A Sense of Place
Words by Lane Pettigrew. Photography by Derek Galon.
Practicing architecture in the Caribbean is not only a privilege but also an important social responsibility. The region has changed exponentially in the past few decades, shifting from a dependence on agriculture, shipping and light manufacturing to a heavy reliance on tourism – the implication being that almost everything we build in these fragile island environments creates a lasting impression, along with a sense of place and character. Be it a home or hotel, a shopping mall or a bank, the visual imagery of the building has added significance in an island environment because of the drama of its setting: never far from the sea, and nights that are clear and starlit. There is singular personality to each Caribbean country, with architecture highlighting the delight and difference between them. Whether at The Circus in Basseterre, The Quayside in St Barths, The Carenage in St Georges or Main Street in Roseau their distinct edifices serve to emphasise their locality.
The rich history of design and construction in the Caribbean is often ignored by today’s Caribbean architects who seem eager to show that they can match their North American and European counterparts in modern design, modern materials and forceful self expression; but is an aluminiumclad building with flush mirror glass panels on the edge of a Caribbean harbour responsible design? Imagine the city of Castries if the government buildings had been built along a promenade on the waterfront. Instead, a highway and car parks alienate residents, workers and tourists alike from the vitality of the harbour. This type of insensitive planning and design is destructive to the island, fostering an anonymous atmosphere and the unfortunate sense that you could be almost anywhere but the Caribbean.
Without promoting a historicist approach to all design, it is fair to say that the responsible use of natural materials and traditional Caribbean concepts and principles, when interpreted in a modern, measured way, can be both pleasing and innovative, while also respecting the visual legacy of the hearty men and women who settled this region. This means ‘people places’. A public square, a big tree, colourful gardens, a corner shop, a market stall, a vendor’s cart or a pile of coconuts on a sidewalk bench; this is the real Caribbean, and something architects and urban planners must help promote and maintain. There is no reason to pretend Bridge Street in Castries is downtown Miami, and doing so only undermines each island’s inimitable personality. Projects such as Sugar Beach and Cap Maison in St Lucia successfully showcase traditional style while embracing luxurious modern comfort, each in its own interpretation of a Caribbean stylistic genre.
Caribbean architecture, if you experience it in little villages like Calibishie in Dominica or capital cities like St Georges in Grenada, has a wonderful human sense about it. It is the use of traditional forms (dormers, shutters, mouldings, and decorative trim), as well as roof pitches, overhangs and window and door openings built to a human scale that provide a building’s users and passers-by basic protection from the elements and delightful optical style, but also a subconscious emotional security due to the harmony of scale. Likewise, the composition of building elements in a non-repetitive manner to give personality to structure and to shape compositions along streets and in communities is very important. With limited land on islands that is suitable for building, a concentration of activity in one area is a good thing – it creates a sense of community as people interact and socialise while going about their daily lives. Architects need to respect the scale of the town or city in which they are building in order to maintain this visual and emotional symmetry. Forever compromised by a six-story “concrete lump” opposite the cathedral on the town’s main square, sits the genteel and beautiful town of Soufrière. People places and human scale in the urban setting of a Caribbean village or city are crucial to creating community and economic activity as well as maintaining the quality of life for the residents and the positive impression of visitors.
Tapping into the Caribbean tradition using of bright, friendly pigments – a reflection of the kaleidoscope of colours found in our rich surroundings – is another lesson worth noting. Through a sensitive selection of building materials that soften the visual environment and deftly blend nature with man-made design we can embrace our built history. Colours, mixed and matched in unintended ways, bring a ‘realness’ to the backdrop against which we live. The Creole Village in Trois Islet is a recent development that has incorporated more than 20 colours – it looks vibrant, as if it has been there a hundred years; it is a happy place. Farther north, Amber Dune in Cabarete and Tamarind Hills in Antigua take a distinctly modern route in style but use traditional materials like coral stone and greenheart to infuse them with island spirit. These projects let you know you are in the Caribbean.
In the Tropics the weather plays a big part in design, and anyone who has experienced a hurricane, an earthquake or even a tropical rainstorm has to be careful not to overreact by making the next building a windowless bunker. While appreciating the every day forceful and destructive elements of nature that threaten Caribbean buildings, such as wind, salt, rain and a bleaching sun, and then responding in a creative and sensitive way is where the future lies; this can be done by using hardy and green materials such as stone, clay, bricks and plaster. In fact, certain woods often last longer than manufactured products. In Martinique’s villages, for example, the roofs of fish scale clay tile made in an island pottery not only last longer than their asphalt and metal counterparts, but look much nicer, just like they did 200 years ago.
A sense of place and respect for the traditional cultures of each destination is an important initial planning principle. Incorporating traditional symbols and time-honoured materials, even if interpreted in a modern way, are a deft nod to the past and a great sign for the future. Done well, architecture showcases the people of the Caribbean, its culture and its friendliness – like the traditional ‘welcoming arm’ staircase of yesteryears’ grand houses. It only takes a little care and creativity.
Creole Village in Trois Islet, Martinique.
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