(9) Powers and Richardson, Living Modern Tropical: A Sourcebook of Stylish Interiors, 6 (10) Powers and Richardson, Living Modern Tropical: A Sourcebook of Stylish Interiors, 6-7

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