Design Guidelines for Contemporary Tropical Architecture

Bruno Stagno from San José, Costa Rica, shares his contemplations for a free expressive code for tropical architecture.

However, deepening and broadening this superficial look one finds a substantial background in tropicality that is rich in artistic expressions, thinking, and of course, traditional architectures that have identified the cultures of these latitudes.

The points above would be enough to examine already, but there is more. About 50% of the world's population lives in the tropical strip, the fastest growing cities are located in it, as well as 70% of the forests that help contain the increase of CO2 emissions. More than 108 countries are partially or completely located in the tropical belt, and almost all have developing economies, making them fall into the category of countries with medium and low income.

The incorporation of the tropical strip as a whole into Global Sustainable Development must certainly be done according to its circumstances in terms of natural resources, human capacities and socioeconomic conditions. And to design a coherent and adapted architecture, we must recognize the values of tropicality as well as its specificities.

Archivo BSAa. Casas de la Compañía Bananera C.R. Design: United Fruit Company. Quepos, Costa Rica, 1940

Guidelines for Tropical Design and Expression

Empathy and seduction lead to a formal familiarity with the buildings of globalized mainstream architecture, with an aesthetic that is habitually and instinctively accepted. This familiarity with the aesthetic parameters and the design values increases the global repertory of these buildings, creating a circular repetition that manifests as a feedback loop, a process in which criticism and the media function as a sounding board.

For example, the cube-shaped house that is repeated in different environments with more or less imagination, in versions that are repeated periodically as inexhaustible programs, is the result of the affinity with the widespread and accepted aesthetics and design guidelines of these nowadays glorified canons. This has, erroneously, lead to their instinctive acceptance.

It is fair to recognize that there is a recent trend in international competitions of timid dissemination of regional architectures, including tropical ones with their own design guidelines and expressive architecture. It is, however, perceivable that they continue to be described pejoratively as "other architectures," and in this way, critics and curators insist on valuing them as an anecdotal product of exoticism.

© Sergio Pucci. Green life house / Pietro Stagno-Luz Letelier. Location: Escazú, Costa Rica, 2003

Architecture has the potential and the possibility of capturing the content of experiential associations and of contemplating environmental and human contingencies. This is the case with contemporary regional architectures, which are perceived as disruptive because they demand to be reflected upon in order to be appreciated.

Familiarity with this new regionalized aesthetic is achieved when the observer becomes reflective and has the will to include the environment and the circumstances of the project in their analysis. In this analysis, it is important to consider the process that the architect had in the face of the challenge, as well as the adequate conceptualization of the constructed response. Without considering these circumstances, the appreciation of the architecture will be partial and incomplete, the observer being ignorant of the reality of the environment in which the design takes place.

I decided to develop the traditional architecture of the tropical strip, although simple and ingenious, summoning their design guidelines in an avant-garde architecture with a new aesthetic and expression. I refer to a contemporary architectural expression, which relates the buildings to their surroundings and location in order to achieve harmony between architecture and tropical nature.

© Fernando Alba. Casa Copé / Patrick Dillon. Cerro Copé, Panamá, 2015

The inspiration arose from the traditional architecture of different historical eras from which the design guidelines for contemporary tropical architecture have emerged. These architectures had to consider the creation of shade, cross ventilation, the abundance of rain, the sun and the heat, the gloom of the interior spaces, the sky and its low clouds as a surrounding landscape, steeply sloping roofs, the lush vegetation, the textured walls, simple materials and human realities.

The result is an architecture that by its design guidelines produces characteristic buildings with a special aesthetic that expresses the relationship between architecture and the fundaments for life. We compose an “Architecture of the Necessary” because it responds to the experiences of the population and how the building relates to its immediate surroundings. There is a humanistic momentum in this. The expressive qualities of these architectural design guidelines are the means of communication for relating the building to its natural and human environment.

"Architecture of the Necessary" is to design the building responding to the demands of the climate and the human experiences. It is to add an eave to cover a door or a window of rain and sun, design an umbrella roof but at the same time to ventilate and illuminate, to make the landscape dense in foliage in order to ventilate and refresh the environment. It is to design a "multilayer facade" to reduce radiation, to direct the breeze inside, to shade the windows, to cool the walls and to direct the views. In the end, the sum of necessary elements gives a free expressiveness to this tropical architecture, which is congruent with the dimly lit space, which is a condition for well-being.

An architecture that recognizes the specificities of tropical latitudes and demonstrates its expressive design guidelines will reinforce the local culture and will, in a better way, host people's experiences, adapt to the spatiality of the place and will recognize the socioeconomic and human conditions; a set of attributes that will facilitate their appropriation and recognition.

© Fernando Alba. Casa Copé / Patrick Dillon. Cerro Copé, Panamá, 2015

Tuning Architecture to Tropical Nature

From a broader perspective and by observing the current state of the planet, it is obvious that architects must make efforts to reduce the ecological footprint of humanity and move towards a more balanced relationship with our environment. The response begins by proposing a change of attitude, providing the resource of knowledge in this process and involving science and technology where appropriate, but never transferring all responsibility or minimizing the capacity and potential of the craft of design.

We definitely do not support the replacement of the act of designing, nor replacing it with the use of technology, because the craft of architects and engineers has an enormous potential to find solutions at low cost without creating technological dependence, and because it responds to the urgency of providing affordable and sustainable solutions of passive architecture for the tropical strip. This attitude aims to incorporate the least amount of equipment to achieve valid and replicable solutions without sacrificing architecture. We understand the trade as creative know-how, which combines wisdom with innovation.

Archivo BSAa

If this is the biggest challenge architecture faces at the beginning of this century, it is our conviction that an architecture with more design than technology is a valid way to calibrate our attitude and tune architecture to nature, that is, making them vibrate to the same frequency. To achieve this, the building project as a whole must be optimized, rather than concentrating on solving isolated parts and seeking partial benefits, such as lighting, energy consumption, or recycling of materials and water. The architecture must be conceived to achieve multiple harmonies. This is equivalent to considering it as a totality that perfects its relationship and balance between resources and consumption in the immediate environment, that is to say, the place, as well as with the expanded environment, that is to say, the planet.

The Golden Ratio that was valued as a canon of aesthetics in the styles of classical and renaissance architectures, is now exchanged to a Natural Golden Ratio between socioeconomic reality, passive energies, materials, form and expression of contemporary architecture tuned with nature. It is a balance between resources and architectural expression.

Failure to do so will increase ecological damage on the ecosystem at a latitude that contains about half of the planet's population and where 70% of the forests are located, with the year 2050 * approaching.


* UN Report, “Perspectives of the Global Environment”

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Cite: Stagno, Bruno . "Design Guidelines for Contemporary Tropical Architecture" [Pautas de diseño para la arquitectura tropical contemporánea] 31 Jan 2020. ArchDaily. (Trans. Johansson, Emma) Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

© Sergio Pucci. Green life house / Pietro Stagno-Luz Letelier. Location: Escazú, Costa Rica, 2003


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