A Contemporary Vernacular

A contemporary architectural idiom that reflects the traditional vernacular, character, climate and culture of a place is an interesting challenge. For many architects this is the Holy Grail, allowing a freedom of “modern” design but being duly respectful of context. 

We have recently had a number of clients requesting design that reflects “a contemporary reinterpretation of Caribbean Style” or a “mix of Caribbean and modern design.” I am delighted when I hear this request and see it as a very positive turn in design trends, reflecting a confidence and cultural consciousness in our society. When I first came to the BVI, in the very, very early 1980s, there was a tendency for aspiring local homeowners and visitors to seek something very “American” in design style as this represented a breaking with the past and bringing aspects of contemporary society into their corner of paradise. 


Bayhouse in Virgin Gorda maintains a scale that is appropriate to island architecture. Photos provided by OBMI.

seaside view of villa


As we moved through the 80s and early 90s, the post-modern trend led to a recognition of the aesthetic value of regional traditions, but also sometimes resulted in a narrow and literal view of Caribbean design. Within this new consciousness, a number of excellent examples of very traditional interpretations of the Caribbean vernacular were created, using the form of the chattel house with the steeply pitched corrugated roofs in combination with deep wooden verandahs, complete with traditional gingerbread trim. The recent turn of the century brought with it a desire from many of our clients to explore the aesthetic and functional traditions of the region while also bringing the clean lines and openness of modern design to projects, offering exciting opportunities to the design profession.

The “Bayhouse” in Virgin Gorda is an excellent example of contemporary design which respects its Caribbean traditions and location. The deep lean-to verandahs, time-honored in Caribbean architecture for shading the main building volume and providing outdoor living and dining spaces, are present here, but in this instance they are reinterpreted as flat concrete canopies. These canopies, hovering high over the terraces, are punctuated with areas of trellis, creating variation of shading experience and patterns of sunlight which change throughout the day.

Cross ventilation, which has always been so important to capture the trade winds, is addressed via the traditional single-room deep plans, combined with an arrangement of louvers or jalousies. In the vertical wall face, the wooden louvers are combined with large glazed openings and frameless glass windows for a contemporary touch that truly blurs the boundaries between indoors and out. Industrial style jalousies are used in high roof ventilators that function like wind catchers or the more traditional gable-end louvers, to pull the hot air out of the ceiling spaces.

The built forms of Bayhouse are broken up, maintaining a scale which is appropriate to the island architecture, particularly in the BVI context. The traditional hipped and shed roof forms are maintained over the bedroom wing, exposing the rafters  and vaulted ceiling over the upstairs bedroom and veranda areas.


Large, glazed openings and frameless windows blur the boundaries between indoors and out.

interior view with frameless glass windows


Natural stone is utilized at the base to ground the house in the natural topography, as in many traditional Caribbean homes.  Here, as elsewhere in Virgin Gorda, the stone pays homage to the magnificent granite boulders that surround the house. The stained concrete floors are dark and crazed, reflecting the patterns of the facing stone facades.

As Bayhouse clearly illustrates, respect for context and culture does not mean that the designer has to resort to pastiche. There are many fine examples where talented architects in the BVI have paid homage to tradition but creatively re-interpreted the customs and conventions of the islands in a contemporary idiom, encouraging an interesting dialogue between the old and the new.


  • BVI Property and Yacht -- Wednesday, 17 August 2011