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Business architecture



In its plural and simultaneous orientation to the West and to the anti-West, Jamaica as collective enterprise, appears always desperate to keep up appearances, like every other country really. A whole culture of business paraphernalia bears witness to the compelling glitter of the international theatre of material success. Buildings are first and foremost among them, together with cars and the visible signs of the latest personal technology and the preoccupied air of those who keep themselves looking busy in clothes and poses. Again, that is universal, expected and therefore largely invisible. But in Jamaica, the struggle has an urgency; it is full of a tense pathos. The success stories of that struggle bear witness to this. Jamaica being an impoverished country, or rather a country where a ubiquitous and time-honoured poverty has been allowed to spill over the visible traces of order and social constraint, exhibits beautifully, (if I may be excused such a word, used here purely in a phenomenological sense mind you) the well-known paradox underlying all poor countries: the ability to exhibit all the marvels of self-developed non-materialist values while at the same time displaying unashamedly its hunger for material success.

Dwelling on those who have achieved material success and those who have been able to hold on to it, there are all the signs of its temporal benefits: huge television dishes locked into American Satellites, strings of fat children and streets largely devoid of their noise in richer neighbourhoods, bleeping telephones at inopportune moments: signs on the walls of cinema’s that telephones aren’t allowed to be switched on. Kingston in its surge for development and its neglect of realities has become a city adapted for traffic while most cannot afford a car. They walk in danger of continuous insult, humiliation, mud and shiny metal. The paradox, as with all cities is that Kingston is built for traffic it cannot accomodate. Roads have become congested with “deportees” the name for cheap Japanese cars which are imported in huge quantities because they cannot be sold in Japan: they do not meet the new safety standards. Endless traffic accompanied by a symphony of claxons, beeping to say please, watch out, thank you and fuck off, each with its own sound.

Not unlike other cities and therefore unremarkable, Kingston comprises a spectrum of derivatives, the most potent of which, in that it affects the skyline and thus the mis-en-scene of daily life, is the architecture diluted from America and Europe. There is glass, there is the polish of business, the distended aesthetics of trying to please the greatest number, there is structural standardisation, there is the multiplication of space into the sky, there is an attempt at corporate image. But the buildings cannot reach as high or afford the shine. Jamaica is a dusty country, every building needs continual maintenance to fight the dust. The buildings become indices of an intention, their success maintained despite appearances to the contrary. Business architecture in Jamaica is about looking like a business and not doing business.

As far as commercial architecture is concerned there is the far more exciting world of “blind” commerce, which is far less self-conscious and as such far more penetrating. The explosion of the city of Kingston has created a commerce which is based around a domestic core. Streets which were residential before the urban explosion, have now become long ribbons of commercial activity. The domestic core is slowly swallowed up in extensions and cushioned by the debris of that commercial activity. As such commercial buildings in Kingston, usually seen as unsightly in that they do not answer to the aesthetics of order, carry much of their waste around with them. Not because they want to but because the infrastructure of order is not fully present. Many commercial buildings, by employing the countless army of artists to decorate their facades, exhibit a vigour wholly lacking in the derivative architecture of the official commercial centres such as New Kingston and the downtown waterline developments. Some buildings, like those on the corner of Washington Blvd and Waltham Park Road, are brilliantly colourful, they exhibit the chaotic pleasure of more urgent priorities: saving money on designers, the haste to complete, the wish to cut the middle man, the vigorous confidence of being able to do it themselves, creating large airless and lightless labyrinths displaying on the outside all the colourful aggression of selling. It may be imperfect architecture but it is enjoyable within the context of the street. Such buildings scream like Janis Joplin, while most “architects” are afraid even to be noticed, preferring the visual noise of their buildings to conform to “relaxing” musac their buildings breathe.

There are a few exceptions to this in the designs of architects like Pat Stanigar who have developed a colourful alternative to the drab conformism of established business architecture. But they are exceptions. What his architecture does, is play. Play in the most divine meaning of that term: it is creative and rigorous. It experiments with colour, with form with the internal definition of space. That last is something which is subject to immensely conservative forces. He circumnavigates that conservatism, by playing up to it and by exploding its value. Take away someone’s office, you take away that someone’s status; the space is the being. That is the conventional assumption. Stanigar has here sublimated that, giving each higher member of staff his or her office, wrapping the individual offices around a central court where the secretarial staff and others work in an open environment. He represents the status of these officeholders by facing the office with a house-front, which is, after all, the most immediate index of a person’s substance. But then, lo and behold, without trivialising that status, he reminds the officeholders and the people in the central court that there is an origin which must be remembered: poverty. Here in Jamaica, poverty is represented by the brightly coloured chattel house. Stanigar’s is no Pretty-Pictures-Post-Modernism, it is layers thick and rich in deposits. At the most immediate level, it is colourful and playful, at its deepest it is dark and worrying.




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