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Tropical modern architecture: with a green twist!

May 4, 2010

On a recent trip to Puerto Rico I was fortunate to see architecture of Henry Klumb at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez.  Besides my interest in the Modern forms of his work, I found it relevant to current trends in sustainability.

Henry Klumb was born in Cologne, Germany in 1905 and then emigrated to the U.S. in 1927, where he worked for a number of years in different locations.  His work included an apprenticeship under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesen.  Then in 1944 he relocated to Puerto Rico, devoting most of the rest of his life toward buildings there.  His work includes master plans, government buildings, residences, churches and institutional buildings.

On a previous trip I had been introduced to his work in San Juan, at both the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, and his Iglesia San Martin de Porres in Catano.  With this year’s trip I was interested in seeing his work at the University at Mayaguez.  He designed the UPR Mayaguez campus master plan as well as several of its buildings.  The structure I found most interesting was the Student Services Building.  I was there during a holiday weekend so didn’t get to go inside, and can’t comment on the interior, but walking around the exterior it was possible to get a sense of how the  perforated walls integrate the exterior with the spaces inside.

This building is designed with architectural elements to help the building take advantage of and respond to its environment.  Instead of enclosing the building with a sealed wall system, the walls are perforated throughout with screens or fins that integrate the exterior and interior.  This configuration creates a structure whose design is especially relevant to today in terms of green design.  The perforated walls provide protection from tropical sun and rain, but openings allow breezes to flow throughout.  The design of the building promotes comfort without relying completely on mechanical systems such as air conditioning.  Perforations in the walls are a sophisticated series of vertical fins, concrete screens, and metal rotating fins.  These metal fins, at the lower level of the building, can be closed for security during off hours and rotated during the day to open up the interior to the outside.  Other elements such as brise soleils / overhanging horizontal projections over openings contribute toward protection from the sun.  The idea of design to promote comfort without relying entirely on mechanical systems seems like something we could learn more from today.

–By Stacey

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2010 2:49 pm

    I really love these buildings… and not that I would know, but that geometric facade reminds me of tropical and Latin American buildings. It makes sense due to the weather in those regions, which I never had considered. I wonder if this would work in Wisconsin? If I ever make it big, I am so hiring you guys to design me my dream home, a mix of indoor/outdoor living spaces that is mostly off-grid! I could dream big here…

    • May 6, 2010 3:50 pm

      that sounds like a dream project: indoor/outdoor, off-grid, and with the most awesome kitchen! i can’t wait for you to make it big!!

    • stace moye permalink
      May 10, 2010 10:23 am

      Yes this architecture works well for buildings in that region – strong sun, also tropical rains and breezes, so a lot of open areas to allow breezes through. So different variations would be needed for different regions, such as Wisconsin, but these adaptations can help the building work with the environment/surroundings instead of against it (probably don’t want a breeze through your house when it’s 20 below outside). Features like overhangs above windows can be adjusted even in northern climates to provide shading from the sun during the summer / but allow solar gain during the winter. On a related issue, I never understand the compulsion to construct buildings with fixed windows. I’ve been in cities where the outside temperatures were very comfortable, and yet you couldn’t open a window; the only option was to turn a mechanical unit off or on. Having the option to be able to open the window seems like the most basic feature you would want in a building.

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