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Momus: Two forms of domestic architecture


Domestic architecture in Jamaica, as a recently published book has decided, is an architecture of retreat.[1] The author comes from a very wealthy family in Jamaica, so her conclusion is hardly surprising. That is, after all, what wealthy people do, they retreat. It is certainly what I would do with such generous dollops of cash. I don't think retreat covers Jamaican architecture more than it covers any architecture of the rich and famous.

There is a more interesting aspect to Jamaican architecture; it is what I shall call the architecture of Momus. Now Momus was something of a complicated and controversial hero-God in Greek mythology; he is often claimed as the god of poets and satirists. The son of Nyx, he personified scorn and ungrounded criticism and because of this was eventually banned from Olympus. He was obviously a bit of a pain in the proverbial. Whatever else he might have got up to, I think his criticism of the house and the design of man are worth considering.

The story goes as follows: once upon a time Athena, Poseidon and Hephaestus competed to see who could make the most useful object. Momus was asked to be the judge. Pallas Athena designed a house, which Momus criticised for the fact that it was rooted to the place where it was built and could not be moved to exchange a bad neighbour for a good one. Far from ungrounded criticism, this to me sounds like rather a good point. Momus can thus be claimed as the God of all chattel houses, caravans, tents and other mobile architecture. Poseidon made an ox, and Momus criticised that design because he would have put the horns on the chest where the animal was more robust. Well, fair enough, I personally think the horns would have got in the ox’s way bad time. Momus loses that one, for me at least. Now, Hephaestus made a man, which Momus criticised because he had made him without a window in the man’s chest to make his heart visible. Man, he decided, should have been made transparent, with a window to his soul. For a particularly good example see Maarten van Heemskerck’s picture of 1561 where to the right of the picture Hephaestus can be seen carrying a statue of his human being with a small grill mounted over the left breast. Another version is Hadrianus Junius’ Emblemata of 1565, which I have included here.

Jamaican architecture, more than any I have seen elsewhere, is an architecture that reads like a book, which consciously becomes the person it houses by trying to make the passer-by look into the dweller’s soul, which talks to the passer-by of convictions, beliefs, feelings and views. So Jamaican architecture is both generic and specific. Generic as an architecture of retreat, of escape, of fear and selfishness and more, and Momic when it speaks of beliefs, of anger of overcoming and of making do.


[1] Valerie Facey & Cookie Kinkead, Jamaican Style, A Celebration of Jamaican Design and Architecture,The Mill Press, Kingston ,1995.

The house is in the background. In the foreground you can see the man with the grill on his chest...


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