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An important aspect of commercial architecture is the architecture of dreams with which tourist operators try to embalm their clients, to preserve them within a state of tension between near satisfaction and the eternal promise of more.

In Port Antonio, on the North Eastern Coast of Jamaica, lives a baroness, a German lady, who describes herself as an architect. She is. Her architecture is the stuff that dreams are made of. It is completely disrespectful and no doubt revels in the fact.

When I met her we were both the guests of Colonel Harris of the Maroons. I had been invited by a colleague working on the Rio Grande River Valley Project to consult on a project to build a museum for the maroons. The invitation was quite informal. We drove through the thick wild growth of Portland on a road where the tarmac had eroded away to form large canyons of marl and steep promontories of tarmac. We arrived and entered Col. Harris’ house. As the leader of the maroons, he was a stately man. Fond of his heritage and his memories and he sat in his chair painting a picture of the past so as to lay the spiritual foundation for the museum. We whiled away the time.

When the Baroness arrived a peculiar urgency overtook the afternoon. She came with ideas and plans: A village was a nice idea, an authentic maroon village, where we could have authentic Maroons doing authentically Maroon-like things. And in the cliff near the river, we could build a cave. “You know, like they would have lived in in Africa. I have a book” she said, “Baustile, I will show you what I mean.” We left the Colonel to his musings not much later and were invited by the Baroness to come to her Hotel, where she would show us the book. Her hotel is called the Jamaica Palace. She designed it herself: “Palladio you know”. The hotel comprises a number of pavilions, painted a hellish white, to contrast with the deep greens of the rest of Portland and is set in a small bay without a beach. The vocabulary on the outside is a neutered classicism, happily devoid of all its subtleties: straight round columns and abstracted simple pediments without any sense of correct proportions. It is a lifeless ensemble and accurately representative of what she is capable of.

Inside the dark and cold interior, next to an artificially created water fall, we were shown her book. “Here”, she said, “That is the cave we could build, you know and make it look African, with people in it, doing things.” The thingness of their commanded doings, spoke volumes: an authentic reconstruction of primitiveness, a slave to tourism. The cave she showed me was in fact the wonderful treasury of Atreus, with its pseudo-vaulted chamber of carefully disguised corbels. The horror of it receded in the pleasure of her wonderful brashness. There is legend attached to this lady.

Her first design was “The Castle”, not far from the Jamaica Palace, a rich eclectic fantasy stuck out on a promontory, facing both the sea and the land. Two faces. It was obviously designed with the blind finger technique choosing willy-nilly fragments from her wonderful book Baustile. The Castel boasts French turrets, Germanic elements, a Mansard roof, English bits and pieces, all of them compiled on a vaguely symmetrical frame, and painted a hellish white.

Her own house, commanding the village below it, is a Pierre Charreau meets Richard Meyer meets a very powerful client who enthusiastically stripped all the beautiful subtlety both would have been capable of, leaving only a hellishly white box with a liberal and not undramatic use of glass bricks. It speaks luxury, garish luxury. But these were all mere finger exercises to the building that I want to get at.

The arguments used by the Baroness are both simple and cogent. “I want people to come to my hotel and spend money. This will also benefit Port Antonio. And people who want to come to Port Antonio will help my business.” It is the socialist face of capitalism if that is not too brazen a contradiction in terms.

Next to the Courthouse, at the edge of the centre of town overlooking the sweep that is the bay of Port Antonio, she has erected a shopping centre. “Elizabethan and a bit Jacobean.” It is marvellous and wild. The whole complex occupies a more or less trapezoid plot of land, sticking up higher over the town to one side but tempered by the hill on the other which leads towards Titchfield School. The unity of the block has been disguised by being divided vertically into a number of narrow tall facades, each of them treated differently. The most exposed facades become cancerous in their exuberant growth of detail: frothy Gothick profiles in thick creamy concrete, which will dilapidate at a horribly fast rate. Another facade is covered with anachronistic paintings, beautifully executed by enthusiastic local artists. In fact the building is an example of Ruskin’s work aesthetic. All of the workmen were proud to be working on her a monument.

The interior reflects the effect of exterior, recreating the labyrinthine quality of historical accumulation, stratification and fragmentation. The enormous restaurant is accessed by a tiny staircase. It is an authentic building, not of the period it tries to recreate, but of the nostalgia which will make it the wonder of Port Antonio for a year or two, until the cheap materials start working against the architect's aims. The fact that it was absurdly anachronistic bothers no-one but the fastidious. If that building, as an authentic fantasy could never have been built in Jamaica at the time when the style was relevant, who cares? This is a different kind of historical insertion: there is no attempt at disguise. It is the Las Vegas ethic of giving people what they want. And I will tell you what they want.

Diary, Monday 2 December 1996: Port Antonio, it rained. We saw the attempt by the baroness at the creation of her packaged history in Port Antonio, the large and shoddy shopping centre next to the courthouse. I enjoyed parts but felt very disappointed at the mediocrity of the materials and some of the forms.. Some of the facades are great and showed the building as a catalyst of Ruskinian enjoyment. Workmen loving what they do, making something beautiful, with their hands. Asking the workmen about the building they all, unanimously said how they were enjoying working on this building. There was an obvious pride in what they were doing. Nevertheless the building is a revolting exercise in vulgarity, a particularly horrible and revolting vulgarity. The materials will all deteriorate within two years. All that work, all that excitement, turning into the millionth confirmation that nothing lasts. Maybe it needn’t, except that the building will remain, not as a testimony to the enjoyment of its creation but as an emblem of the deterioration of everything within Jamaica.

And that is unfair. For it needn’t. There is choice, and the power to will.

The last time I saw the building was in the summer of 1999. It was as I had feared. Many of the shops had left. The bar had closed. The paintings were fading; the bad materials were showing up their badness. It was fast becoming a lost moment in history. What was lost was the hard work, wasted, lost was also the respect that the work, this creative work, had given the artists. It is gone. All that is left is a monument of an all-pervasive and apparently inescapable neglect. I never saw the Baroness again.


The Building Yard of the Shopping Centre in Port Antonio, note the production line of classical columns
The shopping centre under construction
The shopping centre under construction
The shopping centre under construction
The other side after completion


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