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Losing the Plot

Words by Steve Mouzon and Juliet Austin

Architecture is a powerful storyteller. Making spaces into places, local narratives are woven into the foundations, creating built landscapes that are alive and constantly evolving. Prior to World War II, you would have been hard pushed to find an architecture anywhere on earth so well-attuned to regional conditions, climate and culture as in the Caribbean. However, with the dawn of new technology, an increase in social and financial mobility and the power of tourism, the voice of the Caribbean vernacular has all but been silenced, relegating its architecture to a stylised pastiche.

Increasingly, Caribbean buildings are being torn down and replaced with construction that could be from anywhere rather than somewhere. Today, a new building in most Caribbean cities might pass for one in any number of US states. Walk through many of the region’s cities, and you will notice two things: most of the old buildings are falling down, and the new ones look like they were lifted straight out of Orlando’s sprawl. These uninspired structures have no business being in the Caribbean. Yet perhaps the most mind-numbing aspect of this homogeneity is the monumental disconnect that has lead to an increasing loss of regional identity.

THE BUCK STOPS HERE

Modernist architects of the early twentieth century advocated for an international architectural style not formed by any particular place, but rather by an industrial aesthetic. They promoted ‘factory made’ architecture: clean lines and sparse surfaces. New materials and technology certainly lead to a revolution of ‘better’ buildings but not to the evolution of better places. With the architect assuming the role of authority, the living tradition of island wisdom was sidelined.

Concurrently, the construction industry’s attempt to remodel itself, rejected locally sourced materials and adopted a similar industrial paradigm. Locally-available materials suited to climatic conditions and environmental factors were eschewed in favour of prefabricated items, signalling the end of individuality. No matter the differences in geographical characteristics, the unique demands for shelter and comfort dictated by temperature, topography or history. No matter the patterns of colonial rule or cultural influences. Contemporary architecture embraced a stylised Caribbean ‘look’ driven by the desire to encapsulate the ‘pleasure islands’ as a global icon. ‘Cookie-cutter’ architecture was born, flaunting Victorian gingerbread and a bright palette of colours so often mistakenly recognised as the Caribbean vernacular.

“IN THIS BRIGHT FUTURE, YOU CAN’T FORGET YOUR PAST…”

Architect, Frank Lloyd Wright once commented that, “Without an architecture of our own, we have no soul in our civilisation.” Fortunately, some areas have avoided the fate of placeless architecture – some by being too poor in recent years to pull down their buildings and rebuild, others due to dedicated preservation efforts.

Architect, Frank Lloyd Wright once commented that, “Without an architecture of our own, we have no soul in our civilisation.” Fortunately, some areas have avoided the fate of placeless architecture – some by being too poor in recent years to pull down their buildings and rebuild, others due to dedicated preservation efforts.One such place is Dunmore Town on Harbour Island, The Bahamas. Situated just north of Eleuthera, Harbour Island looks east across the vast Atlantic, with almost no other lands between itself and Europe. There, Bahamian cottages are compact in plan, framed with porches looking toward the water to catch the sea breezes. Slender chamfered porch posts are connected with benches, enabling the porch to seat twice as many people as it otherwise might. Lit and ventilated with dormer windows, almost every cottage has an upper level tucked under the roof. Windows feature solid shutters to protect against hurricane winds, with the open shutters increasing the horizontal proportion of the dormers and accentuating the low sheltering feel of the cottages.

 

Similarly, Grand Cayman’s Pedro St. James is the finest building in the Cayman Islands. Long sitting in ruins, it was meticulously restored in recent decades from old photographs showing its ancient condition. Heavy masonry piers ring the lower level, while upper level columns are built of chamfered wood. Deep wraparound verandahs catch breezes coming from all directions making it possible to sit comfortably in their shade even on the hottest afternoon. Storing the cool of the night in the stone walls, louvers protect against the absorption of heat during the day.

In Trinidad de Cuba, economic austerity means that little has changed since the Cuban Revolution of the late 1950’s. Consequently, the historic centre is a treasure trove of heavy masonry courtyard buildings laid out in classic Spanish colonial fashion. Walls are earth tones and ochres above a more darkly-toned base, with windows and shutters in saturated greens or blues. Often the largest living spaces, heavily planted courtyards generate shade and are embellished with fountains which cool the air.

LOOKING INTO THE SEEDS OF TIME

It would seem, therefore, that paradise is not all lost. With architecture returning to its roots, with designs that speak of people and places, there seems a growing willingness to adopt traditional wisdom in order to evolve contemporary structures shaped, as in times past, by climate, culture and locale. With history hiding in plain site, the endless anthology of Caribbean design stands ready to be reclaimed in favour of a more authentic telling.


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