Island Architecture – Influences and Styles Seen From the Ferry

Island architecture often draws on local landscapes and cultures. But the architectural styles and influences are far more diverse than might seem at first glance.

Whether it’s the clear circulation connection in plan between the trachoma check rooms, detection center, and exit at Ellis Island or the wings arranged like a scissor for the Central Post Office on Saint-Denis.


The Renaissance was a time of renewal, starting in Florence and spanning the 14th to 17th centuries. It is often described as the cultural bridge between Middle Ages and Modern history. Its main theme was a return to Classical values and learning. This can be seen in the geometric symmetry of Brunelleschi’s buildings, the ideal proportions of Da Vinci and the principals of perspective used by painters like Raphael.

At the same time, the status of artists changed. They started to be paid for their work, and this allowed them to experiment more freely. Artists such as sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti and painter Andrea Mategna created masterpieces that were less constrained by the demands of their patrons.

The architectural style of the Renaissance is still alive in many cities around the world, including the Ferry Building in San Francisco, with its sweeping archways and decorative detail. It is also visible in the Old United States Mint in Philadelphia, where decorative elements evoke Mediterranean design. The neo-classical architecture of the Prefecture in Saint-Denis is another example, as it was built to serve as a symbol of colonial power.


The Gothic isn’t just a style of architecture—it’s also a genre of art, literature, music and even film. In fact, it’s a bit of a catch-all term for anything influenced by medieval architecture and literature through the Romantic era.

Gothic architecture, from the mid-12th century to the 16th, ruled European construction and decoration for four centuries. It is distinguished by pointed (or ogive) arches, rib vaulting and stained glass. The pointed arch solved the problem of building tall structures without sacrificing interior space. Its elaborate ornamentation included grotesques and other decorative elements.

When traveling in Europe, you’ll see Gothic buildings everywhere—from the cathedrals and churches of northern France and England to the grand palaces of Germany and Austria. The Gothic Revival in the 19th century celebrated this distinctive medieval architectural style, reviving elements from the greatest Gothic cathedrals and palaces.

The first section of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum was designed by the architectural firm of Boring & Tilton and opened in 1901. Its design was chosen in a competition, with the winning entry referencing “the historicity of the site and of its surroundings.” The Museum’s architecture reflects the Island’s history and provides visitors with a front row seat to the sunsets on the Great South Bay.


After Roman Emperor Constantine proclaimed himself the new champion of Christianity in 313 AD, converting to the religion himself, Christian communities began to flourish. The young church required places to worship and as a result Byzantine architecture emerged.

The most notable characteristic of Byzantine architecture is its ecclesiastical focus. The church became a focal point for community life and art. The architecture reflected this with its emphasis on function over form.

Buildings were often arranged around free-standing churches with facilities such as refectories (for communal eating), baths, libraries and workshops. Monasteries also appeared. Some of the most impressive monasteries in the world are located on Mount Athos (from the mid-6th century CE onwards) and at Meteora in northwest Greece.

Another key feature of Byzantine architecture was the use of brick. The material became the standard building block for most buildings and was made from small bricks molded on all sides. They were laid with mortar composed of lime, sand and crushed brick or pebbles.

Another notable aspect of Byzantine architecture is its use of domes and vaults. Unlike in Roman times when domes were built using temporary supports, Byzantine domes and vaults were constructed from flat bricks which were positioned together without the need for a central column. The result was a more sophisticated structural system and a unique architectural style.


The island’s beautiful natural landscape and a focus on sustainable building practises have influenced architecture on the islands. The tropical climate and sweeping vistas encourage open, spacious designs with plenty of windows to maximise views. The tropical flora and fauna also play a key role, with native materials such as wood and stone being utilised for building elements.

While the prevailing architectural style on the island may be mid-century modern, the building’s designers have also taken inspiration from their Caribbean heritage and past whilst embracing the newer architectural and building ethos’s of sustainability and efficiency. The new Ferry Terminal building is designed to be both energy efficient and environmentally friendly with an extensive green roof, solar panels and the use of recycled and eco-friendly materials throughout.

As the ferry terminal is such a large project, the build has been undertaken in stages to allow for construction work on the island to continue even when the facility is closed. Boring & Tilton have created a design for the new island that combines a Beaux-Arts historicistic aesthetic with modern space-integrating industrial materials.

The design process for an architect is a creative journey resulting in many drafts that look nothing like the finished structure. This book lifts the lid on this process, presenting renderings alongside computer assisted drawings, beautiful watercolours, napkin sketches and detailed floor plans, many of which bear a striking resemblance to well-known buildings.