As the Cayman Islands keep pace with global trends and innovations, the growing discourse on ‘Cayman-style’ highlights a concern that what makes these islands uniquely Caymanian is in danger of being lost.
Words by John Doak and Natasha Were. Photos courtesy of John Doak Architecture and Heather Holt.
For architects, this presents a particular dilemma: to what extent should they embrace international influences and strive for ground-breaking designs, and how important is it to keep the local, or vernacular, architecture alive? Architect John Doak shares his thoughts with REAL LIFE.
When we talk about vernacular, local or traditional architecture, we are generally referring to the simple homes people built in the past, without formal architectural designs, rather than grand civic buildings or monuments.
Traditional abodes differed around the world and were shaped by environmental conditions, local knowledge and available materials. Thus, in the Alps, we find well-insulated wooden chalets and in the arid Mediterranean region, flat-roofed, whitewashed stone houses are common.
Here in Cayman, it’s the humble wattle and daub cottage that our forefathers built from wood and lime they sourced locally, with pitched roofs the heavy rain would run off, and porches to create shady seating areas to catch the breeze. Often they were raised on stilts, allowing storm surges to flow beneath them, with louvred shutters and windows for better airflow and sand gardens that addressed the lack of soil.
Traditional or vernacular architecture is part of our national identity – it ties us to our past, to where we came from. Because Hurricane Ivan destroyed many of our older buildings, we value them even more now and we are seeing a growing number of these older homes being restored and rehabilitated. Programmes such as the Governor’s Award show there is both an appreciation for, and a need to, preserve a ‘Cayman-style’ for our buildings.
Whilst there is certainly a place for traditionally designed cottages in Cayman, I don’t believe preserving ‘Cayman-style’ needs to be narrowly interpreted as replicating the designs and styles of our past.
Rather than ‘Cayman-style’, we should talk more broadly about a Caribbean or even tropical style – in other words, designs that are sympathetic to the climate, weather and outdoor lifestyle of people in hot and humid regions.
As architects, we first and foremost have to create buildings that meet our clients’ aspirations, budget and schedule, but as important is ensuring the building sits comfortably in its context – the natural environment, the climate, the neighbourhood.
It’s inevitable that there will be new influences, trends and technological advances that will make their way across borders and oceans. The key is in ‘adopting’ external influences, but ‘adapting’ them to be suitable to this place, Cayman. It’s about looking at what is being done elsewhere, and saying how can I make that work here?
For architects, this means examining the location and considering how best to orient a house so that it is not facing the blazing sun all day and so that it catches the breeze; building to withstand the force of hurricanes; assessing the best placement for outdoor spaces; using appropriate materials for the climate; making use of local vegetation in the landscaping, and adapting designs to the natural conditions.
Diversity is the spice of life. There will always be a place for a traditionally designed and built cottage, but equally the ‘new modern’ provides exciting design challenges and gives architects the freedom to reinvent the indoor-outdoor lifestyle that is so appropriate to our way of life.
The problem is when these designs are imported from offshore and simply dropped in place, with no regard to their surroundings. This is why it’s essential to use local architects – only they fully understand the context and thus can adapt designs to give them a little ‘Cayman-style’ and ensure they are at home in, and ‘of this place Cayman’.
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