Islands cast a magic spell on our imaginations as they separate us from the rest of the world, creating their own worlds in seemingly infinite oceans. Because of their isolation, islands can foster habits and customs which are entirely distinct from those of neighboring landmasses, as can be seen on the Galapagos and Madagascar. As a result, islands make admirable vacation retreats with either residential or commercial architecture, but those who settle on them and build houses must be adventurous and independent and love isolation. The actor Marlon Brando, who spent years on his own Tahitian island, comes to mind.
One of the most distinctive land-sea patterns is the graceful sweep of an island arc, a long, curved chain of islands. There are twenty-two of these on earth. Island arcs were formed when large, laterally rigid plates of the earth’s surface moved about relative to one another. Volcanism also formed island arcs, as in the case of Hawaii. Most arc-associated volcanoes are found in the so-called ‘circle of fire’ which rings the Pacific Ocean and extends into the Atlantic, with one arc ringing the Caribbean and the other, the Scotia Sea. Many buildable islands do not belong to arcs and are simply rifts in lakes or rivers or extensions of continental land. They range in size from the small scale of the lie de la Cite in the River Seine in Paris to the continental scale of Australia, from tiny uninhabited islands of the Pacific to crowded Manhattan.
Historically, islands have provided ideal locations for houses and palatial structures which continue to inspire. The Roman Emperor Hadrian’s colonnaded theater provided both a means of escape and a source of entertainment. Mont-St-Michel provided a place of refuge. Isola Bella, on an island in Lake Maggiore in Italy, was constructed in the seventeenth century as a pleasure villa with garden parterres and a Baroque theatre dominating the hundred-foot- high terrace.
Islands are popular in Oriental cultures as sites for shrines and temples since their isolation can express spiritual detachment. Chinese and Japanese islands are often man-made features supporting pavilions in lakes and ponds. Tanah Lot, a temple in Bali, stands dramatically on a small island composed of a single massive rock. It is connected to a larger island by a low-lying sand flat which is filled with saltwater pools most of the time.
While island isolation has been used as a punishment, as in the case of Napoleon’s exile to the island of St Helena or the emprisonment of criminals at Alcatraz in California, a connection with water is normally one of the pleasures of island living. This connection is most beneficial when people are allowed to get as close to the water as possible. The most important design element of a waterside house is its relationship to the water; islands can provide a 360-degree view and offer many opportunities for tangible appreciation of the water’s edge.