Sorrenti’s Serenity
Canadian Designer Develops an Architectural Vocabulary for the Bay Islands

May 1st, 2005
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] v3-5-Interview-Hal SorrentiHe is hard to miss as he whizzes by in his red Suzuki Samurai with a thatched roof. Yet in person he is quiet, reserved, always speaking with a composed, low voice. His uncombed gray hair also contradicts his boyish enthusiasm and the charm he can turn on in a Roatan minute.

Hal Sorrenti, 57, has had about eight careers: car rental business, fashion design, restaurant ownership and management, real estate development, manufacturing, and he even started a newspaper.

After graduating with a BA in Economics from University of Western Ontario, he launched himself into a multitude of ideas. He took little satisfaction in doing one thing well and went from career to career learning from one project to the next.

Most of his projects and enterprises had two things in common: they were challenging and provided yet another way of saving a dying community Sorrenti fell in love with. Over the course of 20 years, Sorrenti and his brother Jim managed to pull off a small miracle. They saved Port Stanley, a fishing village on the shores of Lake Erie that once was famous as the Coney Island of Canada, but fell into disrepair in the mid 20th century.

Sorrenti doesn’t watch television or read newspapers, and follows world events through month-old issues of MacLean’s Magazines. Still, he thinks that many of his ventures were sometimes 20 years ahead of their times. That very well could be, as few expected him to be so successful when he came to an unknown island called Roatan in 1994.

After 20 years in architecture, Sorrenti now has architectural offices in Canada, Roatan and is planning in opening one in Nicaragua. He has the reputation of being the best architect-designer on the Bay Islands and the projects just keep on coming in. Currently, he has 24 ongoing projects and, in the course of the interview, Sorrenti received a commission for yet another one.

Bay Islands Voice: Other than yourself, who has produced some of the better designs on Roatan?
Hal Sorrenti: That’s a dangerous question. I am very critical, but I have a very specific image of what I would like to see the island become in terms of development and look and we seem to be getting a very wide variety of things getting built – some of which I basically don’t feel is appropriate. It looks like it belongs in the US or elsewhere. (…) I think part of the problem is that Central American people tend to like anything that’s American. I think by doing that, they are ignoring their own architectural heritage. They would rather have, for example, a new strip mall than an old restored building with some shops in it. It’s unfortunate because I think you lose a sense of place by doing that.
B.I.V: Do you think it’s the people’s ambition to imitate something that is wealthier?
H.S: It’s the ambition and it’s also just a perceived thing. They perceive that new is better. Here, I am talking about renovation and restoration of older properties versus ripping them down and building new. And when building new, they tend to copy things that they’ve seen in the US.
B.I.V: There are several developers on the island. Do you see some of them doing things in terms of quality of design that’s better?
H.S: Certainly. I give David Sellon a lot of credit with what he’s doing with Lawson Rock. Of course, I have to say that because we’ve been involved in the design of Lawson Rock, but David, up to now, has the right approach in his development there.
B.I.V: I know John Edwards is importing most his design work from House + House Architects in San Francisco. What do you think about that type of design?
H.S: Let’s just say that I think some of it is very nice.
B.I.V: What do you think about the quality of Architecture schools in Honduras?
H.S: The architecture schools tend to focus what the building looks like from the outside. They’re making a statement architecturally on the exterior appearance, not paying enough attention to how it functions, how it feels. Is it comfortable? Does it work? I think some of the larger homes that are being built on the island right now, more ostentatious homes, are the same. They have columns, lots of details. One thing I find since I’ve moved here is that my social conscience has gone way up in terms of I don’t like to see the disparity between the very wealthy and the very poor. I think it’s in your face here and I don’t think that it’s a good thing. They build them on the main highway where everybody sees them. These poor guys are passing by them twice a day on the way to work and they’re only making Lps. 80 per day. I think Dale Jackson is a really nice guy and I like him, but I could kick him for building that house. It’s a gorgeous house, but it does not belong on Roatan. I’d like to tell him to take the columns out of the front and break them up and build an orphanage out of them.
B.I.V: Do you think you can build affordably and nicely for people who don’t have much money?
H.S: It’s something I’ve always played with, in terms of designing affordable housing. With Hurricane Mitch, we were asked to design some low-cost, but nice homes to be re-built in Politilly, which we did, free of charge. Once a year, we do try to do something pro-bono for the community. We did get involved on a small scale with the hospital to do something with one of the wards there.
B.I.V: How do you differ in designing from other architects in Honduras?
H.S: I think to design a home that will put a smile on your face when you walk in the front door, to the point where you don’t ever feel that you have to leave. That’s something that not many architects do, to pay attention to how the building feels when you’re in it. (…) I like to have fun in my work and in my life and I don’t like to take myself too seriously.
B.I.V: How do you address the concept of building quality here? Do you only work with builders that you trust?
H.S: There are builders that we do trust and actually quite a few of them. We tend to design to suit what skills are available on the island. For example, we do not design anything that we feel will be difficult for the local trades people to put together. Therefore, I think we tend to keep things simple with our designs, not very complex or highly-detailed in terms of fancy moldings.
B.I.V: Someone said that the invention of air conditioning ruined architecture.
H.S: We use very little air conditioning. I tell my clients that I would prefer to design a house where they don’t need air conditioning. Now, many of them don’t believe that this can be done. We have put air conditioning into the homes, but we’ve put it into homes where they’ve never put it on. I think with proper siting, proper cross-ventilation and use of ceiling fans, you could and probably should live without air conditioning. I also feel it’s unhealthy to come and go from air conditioned environments to tropical heat.
B.I.V: Who are some of the architects or designers who you aspire to or maybe that even shaped your design now or overall?
H.S: Probably the only specific architect that has had a great influence on me is probably Frank Lloyd Wright, but I have obviously been influenced by South East Asian architecture, the openness of it, the way it blends into the environment. The idea of courtyards bringing the outdoors in and taking the indoors out. I come from a very cold, Canadian climate where you sit inside and look through insulated glass to your surrounding landscape and I don’t like that. I want to be a part of the landscape and that’s what we try and do with our own designs.
B.I.V: Do your influences change on account on your travels?
H.S: Yes, my influences do change and I do like to travel. Probably I am a workaholic in that wherever I go and whatever I do, I am always observing architecture and how it works and how it feels.
B.I.V: When I look at your surroundings, I would say that they’re not Spartan, but they are minimalist.
H.S: I find that the longer I live here, the more minimal I am becoming in terms of what I need to live. That is partially due to the social conscience rising, what I have learned from the locals in that you can be happy with less. That we don’t need what we have in the first world. And I am practicing that by living it here and I like it. I think that possessions tend to become a burden. (…) I’ve been brought up in first world, had enough of it and realized that I don’t need all the toys to be a very happy person and I feel very happy living in this environment with less.
B.I.V: Architecture became your focus in the 80s, early 90s. Do you think you will make a shift and possibly try something else?
H.S: I think design will always be an interest, but it is not my last career. Creative writing is something I want to try. Resort management, or ownership at some point. There’s several things I want to do yet.
B.I.V: Do want to do this here?
H.S: Let’s say, within 16 degrees of the equator, because I do like the tropics. I like island environments, although I also like mainland Central America. And I like living in a different culture. I am learning.
B.I.V: Is there one building that you did here that you really like or have an affinity for?
H.S: There’s several, but two come to mind: Fuego del Mar in Polytilly Bight that I really like. And I recently completed a home in Lawson Rock called Todo Rojo and the third one is my next one which I would take with me.
B.I.V: Why those two?
H.S: Those were two homes where the client gave me the opportunity to give the total look in the architecture, the interior, the landscape, everything. They have a very tranquil feel about them. I’ve often said that serenity is something I am after in my designs. I don’t know whether it’s maybe because it rhymes with Sorrenti, I don’t know. But, it’s a feeling that I like to have.
B.I.V: Do you think this island grew to a point where it could support several architects?
H.S: I think it could, sure. I hope it can because frankly, I don’t know how long I want to be physically here. I might keep an office here, but I think that some of the growth has been a little chaotic here and I am not really enjoying it as much as I did initially. The traffic, the people, the cruise ships coming in.
B.I.V: There are certain things that I think kind of reflect kind of who you are. For example, you drive that little Suzuki with the thatched roof. For me, that says this is who I am. That “I could be driving a more expensive car, but it’s about function and it’s about style.”
H.S: It’s about fun too. I like to have fun in my work and in my life and I don’t like to take myself too seriously. I don’t take cars seriously. If it gets me from A to B and it makes people smile on the way, then that’s great. [/private]

Comments (0)

Comments are closed.