Style and Nomenclature in Jamaica[1]


And the Lord God took the man, and put him in the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it..(...).. And out of the ground the lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. (Genesis 2; 15, 19)


A name is a monument to our purpose. This article is about the idea of style and the purpose of nomenclature. I shall present a very simple argument: Let’s honour our contract with Genesis 2. I believe that a lively tradition in description and categorisation of Architectural form in and beyond the Caribbean will help us do two things. On the one hand it will help us to put in place a strategy to establish the intellectual foundations for an architecture relevant to the Caribbean. And on the other it will give us the instruments to develop what is equally valuable: a Caribbean perspective on the world of architecture.

            This article was conceived as a talk to the Georgian society of Jamaica. In preparing the lecture it was rather difficult to know how to behave towards a “Georgian” Society in Jamaica. I had to presume that such a society rather likes the word “Georgian” and feels, in a certain happy way, quite proprietorial towards the name and the style it represents. The purpose of such a society, I imagined, is to relate the English name Georgian, as a style, to the Jamaican context in an effort to make some sense of the swallowing actions of time and the predatory behaviour of urban development.

            Such a name keeps the memory of an English colonial past close and derives, in some way, comfort from that proximity. A Georgian society in Jamaica seeks to preserve the instances of a Georgian style in Jamaica. Whatever its activities, the significant thing about the society within the context of this article is its name and the relationship of that name to Jamaica.

            The article is divided into two parts: The first deals with the past with reference to the present and the second deals with the present with reference to the future.


Part I; Bringing the past in to the present: the point of naming things

Consider the vagueness of the word Georgian to denote a style; and consider the complex relationship between Jamaica and its Colonial past. With respect to both those considerations the position of a Georgian Society in Jamaica is not without its problems. In an important article by Pat Green in The Gleaner on the subject of Georgian Architecture, she deals with some of the problems of the word Georgian to denote a particular style. She shows that the word Georgian can at best be seen as a generic term, an umbrella, which covers a multitude of different idioms. Thus there is Wrenaissance Classicism, Palladian Classicism, Neo Classicism, even Dutch Classicism, Gothic Revival, and now Free-style or Post-Modern Classicism and Jamaican Georgian and Neo-Jamaican Georgian. It is all very complex and all of it somehow Georgian. The word Georgian in the Jamaican context, is an attenuated word, little related to its etymological predecessor in England. It has come, quite simply to mean “old and quaint” for those who like such things and “old and colonial” for those who do not. The old and the past play a very strange part in Jamaica.


The pleasures of history: the pronouncement of style

In his theses on historical materialism, the writer Walter Benjamin conjured up a forceful image of time: The angel of history, he wrote, with its wings stretched out behind him, bellowing in the wind of progress, flies with his back towards the future, watching us as the wreckage of the past piles high at his feet.

            For a historian and archaeologist there is a peculiar pleasure in treading through that wreckage, rebuilding the ruins in our minds. In order to make sense of what we see, we give each element a name. We try to fix the origin of that element in place and somewhere within the layers of time, hoping to reconstruct the intricate structure of causes and effects that moulded the form of our buildings. In this way the topography of the past is described with an ever increasing precision. By grouping the elements according to compelling criteria we see patterns emerge: certain features appear always to coexist-exist with others; instead of arbitrary collisions, there seem to be principles of change at work, pervading whole epochs, revealing similarities and differences which encourage us to generalise and invent something called character: The character of a decade, the character of a place, of a building, the genius loci.

            When the elements we have described and named appear in a constellation with which we have become increasingly familiar and which allow us to form expectations, we call that constellation of elements a style. In this sense style is the product of a way of doing things, or a way of responding to a situation and a demand.

            To distinguish these styles reveals a wealth of variations and careful detailing, which a generic word such as Georgian cannot but fail to grasp adequately. In this narrow sense, the word Georgian is almost counterproductive as it piles the wreckage high at the angel’s feet, without having sorted it for the purposes of recycling.

            The ability to distinguish between subtle differences in the styles of the past helps us to complete our understanding of our place in the world, our place in the complex matrix of mutually supportive mechanisms. This has a direct bearing on practice. To understand something fully is to have the widest possible conception of its uses from every possible perspective. Not just your own. In this sense a full understanding is logically impossible.[2] But we can go a long way. An understanding of a style completes itself in a certain sequence. There is form, there is the intention behind the form, its purpose and then there is the use of that form to achieve purpose. It would be simple if that is where things would be allowed to stop.

            But things never stop where you want them to. There is value to contend with, the value, which, over time, has accreted to that form, has altered the purpose, has forged a new context. Slowly the understanding of a style completes itself beyond the original intentions of the people who conceived and dwelt within it and expands well into the contingent and accidental.

            The understanding of this complexity, I would like to argue, describes the difference between formalism, where the form is forcefully removed from the full matrix of established relations and goes off on its own adventure; and design according to principle, where choices are made on the basis of the fullest possible understanding of the practical consequences of any form, division, segregation, integration, penetration and decoration.

            With regard to this last proposition it is possible to say that: Just as the name Georgian becomes counterproductive by being too general, so is the word Georgian within the Jamaican context too narrowly focused on one particular relationship.


Naming in Jamaica: the minor thesis

The problem of style with regard to Jamaica is a deep one, it speaks of cultural collision and creolisation, of the precarious coexistence of race and wildly disparate socio-economic groups. Jamaica is a complicated synthesis in progress. A country which has yet to settle after the upheavals of slavery, emancipation, colonisation, independence and the adjustment to global force. No wonder its past is viewed with mixed feelings. At the same time it is a fantastically powerful nation in its ambition and cultural achievement. So what does one do with the naming of styles in such a situation?

            The name Jamaica Georgian pays tribute to a local synthesis of which the Georgian elements are echoes of a colonial force from a temperate northern climate which settled in an equatorial tropical climate for the purposes of making profit. Within this agenda, the colonisers were forced to take account of the local topography and an occasionally violent climate.

            At the same time and because of the social repercussions of their methods of production, they instituted highly controlled working conditions. On this basis, not forgetting the fact that profit was generally channelled back “home”, the colonisers had to formulate new dwelling and building habits. One clear difference was that they settled Jamaica quite “lightly” and their home in England rather more “heavily”.

            There is also Jamaica-Victorian, where houses are called so, obviously because they are in Jamaica, but also because they have features which are distantly reminiscent of some feature prevalent in Victorian England.

            The unfortunate effect of this kind of name is that lovely houses, completely unique in themselves and kaleidoscopic in their visual wealth, are somehow impoverished by paying tribute in their name to a single feature they appropriated, made their own and subsequently re-interpreted to their own purpose. The bay window is a good example. In many Jamaican houses the bay window plays a prominent role. But its form and its function are unique to Jamaica. The oriel has a squat and wide quality, its absidial form competes with the whole volume of the house on almost equal terms and punctuates the veranda tit for tat. This is very different to the Victorian bay window, which is an elegant appendage, but generally subordinate in the scheme of the facade.

            What is worse is that such referential names invite comparison, not on their own terms but on the terms of the “supposed” original. That makes the value of the Jamaican building relative to what it is being compared to. This is never a good starting point. Comparison generally favours the original and gives it a primacy which sets the minor thesis at a natural disadvantage.

            Within the Jamaican context that would be a shame, as the wealth of image and meaning in a Jamaican building come precisely from those physical characteristics, which do not belong to the words Victorian or Georgian. The quality of Caribbean architecture generally and Jamaican architecture in particular, resides in the relationship of the building to the continuously inhabited environment, the use of materials -especially spolia-. The depth of its homeliness is proportional to the size of the houses: the proportionality of an outdoor domesticity. Only this morning I drove past a lady admonishing her two school-bound children while she sat on a well-worn stone underneath a majestic mango tree. This outdoor domesticity does not make Caribbean houses modest just because they can be small, it merely reduces the built fabric to the centre of a much larger and more generous domestic setting. That is a luxury of climate. Then there is the relationship between the inside and the outside of the building, the grouping of dwellings into communities at various scales. These are physical characteristics that do not fit into the conventional parameters of architectural style and yet they constitute what defines much of Jamaican building.

            And why is it that Africa does not feature in this naming? The fact is that there is an extraordinary ignorance in the Caribbean with regard to African architecture. The time has come to put this right. No more sweeping generalisations and false certainties about what is African and what is not. We need people to make systematic comparisons between houses in West Africa and here in Jamaica. We need people to go out there to look. Not only that, we need further systematised work with respect to the European influences on Jamaican Architecture. Jamaican Bungalows in their ordering of spaces, their structure and decoration begin, perhaps, by appearing English, but soon, on a closer inspection that Englishness recedes dramatically. At the same time the African-ness is equally elusive.

            Fretwork, for example, is contentiously posited as “an African thing”. That is both true and wildly inaccurate. Fretwork is a universal thing, one could almost say fundamental to the human condition. Wherever wood prevailed as an important building material, there is something akin to fretwork. The English, the Europeans and later the Americans applied fretwork to their houses in the early 19th century because Swiss chalets, Chinese pagodas and Gothick tracery had become fashionable during the 18th century. It is that connection one can see in the houses of Black river for instance. The placing of the fretwork in Jamaica conforms easily to the dictates of the Swiss chalet as translated to the English Bungalow. The decorative pattern in that fretwork is different however, it often speaks an easy language of graceful play that certainly shares a spirit with African decorative motifs.


History as smoke

In order to break the cultural primacy and dictatorship of “the original” it might help us to realise that the simple, linear tracing of influence is a nonsense. History has thankfully pointed out how impossibly complex history is, how chaotically it behaves. The concept of “the Original” is, at best, political. One must not forget that the Bungalow is itself a transformation of an Indian word denoting an Indian house type, yet again appropriated by the English and exported world-wide only to be re-worked wherever the model settled.[3] At the same time the proportions of many Jamaican bungalows have the efficient size of an African dwelling. Life goes on outside.

            If influence is highly chaotic and its movements as complex as smoke blown into the air and the concept of The Original increasingly meaningless, what do we do? Why do we bother to give primacy to the word Georgian? Well one piece of advice would be not to pay to much heed to origins in the naming of styles. And there are good precedents for this.


The culture of colonial appropriation and synthesis distinguishes not only English architecture but also the English language. The English language is, like most other languages, a melting pot of acquired fragments which fuse together to create a rich and varied landscape of meaning. The word Georgian, for instance, stands for the English appropriation and consequent digestion of, among other things, Palladio’s language of forms. But it might be interesting to mention that George I was a Hanovarian, that is, a German. His origins are in fact commemorated in the North Coast Parish of that name. The English blend of architectural idiom broadly called “Georgian”, looked to the Italian Renaissance, to Holland and France and to Rome, to music and mathematics as well as to its own rich traditions. Jamaican Georgian stands for the Jamaican interpretation of that English synthesis. Because of the peculiar nature of Jamaican society, however, it became a synthesis unique to itself.

            Let’s face it, it does not really matter what this Jamaican style is named. What is more important is that it is seen as special. Calling it Jamaican Georgian would certainly not be a problem if by that name we do not make the mistake of seeing Jamaican Georgian only in relation to its supposed model. That would entail an impoverishment, because it would force us to miss its extraordinary wealth.


If the full picture of Georgian architecture is mosaic and complex, it becomes positively alarming when we get to Victorian architecture. Victorian England was stylistically homogenous only in a very restricted sense. There were the opportunities of new technologies which set a new pattern for the making of buildings. There was also the peculiar set of contentious issues against which the architects from that time formulated their attitude to design. The most significant of these, was in fact this vexed issue of style. The architectural scene in Victorian England was often described as a battle of styles. In that sense Victorian architecture is as varied, rich and heterogeneous as is possible. Because of its concern with style, Victorian architecture subsisted on a very mixed diet of historical styles: there was Perpendicular, Early English, Middle English, Italian Gothic, French Gothic, German Gothic, Flemish, Queen Anne, Wrenaissance, Beaux-Art Classical, Italianate not to mention the more exotic Chinoiseries as well as the Ottoman and Moghul references and not forgetting the various forms of mixtures and eclecticisms. Nevertheless, just as the treatment of the small house in Jamaica is recognisably Jamaican, so, for all this stylistic pluralism, is the treatment of all those styles recognisably Victorian. One can both identify the reference to Gothic or Romanesque quite easily in Victorian Architecture and at the same time see that it is authentic Victorian and not, for example, authentic Gothic. The difference between Victorian Gothic and Genuine Gothic, resides primarily in the disparity of technologies employed in the making of the buildings. As a result Victorian Architecture tended to be thinner and crisper in its details. Many felt that to be a loss.


There are few buildings in Jamaica which have that Victorian exuberance and love of pasty ornament which characterises the most florid of English, Continental or American Examples. Jamaica’s 19th century and early 20th century architecture is not defined by exuberance or monumentality. It is defined by its comfortable relation to the landscape, by its scale, by the wonderful and delicate patina which speaks of the endless cycle of belated maintenance and quick wear. This quality has everything to do with Jamaica’s history. Not only did much of the profit made in Jamaica flow directly back to England, lessening investment here, but the island is prone to natural disaster. The combination of these qualities have changed the character of the architecture in its migration from England and Africa. The unique character of Jamaican architecture resides in the technology employed in building and its behaviour within its setting.

            The de Montevin Inn in Port Antonio is an exception, It is as exuberant as they come. Even so, it is more related to the French flavoured 19th century architecture of New Orleans than any English model. At the same time some of the Banks in Down Town Kingston also show a wonderful 19th century Beaux-Art or Spanish Colonial exuberance, much of it not at all English in character. Against this background, what does the word Victorian really mean? Never make the mistake of labelling French 19th century architecture as Victorian. Queen Victoria certainly did not rule France! There, perhaps, lies a hint.


What I am arguing for is the loving description of buildings using a nomenclature which reflects the full wealth of much Jamaican architecture, and gently removes itself from names which emphasise a tenuous, or at least narrow connection to a supposed original. In this, Jamaica could learn a useful lesson from the English. In their historical enthusiasm and reluctance to pay too much heed to the cult of origins, especially when these origins were foreign, the English named their appropriated and re-interpreted styles after their own Kings and Queens. Thus you get Tudor and Elizabethan, Jacobean and William and Mary, Queen Anne and, of Course, Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian.

            America has learnt that lesson, it has similarly neutralised its names. It now calls it colonial architecture Colonial, not Georgian. In a more general act of independence, they even introduced their own, carefully differentiated spelling of words and names to distinguish their dialect from English proper. With such a clear separation from their colonial past they have, paradoxically, learnt to appreciate and love it. The clear separation they imposed means that they can remember the war of independence with pride and still enjoy the inheritance from the erstwhile enemy. Naming is an important political and cultural opportunity, it sets up clear boundaries between mine and thine, it defines a society, and it should not be taken lightly. In fact, the categories developed for the Inventory Pilot Project by Tony Aarons and Ruth Lowe go some way to address the problem, but not yet far enough. They propose Amerindian, Hispanic Jamaican, Anglo-Jamaican and Afro Jamaican and Modern Jamaican. To begin with I would shed Jamaican and take that for granted. Using the word Jamaican in this context surely means that you don’t feel yourself to be quite at the centre of your own world. In a country boasting the slogan “Out of many, one people,” do we want to distinguish our styles on racial or ethnic grounds at all?

            Another important principle in naming things is that names often start out as being derogatory and sarcastic. The name Gothic was after all coined as an insult to the style of architecture it has stuck to. The Goths were a vigorous and destructive force who, together with the original Vandals, overran the Roman Empire, leaving little of it standing. Baroque was a similarly nasty name used for a particularly corrupt form of pearl.[4] Now these names are the stalwarts of Culture with a capital C.

            Because of the complex synthesis that Jamaica represents I think that, in a formal sense, the best policy is to remain as abstract as possible for as long as possible. Let me explain that. I would suggest that the only clear category in terms of time and race is Amerindian. We could leave that. For the rest I would set up a framework starting with arbitrary temporal units: 17th century, 18th century, 19th century and 20th century. The closer we get to our own time the more microscopic our subdivision: The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries can be subdivided into early middle and late; the nineteenth should be divided into quarters perhaps, and the twentieth century into decades. By dating the buildings more accurately we shall be able to devise names for the patterns that will start to emerge. But we have to be careful. Those patterns overlap. Apart from that, labels such as Modern and Post Modern, actually have a rather intentional character and co-exist with other movements, both in time and place.

            It is probably best to start with the more neutral and more inclusive names of decades: architecture of the twenties, thirties, forties. etc. Not only do these numeric names achieve a certain magic when seen in the context of the events that they bind: independence for the sixties, for example, or the turbulent seventies etc., but they allow generic grouping of a plurality of intentional movements, without precluding the possibility of further refinement. Eventually, as the public becomes more aware of its surroundings it will generate its own, more accurate names. That is when the fun starts. Imagine the possibilities for the word Bhutu or Butu architecture!

            One must not forget that stylistic pluralism is a direct product of archaeological and colonial exploration and exploitation. Furthermore stylistic pluralism is the gift of an open society where different voices can be heard arguing robustly. With such a framework it would be possible to place African influence more solidly within the system and with greater self-evidence.

            African influence on Jamaican Architecture can be seen in a number of ways. To name them will present us with opportunities to enrich the concept of architectural style by including aspects of built form which are rarely thought of in relation to style, but which would make the very concept of style less frivolous. The social arrangement of houses for instance; at a smaller scale there is the arrangement of spaces according to a social structure and domestic habit. There is the attitude to what constitutes one’s house, the ambivalence of inside and outside, the fact that the house in Jamaica is frequently no more than a treasure house while the real life goes on around it: beneath trees along paths and in shady spots. There is the aspect of “impressionist” craftsmanship and the treatment of detail. There is the aspect of maintenance. These qualities make up a very natural response to the issue of climate and economic organisation. In this sense I would say that the Jamaican architecture of the past deserves to claim its own, independent references of style.


Part II: Style and Vagabondage

We have looked at the styles of the past and we have suggested a framework for the naming of the fragments of our Jamaican heritage. But there is another issue that needs out attention and which cannot be seen in isolation. It is our desire for an own style with which we try to confront and seek our distinctive place in the world. The two issues intersect at the point where both of them tell us something about ourselves at this moment in time. But the concept of style is a vagabond. Not only is it nomadic and refuses to settle down, but it leaves a trail of destruction behind it. In talking of style we have to know what we are dealing with, we have to have a clear and refined conception as to how the concept of style works on our minds.

            Let’s get one thing straight: no one escapes having a style. Style is imposed on people and things by those who search through the wreckage; it is the raw material of judgement. A style is that body of recognisable outward signs, which, accurately or inaccurately, allows other people to prepare a judgement. This judgement is based on two things, firstly the appearance of things and secondly the expectations these appearances raise in the mind of the beholder through his or her experience. A style is thus an inescapable product of being there. It is a word that stands for a set of relationships between the visible and the invisible. These relationships achieve a measure of stability when people form the habit of behaving  --and of interpreting that behaviour-- in well determined ways.

            Style in architecture is in that sense subject to an anthropomorphism, a prosopopoela, an abstract concept made human and made to answer for itself.[5] The product it refers to becomes, when named, a prosthesis of mankind, part of our substance, in the same sense that Job’s substance included so many sheep.

            In Architecture it should be possible to say that style is the product of the issues and attitudes which the architect and the client engage to arrive at a satisfactory design. Not everyone would agree with that. That is because they do not like what the word style has come to mean. We have an intense concern with the look of things. That is because we know how useful the look of things is. This pragmatism has caused critics to condemn style as speaking the language of mercurial fashion and hollow form. If, however, we were to understand the word style in the unshackled way I have just given, the answer to the question of how to develop a proper Caribbean architecture would simply be: engage the issues that should preoccupy the architect building for the Caribbean.

            From this attitude would emerge a critical regionalism which focuses on the prominent concerns of climate, available materials, concern for the environment and the sensitive exploitation of the landscape. But it cannot stop there. There is so much good architecture. Good architecture transcends any narrow criterion. Good architecture is conceptually large and generous and can take many forms. It grows from an awareness of the many issues and intricate mechanisms at work in society. It plays with them. This conceptual largesse and this playing gives society the room and the desire to fill the building out in its own attempt to rise to its purpose which is to give each person a place.

Such an architecture would try to enhance and expand the social and cultural institutions, which the people of the Caribbean have developed over time and hold dear. Things could be that simple. Such a reduction of preoccupations would create an unselfconscious architecture, a style emerging from a concern with everything important in architecture, except style itself.

            Indeed, things would be that simple were it not for two factors that we have to take into consideration.


1.      The first factor is that the Caribbean, like every other region, is perpetually coming to terms with the continuously evolving view of its own history and its own place within the region and the globe. This makes the desire for self-esteem urgent. We have dealt with the relationship between the present and the past in the first part of this essay. Here we are dealing with the relationship between the present and the future. Because of the apparent resonance of the past, many feel that the desired self-esteem could lie hidden within a Gnostic conception of style. That may be true. But to what extent can we manipulate judgement?


2.      That question leads us to the second factor. It is possible to manipulate one’s style to one’s own advantage. But it is a tricky business. A style can be further defined as a body of physical characteristics or actions, which are somehow linked to the cultural values of a particular group or society. How does that link establish itself? Well, the physical characteristics, having been caused, themselves gradually complete themselves by filling out with meaning. That meaning constitutes the spiritual relationship between man and the objects around him. A style collects value. That value becomes subject to an economy of exchange to achieve a wealth. That wealth can be described in terms of reputation, self-esteem or national esteem or any kind of emotion.


Having a style of one’s own thus becomes a physical affirmation of one’s aspirations and one's sense of belonging. When someone is paid the compliment of having style it is the measure of their success. In this way style becomes more than just the product of our unselfconscious engagement with the issue of comfortable subsistence. Style can become an agent of ambition.

            Susan Sontag has written something rather significant on the subject, she says: Awareness of style (...) in a work of art has emerged (...) only at certain historical moments - as a front behind which other issues, ultimately ethical and political are being debated. The notion of "having a style" is one of the solutions that has the crises that have threatened old ideas of truth, of moral rectitude, and also of naturalness. Susan Sontag, On Style.



The possibility of manipulating appearances has caused people to believe that it is possible to separate form and content. That is why the world style has come to get such a bad name, it is felt that the concept has been emptied out, leaving only a shell. In acquiring an outward form, it is believed possible to disguise an inner lack or predilection. This is not true. The medium is the message. The word caricature has been invented to distinguish and describe the would-be’s from the real thing. The would-be’s can easily be distinguished from the real thing. But the would-be’s have developed their own peculiar style. The would-be’s fill out their shells with their own fullness, the pathos of wanting to belong to an other. This phenomenon has reduced the looks industry to a comedy of errors, a house of Frankenstein monsters.

            Paradoxically, it is the intense awareness of style, the intimate knowledge and pathological analysis of the look of things that has tried to show the concept of style as hollow. That awareness has supposedly lifted the veil and has made us appear so self-conscious, so obsessed with external appearances, and therefore, so empty. I shall come back to this.

            At this moment there would appear to be two ways of achieving a style in architecture.


1.      The one, a passive, inevitable and inescapable product of habit and the self-absorbed concern with every issue except style itself.


2.      And the other: the active ingredient in the elaborate ritual by which people try to anticipate and control the judgements of others in the exchange of value for esteem.


The first seeks out a design issue, which it meets with a functionally and socially appropriate form. The other feeds on the settled connection between the issue resolved and the look that has resulted from it by taking them for granted, seeking instead the social and cultural values that have accreted to the form through the contagious nature of proximity and habit. The first will use an arch in a window because it is a structurally appropriate choice, the other because such windows speak of value and function.

            It would be naive to see one approach to style as right and the other as wrong. I would even venture to say that the separation of these two approaches of style can only provide a theoretical model for the sake of argument, which has little basis in reality. Nevertheless their division is seen to be real and their artificial opposition frequently gives rise to fierce Lilliputian argument. In the end they constitute a phase in a dialectic, a double-edged event in the same process of change.

            To resolve this complexity we can say quite simply that style has both a backward looking and a forward looking aspect. Awareness of style comes first as a realisation of being looked at and judged, and then, through analysis, is put to good advantage. Having been the word spoken, the word itself begins to speak. That is the nature of tradition. Only by understanding the fluid nature of the relationship between these two aspects of style can we decide the issue with reference to the Caribbean.



In the collision of Europe and Africa here in Jamaica, a style emerged which was the product of a unique, if difficult fusion. This fusion began rupturing during the twentieth century with the advent of modern building methods and a new aesthetics of brash and narrowly conceived functionalism according to the dictates of block and concrete, not to mention the invasive model of Miami. In the earlier style, we see an architecture constructed from the contingencies of time and place: imported brick, local woods, specific methods of production and everything configured to the wind, the sun, the rain, and the type of ground and domestic habits that one finds here in Jamaica. That was colonial. Now that process of adaptation is repeating itself with reference to new materials and new images of modernity and what is desirable. But for some reason it is proving a difficult synthesis. In this sense Barry Rattray’s column on dream houses might be seen as a harrowing reflection of popular aesthetics in Jamaica. But then for many Jamaicans, the traditional bungalow is a harrowing image of a horrible and tortuous history best forgotten and neglected. Where do we go?

            The desire to have a style to represent one’s sense of self, one’s belonging, in short one’s identity, becomes urgent in societies which have undergone and are still adjusting to considerable social upheavals. Having a style, which is indicative of being part of a tradition, provides a measure of comfort, of belonging and thus promotes a sense of stability. But one has to be careful. The temptation is to give primacy to “the look of things” for what they have come to mean rather than the reason they came to get that look. That temptation relates appearances to their current value rather than to their cause. To live exclusively for the favourable judgement of others is to cease living for oneself. And so people have ceased to live because of their hysterical concern with the external, the absolute relativism. It pervades society from the boastful “dream houses”, which understand comfort to mean the show of luxury to the detriment of its experience, to the ubiquitous oval sunglasses, worn even in the dark lecture rooms of the CSA. These are the measures of desperation: They Cry Respect.[6]

            This concern with the acquisition of a style has given rise to two inappropriate manifestations of style: Firstly a traumatic “third world modernism”. And secondly a neo-colonial desire for feisty add-on loggias with their classical columns and insert Palladian windows in the middle, a pastel-coloured-pastiche-historicism. The one camp wants to belong to “The Modern World” -whatever that is-  and the other extreme wants to live in a past which never was, except perhaps in the dull dreams of unimaginative obscuritanists. Both have a sharp eye on the doings of the Jones’ next door. The clarity of our desires has given rise to a confusion as to what architecture is really about: living the good life, rather than merely appearing to live it.

            So should we do the obvious and reject a concern with style? It has at various points in history been very fashionable to ignore style as unimportant, to deny it a place. And so styles have emerged which have tried very hard to deny stylishness, to look “natural”. That is their style. Instead of allowing a passive style to form through the addressing of other concerns, an active stylelessness is no more than another acute form of stylishness. People who “do not care about their appearance” and tell you so, are inverted peacocks. They are proud as a peacock to look like a plucked chicken. Rebellion and even anarchy insists on its uniform, it demands a mark of belonging to a set of ideas, and thereby becomes itself what it purports to be rebelling against: a form of society with norms and rules. In this sense the reaction of youth is no more than a conformance to the pervasive social mechanism that silently obeys the strictures of style.

            Therefore, when certain groups of people complain of not having a style of their own or not having an identity, they are actually saying something less dramatic but all the more traumatic. What they are really saying is that the style they have (everyone has a style, one cannot escape having a style) is not the one that expresses their desires and aspirations, but -and this is a rather dire judgement- therefore must necessarily express what they really are.

            The issue of modernity as a desired icon is incisive in this debate. Modernity attempted to break with a past in a violent way, but in fact usually only managed to do so with the petulance and immaturity of an unruly teenager. It could only come up with simple oppositions. Like a donkey being pulled, it did not have the imagination to do anything but go the other direction. But it worked!

            You see, everything we notice about the past is moulded by its possible bearing on the present. In this sense we always misinterpret the styles of the past, because it is impossible to interpret their significance without reference to ourselves. Whatever that means for our proper understanding of the past, it also means that our analysis of past styles and our awareness of our own style are two sides of the same coin. The remembering of the past, although useful in my ways, also leads us into temptation: it makes us self-conscious about style. How will others judge us? And this awareness is constrictive. Being self-conscious narrows our field of vision to that which we are being self-conscious about.

            The answer to the issue of style, then , is not to force ourselves to stop being self-conscious, but to deepen our understanding of this thing, so that it is no longer an isolated focus but becomes part of a more sophisticated matrix of concerns. By deepening our understanding, we relate things to a deeper conception of their use. It is only when we broaden our frame of reference and search out the connections --the causes and consequences of form-- that we achieve an awareness of the wealth of issues that need to be taken into account in good judgement.

            Once this debilitating constraint of awareness is fully incorporated into a broad frame of reference it will settle into a wider strategy to achieve one’s goals as an individual or as a society. A thorough understanding of style will not lead to the rejection of style as something that should be suppressed or ignored but to the positioning of style as a legitimate concern within the whole spectrum of issues engaged in the design process. That way it will stop dictating design and wait until the issues are addressed: the causes and consequences of form.


Looking hungrily at the undesirable

New styles have often been born from critical inquiries into accepted norms. During the nineteenth century architecture was very formal. That is, concerned with form and what that form had come to mean in social and cultural terms. By building Gothic churches, people felt that they would be bringing back the values that such architecture embodied: true and humble Christianity. They were rather too successful: they got their Gothic churches and with it a Victorian morality so restrictive that it exploded. Of course the Gothic churches did not cause Victorian Morality, rather they were both products of a deeper social strategy: a critique of society. During the late twentieth century we are again building a style-for-style’s-sake kind of architecture. It is the indication that we are desperately searching. That is great. During the nineteenth and early twentieth century more and more architects had discovered the delights of investigating structural possibilities and expressing these in their design. They looked at housing and revolutionised the possibilities of the house. These concerns had been thought vulgar at first, an architect should not lower himself to the level of engineer and architects should build public buildings, nor mere houses. But, thankfully, what an older generation condemns as vulgar, a younger generation investigates and discovers that what is vulgar can, if looked at carefully, be used to arrive at something rather fine and subtle and.. noble. Today it is not just structure and housing which are the main concern, although they have not gone away; our special problems are our relationship to the megalopolis, to urbanisation and the environment. These are fabulous challenges and architects should meet them imaginatively.

            Good Artists see the world and turn it in on itself. Their job is to re-present the world. That means to present it again to our senses with a new description of reality, to reveal perhaps those aspects of the world which have not yet received a name or those parts of it that are of concern. In their analysis of the world, artists inevitably have to confront and deal with what is bad in it. Otherwise their art becomes merely escapist and they pass the opportunity for critique to others. Badness is the sign for a desire to change. As such their creativity comes from collision.

            Make no mistake about it, good Architecture is an Art. Some of the most beautiful creations architects and builders have conceived are within the area of low-cost housing. Art is the exploration of the everyday for its immense wealth. The great scientists were artists, they had learnt to explore the everyday, the swinging of a chandelier, the falling of an apple, the explanation of a dream.

            I do not want to romanticise poverty, but neither do I want to romanticise my desire not to romanticise it. In poverty, indeed in any form of adversity, there is an important creative principle at work: the making do, the need for improvisation; necessity being the mother of invention and all that. An extraordinary creativity is unleashed within the attempt to cope with life on a day to day basis. I was recently shown an article on the women of the Soninké, who live in Mauritania.[7] These women decorate their houses while their husbands are away for long periods of time trying to earn a living. Their waiting is transformed into a celebration of homecoming: an inescapable vice becomes a virtue.

            Nowhere is this intense creativity more visible than in the spolia that make up the patched houses of Jones Town, Riverton City, Hellshire beach and elsewhere. Colours, signs and words combine to make the houses of people into statements. Rastafarian Architecture, for instance, is an architecture of robust protest. This architecture, the geometries it obeys and the social realities it encompasses, is rich in allusion and creative possibilities.

            The most poetic thinking happens at the interface between the undesirable products of our culture and the analysis into what they tell us about ourselves. Our relationship to these objects, all around us, give us a bitter-sweet spiritual nourishment. The glory of Jamaican popular architecture lies in its ambition. Its wealth lies in the way it meets cultural collision. We should be lovingly categorising the visual details of that collision, making subtle distinctions by naming the extraordinary creations of people in a country making do. We should give those creations permanence not in monuments, but in the name.

            With regard to a style of our own, there is really a very simple solution. We need to become aware of what there is around us, and aware of the complex web of relations that ties everything, however chaotically, to everything else. For it is only that super consciousness which allows each event and each phenomena its place in the whole, thereby allowing it to develop its full use. Above all we must learn to enjoy the plurality of the world. By having developed an awareness of  what is around us we need act with reference to that awareness and combine it with a deep rooted and saturated sense of equality that will allow us to be completely unapologetic and at the same time un-abrasive about claiming a place within the world. For that is what society is about, giving everyone a place.

            The most sensible thought on the matter comes from the most urgent concern at this present moment: the environment.

            In schools children are taught the slogan: Think global, act local. It means that whatever we do in any one place should incorporate a full conception of the world. Paradoxically that means being particularly sensitive to the peculiarities of the locality you are building in, and using those peculiarities to your own advantage. For that they need to be given a name, which us back to Genesis 2, 15-19.


[1] A much shorter version of this article was first presented as a lecture to the Georgian Society on the 28th October 1997. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the society for their kindness and hospitality.


[2] cf. Nietzsche’s concept of perspectivism

[3] Philip Davies, "Bungalows and Hill stations," The Splendours of the Raj, British Architecture in India 1660-1947, London 1985, pp. 103-132.


[4] My lovely old Universal dictionary still defines the word Baroque as follows: “n.  a corrupt form of renaissance architecture and art.” How judgemental. I love the Baroque!

[5] a rhetorical figure whereby abstract things are personified.

[6] This is the title of a World Bank Report on Urban Poverty and Violence, which I interpreted to indicate that the nature of much violence has to do with a need for self-respect relative to one’s surroundings.

[7] Antoinette Delafin, “Le Diabandé, ou l’art de décorer sa maison.” Balafon, Autumn, 1997, pp. 68-74