Architecture as a political act: aRCHITECTURE AS AN hEROIC dEED

The most heroic moments in the process of fragmentation and dialectical opposition described above are also provided by buildings. Architecture in Kingston is often used as a vehicle of ideological expression: each home becomes a contract of allegiance, an icon of political, utopian or religious desire ranging from the hedonistic to the anti-materialist. The bible, the writings of Marcus Garvey and other texts are instruments of political alignment: quotations are painted over entrances; wall-paintings and graffiti regulate the metabolism of people going in and out. The urban poet Mr. Wesley until recently lived in a tree between a shantytown and the ministry of Finance around Hero’s Circle. The tree is a safe place. It was hung with long cardboard strips on which Mr. Wesley had written his poetry, full of the pathos of racial division, of violence and incomprehensible justification.


Similarly a food stand at the side of the road will advertise its politics, its religion and, as an after thought, its wares. One particularly favourite example did not survive long enough for me to find an opportunity photograph it. It was a very modest blue painted structure selling individual cigarettes and warm beer. On the front was written in an evocative and economical patois: Me vex dem kill Malcolm X. Another hut has written on its door a simple Don’t Mess with Me.


The political nature of cultural expression in Jamaica is reflected in the fact that it is the birthplace of a religion whose inspiration is to some extent political. Its messiah is an Ethiopian king in military costume whose divinity is derived from the miraculous act of maintaining his country’s age-old independence from European domination. Rastafarianism has a powerful if anti-monumental architectural language devoted to the issue of respect. Frequently built with cheap materials, this architecture is an arte povere; awkward in plan, utopian in its communality and strange in form it has a visual and poetic strength which renders its target speechless. These informal manifestos, not confined to the Rastafarians of course, contrast sharply with the institutionalised monuments to heroes and independence, most of which suffer a cynical neglect.


An informal architecture has arisen which attempts to rehearse the unifying philosophy of Bob Marley, an architecture of fearless independence. One example of this architecture is a Rastafarian “museum”. Along one wall is a declaration of independence, over the entrance is implied a solution to the whole problem of Kingston which finds wide support: Divide the land fairly and let people get on with it. It is true that people who feel their land securely under their own feet become visible proof of the creative energy in Jamaica. Portmore, for instance, a dormitory suburb of Kingston, was intended as a low-cost housing development of dreary starter units regimented into the pattern of maximum returns. The minute people started settling there, these concrete and cheerless boxes underwent a wonderful metamorphosis: the boxes became castles of an extraordinary vitality.


It is a commonplace that architecture reflects daily habits of people according to the channels and obstacles by which it regulates movement and exchange. I would like to turn that commonplace around and formulate a question to end with: What happens when architecture becomes the only vehicle for physical security? When the fear of violence has changed domestic habit and subsequently changed the architecture enclosing that domesticity, how does the resulting architecture then begin to affect society? Surely it will provide security at the expense of the very life it tries to secure? I would like to end with an apocryphal but widely circulated conversation reported between a prisoner and an Uptown visitor: Prisoner: I am better off than you are. Visitor: How so? Prisoner: I shall be out of my cage in just three years.(8)