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The Spirit of this Caribbean Place

rl_winter_2011_page_64_image_0001Architecture communicates a society's culture, traditions and aspirations without words. Its impression shapes us as we go about our daily lives, impacting our environment and future in ways not always fully appreciated. When done properly, it possesses three attributes: reliability, utility and beauty. When done poorly, it lacks purpose, pollutes our visual environment and fails to withstand the ravages of time, becoming an eyesore on our landscape and the collective soul of society.

Sustainable architecture in the Caribbean, like elsewhere, requires that designers respond to a particular set of social, cultural and environmental conditions; the hope being that through appropriateness and sensitivity to the environment, buildings will come to represent the community. Function must fuse with fashion, the utilitarian with the aesthetic, but in a manner that is receptive to the nuances of modern island living.


In the Caribbean, we are fortunate to be able to draw upon the wisdom inherent in vernacular styles — the socalled ‘living traditions’ passed down through generations and formed by, and in response to, a particular place. How poetic to learn the lessons of our forefathers; to use the louvered shutters, deep verandahs, inner courtyards and raised homes so well suited to both climate and environment. Once synonymous with the region, these designs, so apt to the Caribbean environment, sadly lost favour in the early twentieth century when modern architects championed an international style that promoted ‘factory made’ architecture. Comprised of clean lines and sparse surfaces, this invasive, bland style ousted living traditions, resulting in a loss of the spirit of Caribbean places and the spread of the globalised architecture of ‘anywhere’.

rl_winter_2011_page_64_image_0004Centuries of hegemonic colonialism and slavery, combined with migration of peoples between islands for economic reasons, have created a melting pot of cultures and formed styles unique to particular islands as well as a vernacular architecture that defines the region as a whole. Yet the desire for modern amenities (air conditioning, elevators, parking and computer networks) combined with the value of the property where heritage buildings lie often makes them a target for redevelopment… and not always in ways sensitive to the Caribbean sensibility.

Sustainable development requires a variety of tactics to achieve culturally and environmentally appropriate design solutions. While it might be nice for tourists to see a man growing bananas next to his wooden house with a donkey tied out front, many locals aspire to grow, develop and have more comfortable lives. Architecture in sensitive heritage areas must, therefore, respond to the desires of the community, while realising the goals of a socially responsible and environmentally responsive design, suitable for its geography. By combining locally sourced materials, generally best suited to the climate, and tapping into local construction skills and island wisdom, one creates a building process that achieves appropriate design solutions while contributing to the fabric of the society of which it becomes a part.

rl_winter_2011_page_64_image_0002Pressures for development in prominent centres throughout the region must be balanced not only through sensitive emulation of style, proportion and height, but through development and reuse of existing heritage structures whenever feasible. With limited legislative and funding support from governments for preservation and restoration, we risk cultural homogenisation in a rapidly shrinking world where architecture becomes solely a technical or aesthetic exercise. With every demolished structure replaced anew, we further compromise the environment through carbon released into the air from manufacturing and shipping, the erection or production of concrete and the cutting of old growth forests.

There are many wonderful regional building styles that can inform us with their shapes, materials, arrangements, decorations, concepts for heating and cooling, etc. Where possible, investment in heritage preservation in balance with new development will lead to greater community self esteem and cultural identity, limit negative impacts on the environment, and provide long-term income generation for the local population.

rl_winter_2011_page_64_image_0003While typically mild, the Caribbean climate can also be unforgiving, subject to lashing rains, hurricane-force winds, the cruel sun and intense humidity. There are green lessons inherent in traditional structures, dominated as they were by designs that offered protection against the elements. Close-cropped for strength in hurricane winds, main eaves gave way to larger, lightly supported secondary eaves designed to blow away in fierce storms, leaving main structures intact. Louvered walls pivoted for shaded views or closed between chamfered posts for a more weather-tight condition in a storm, while time-tested shutters provided similar advantages and protection. A common sight in many rural areas, stilts prevented flooding, allowed airflow to cool the building and provided a shady space to do laundry. Air could flow freely through verandahs and into buildings, affording comfortable living without air conditioning and encouraging outdoor living on porches, galleries and courtyards.

With increased pressure on the environment, the time is ripe for architects, designers and denizens of the Caribbean to reclaim living traditions and merge them with the benefits intrinsic in green technology (solar panels, wind power, ground source heat pumps, on-site waste management and green roofs and walls). In doing so, one can take advantage of an indoor/outdoor lifestyle while reducing one’s environmental footprint and incurring energy savings.

Architecture is the legacy we leave behind which represents our society, culture and traditions. It is a delicate act, balancing the wisdom of the past, the technological advances of the present and the hopes and desires of a twenty-first Caribbean. The time has come to pay the piper, to appreciate architecture for its multifaceted impact, to give it its due… before the piper comes a-calling.

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