Our Homes, Our Castles

Caribbean architecture is a blend of the old world and the new. Mark Raymond examines the connections

One of the most visible expressions of the diverse and complex culture and history of the Caribbean is its architecture. In the 1980s Thames and Hudson published an excellent pictorial study of the architecture of the region entitled Caribbean Style. It was put together by a group of architects and others from Guadeloupe and is a fascinating compendium of images illustrating the diversity of Caribbean domestic architecture. But where did it all come from and how did it come together? How did an architecture which appears so unique and so engaging evolve?

Many Caribbean towns were established according to the Spanish ordinances known as the Laws of the Indies, which explained how to establish settlements in the New World. These plans were not based on existing cities in Europe but were idealised projections of how cities could be ordered and established from their inception, responsive to climate, health and — equally important to their designers — the maintaining of order and defence.

It has been suggested that the rectilinear grid which characterises the plans of many cities in the Caribbean and South and Central America was based on what the Spaniards discovered when they conquered Montezuma’s capital Tenochtitlan, on the site of today’s Mexico City. “On arriving at the place where the new settlement is to be founded . . . a plan for the site is to be made, dividing it into squares, streets, and building lots, using cord and ruler, beginning with the main square from which streets are to run to the gates and principal roads.” The cabildo (town hall), and in a seaport, the customs house and arsenal, should be around the main plaza also, but sited in a way which “did not embarrass the church.”

While these Laws may have provided us with some very well-ordered city plans, nobody could have envisioned the scale of development which would come to pass, as Gillian Tindall illustrates in her essay Existential Cities published in The Architecture of the British Empire. “The qualities that make a site desirable as a place of settlement initially are those which make it unsuitable or difficult for continued expansion. Many of the fortified trading posts have expanded relentlessly nevertheless, bursting their old corsets of walls, jumping rivers, invading and colonising unsuitable swamps, climbing up and over the inhospitable hillsides that were once their natural boundaries.”

The growth of the sugar industry and the economic importance of the Caribbean as a trading zone led to the migration of peoples from all over the world to participate in the fruits of colonisation. The imperial British, Spanish, French and Dutch presence imposed large-scale civic structures, reflecting European architectural thinking of the time. Gillian Tindall also writes about what guided the baroque and often eclectic style of the flamboyant larger houses built by those who were profiting from colonial exploitation: “Sometimes having escaped more modest circumstances at home, they saw themselves as an aristocracy and built themselves homes which proclaimed them to be among the foliage of some wilder park land, colonial equivalents of dukes and earls at home.”

In Trinidad, houses were often raised off the ground, and had a verandah facing the street providing a “threshold” between the public domain of the street and sidewalk, and the shadier private interior of the house. Internal planning often comprised suites of rooms all linked without halls or lobbies; this is curiously a feature of many 18th and 19th century European apartment buildings. Fretwork was a means of adding a decorative element. Without immediate access to the technological resources of Europe, house builders had to be inventive and resourceful and improvise techniques which would provide them with the required “effects”.

One of the principal resources available locally was timber. Within the woodworking and joinery skills of the Caribbean are techniques, jargon and details which can be traced back to shipbuilding skills. In another curious exchange of material technology, ships travelling to the West Indies from Europe would often load up with London stock bricks or slate as ballast on their outward journeys. Their ballast cargo would be discharged at the destination, to be replaced with coffee, cocoa, tobacco, sugar and other valuable cargo. This phenomenon may explain the presence of so much brick-building in towns such as St George’s in Grenada. Eventually, islands rich with clay began to produce their own blocks and materials.

From the early days, ideas of decor and style were fed by catalogues for products from Europe, and later the United States, upon which many of the wealthier inhabitants of the islands relied for their luxuries. This “cargo culture” extended to architectural “pattern books” for entire houses and architectural elements which could not be fabricated or procured within the region.

Thus began a culture of importation which continues today, with many relying on the plethora of North American house-plan magazines purchased alongside diapers and vegetables in supermarkets, offering the most mediocre, bland and inappropriate suburban American housing solutions. This has produced a dramatic change in the way that we live and look at our built environment. In Trinidad, for example, the dense, compressed spaces of Westmoorings reject a rich architectural heritage, preferring the hollow and expedient masque of exclusivity to the quality of space which brought us the generous and resplendent structures of St Clair and the mixed uses of charming areas such as Newtown.

Style and taste are now defined by cable television and a bizarre longing to emulate the suburban horror in which many North Americans are forced to live. Taste and stylistic preoccupations today seem to have little or no regard for the climate or cultural context or the gifts of our craftsmen and builders. Concrete heat traps with garish industrial roofing replace the delicate and simple but sophisticated structures of the past, and the sober and subtle ochres, reds and browns which characterised many Caribbean towns and cities are replaced with garish pastels and “Disneyesque” designs. Verandahs have disappeared, reduced to never-used picture “balconies” leading from air-conditioned, hermetically-sealed bedrooms or relegated to paved patios surrounding barbecue pits in gardens to the rear of the houses. As Gillian Tindall puts it: “In the refinements of behaviour as in architecture, everything was left to the caprices of the individual. In the immigrant society, memories growing dim, there was no guiding taste.”

Before Caribbean Style, Jack Bethelot produced, with Martine Gaumé, the more academic Kaz Antije: Jan Mour Ka Rété (The Caribbean Popular Dwelling). This work — sadly out of print — delves more deeply into the formation and typology of Caribbean domestic architecture. Berthelot and Gaumé studied different types of simple domestic houses in different islands and made a series of comparative studies. This work represented the first serious widely available study of Caribbean architecture which did not simply address the larger plantation houses or the grand colonial civic buildings. It documents details such as the change-over from plant materials for roofing to bricks and then to tiles in the French-speaking islands, while the English-speaking islands moved from slate to corrugated galvanised iron. Berthelot and Gaumé also note that “symmetrical façades”, with the main door located at the centre, are typical of houses on islands of English colonisation. On all other islands, façades are generally punctuated by a series of openings for doors and windows placed at equal intervals.

In a search for an authentic and valid architectural language, some architects have looked towards history for inspiration and sustenance. John Newel Lewis’s Ajoupa traced an unconvincing, albeit beautifully illustrated, historical line from Carib and Arawak dwellings and settlements to the present day.

Colin Laird’s article Trinidad Town House; or the rise and decline of a domestic architecture, published in Caribbean Quarterly in 1954, also cites pre-Columbian precedents as the foundation of our architectural culture, but Laird develops this to provide a fascinating and articulate analysis of the evolution and principles of the design and construction of houses in Trinidad.

This essay is filled with fine observations such as the following concerning the gallery and the evolution of the application of wrought iron into the application of timber fretwork: “The Gallery was discovered. A natural choice, yet only in a few cases are the galleries and verandahs an integral part of the house such as is seen in Spain and Venice. They appear in the majority of cases to be an afterthought. Still perhaps a hang-over from the Gallery-less early estate houses. There is a possible functional reason for this. With these galleries came the wrought-iron rails, brackets, posts, spandrels, very quickly replaced by the cast-iron work of Glasgow that was sweeping across the world to all the colonies . . . it was twenty years before the Trinidadian had time to digest this new feature and interpret it into the cheaper wood . . . this filigree work became the main motif in the external façades.”

With imported ideas dominating the architecture and culture of the Caribbean, there is growing interest in the influence of African architecture. At an architectural conference in Guadeloupe, Rencontres Architecture Caribbeannes, at Pointe-à-Pitre in November 1997, there was much discussion about the African influence in the architecture of the Caribbean. People of African descent make up the majority of the population of the Caribbean, yet the culture of Africa is not immediately visible in the architecture.

There are, however, significant relationships between Africa and contemporary Caribbean architectural culture which have simply not been widely researched. In his fascinating essay “Architecture of syncretism; Caribbean symbolism” published on the web at Periferia (http://www.periferia.org/), Orestes del Castillo examines the belief systems of Afro-Caribbean people and the profound influence this has had on urban and architectural culture in spite of “the cruel erasure of African culture” by the colonists and slavers.

In Caribbean Style, Berthelot and Gaumé identify in more humble dwellings and in very old simple structures a reliance on age-old techniques using natural materials, and note in some old houses on the island of Marie-Galante the technique used to construct walls from braided twigs daubed with mud, “originally brought to the islands from Africa.”

The absence of any examples of pre-Columbian built culture and the influx of people from all over the world make the Caribbean an engaging place to look at architecture. Modern architecture in all its myriad forms finds a Caribbean face. In Trinidad, the playful and manneristic work of Turton Associates, established by the late Roger Turton; Pat Stanigar’s work in Jamaica; and the work of the young architects Marc Jalet and Emile Romney (Pile et Face) in Guadeloupe all endeavour to create architecture that is unmistakably Caribbean, fully responsive to culture, climate, and context without resorting to the feeble kitsch offerings of more commercial styles. ν

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.