A Caribbean Climate

Colision, a metaphor

Let us say, purely for the purposes of description, that a car-crash is a violent collision in which two distinct objects are forced to blur their separate existence by their speed and direction in the unwilling attempt to become one. The result is a loud noise, a meshing of metal, plastic, rubber and flesh and an infinite string of causes. As a metaphor this will do for the historic collision of America with Africa, Europe and Asia, set in the Caribbean.[1] Each continent ended up with bits of the other sticking to them and some rose in indignation at the mess.  The Americas and the Caribbean in particular, were transformed beyond recognition after Columbus’ ship was discovered by the Arawaks, who failed to tell him he wasn’t in the place he thought he was. The greatest instance of serendipity the world has ever known. Jamaican architecture, which will be the main focus of this article, is the direct product of this multicultural collision. The migration and co-habitation of forms, symbols and methods of construction has produced a vernacular architecture of extraordinary power.

            To stick with the analogy of the car-crash for a little longer, we could go on to say that the awkward blend of colliding objects is painful and undesired, while the consequences are often traumatic and resonant. However, the scene of an accident is often the locus for real moral opportunity, sometimes lost in selfishness, fear and cunning of course, but often manifest in heroism and gallantry. Jamaican buildings exhibit the full moral scope of architectural behaviour: there are grand and arrogant buildings, selfish buildings, but also generous and beneficent buildings, heroic and gallant buildings, modest and humble buildings. But the special quality of great Jamaican architecture does not, like its counterparts elsewhere, reside in great size or monumental impact. On the contrary, even the ambitiously named "great-house" in Jamaica is relatively modest in scale compared to the understated but outlandishly over-sized "country houses" in England. Most of the buildings constructed in Jamaica before the Great Earthquake of 1907 touched the earth lightly. The colonial government actively discouraged investment in monumental structures,[2] while the absentee landlords preferred to spend their money on lavish houses back "home". The most outlandish of them all was Fonthill abbey in wiltshire by Willkiam Beckford. And yet Jamaican architecture has something very special. So if not in size, bombastic monumentality and rich display, where does the special quality of Jamaican architecture reside?

To understand this we have to understand what happens after a monumental collision of cultures demands settlement. We see the friction of anger, the gestures and distances of arrogance and imposed servitude. We see such things in the placing of houses relative to each other. The great house, for instance, was often turned slightly away from the hustle and bustle of the sugar works and set upon a hill to oversee all that it owns with its lordship of the eye. Cherry Gardens Great House and Mona Great House are both wonderful examples. The overseer’s house on the other hand was bang on top of things, to control.

We see misunderstanding and confusion in the chaos of motives that drive people to profit, adventure, a search for justice and simple survival. One can see that in the complex form and structure of the city of Kingston. We see at the same time, in the hidden liberation villages of Jamaica, an urgent desire to be left alone. We also see the inevitable contamination of images and memories through time and difficult confrontations with the other. The qualities of Jamaican architecture reside in the brutal poetry of violent collision.

There are many ways to approach the subject of Jamaican architecture. I want to concentrate on the response to climate. Climate is one of the great creative forces in the shaping of the built environment.

The sky

The sky, the earth, the divinities and mortals. Four elements making a single whole. The image is Heidegger’s. [3] It is related to growing industry of thought in which man is being recreated by himself, in his own image, not as the pinnacle of divine achievement but as part of a larger organism in which man has to d(o)well.[4] For Heidegger we are the mortals who live to d(ie)well. The divinities are our messengers from the gods. Our place is under the sky and on the earth. The significance of either lies not so much in what they, the sky and the earth constitute in themselves, they are too large for that, but rather, what happens at their point of collision in our experience; the point at which the one receives the shape and the imprint of the other. The sky is always over our heads and the earth is always the surface upon which we stand and dwell. This dividing line between earth and sky is the subject of the first and most fundamental division in Genesis 1.1: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” The making of the horizon was more fundamental to the creation than the division between the light and the day. Divide everything into being under heaven, under the sky and on the earth. The divinities furnish the connection between the earth and the sky and we, as mortals are thrown into this world and must prepare for our dying. We walk on the line which gives each their shape.


Being under the sky makes us subject to whatever it throws down at us. The sky achieves its shape from the earth, the geography of the land. In a hilly country the sky becomes smaller and the mountains more prominent. They compete for the glory and majesty of the world’s enormity. And are allowed to do so only from our perspective, for how can mountains compete with the sky? In a flat country the sky is overwhelming. In Sumerian religion developed in the flat river basins of lower Mesopotamia, the sky was the God ANU, the least personified of gods. He was the abstract principle of majesty, the ultimate but passive authority, from which Enlil, the storm, received his executive power. The sky is majesty.


The clouds

 “Each passing cloud affords some pleasing variation; and the glowing vapour of the atmosphere, when the sunarises or declines and when the picturesque and fantastic clouds are reflected in its polished bosom, give an enchanting hue and such as is only particular to the warmer climates, and which much resemble those saffron skies which so strongly mark the campania of Rome, and the environs of Naples.”[5]


That is William Beckford’s  kind and genteel way of seeing. (This william Beckford is the cousin of the wealthier Wiliam Beckford of Fonthill abbey, who never visited Jamaica, despite the fact that he owned twelve sugar plantations there) but as one flies above the clouds, towards the evening, these same clouds look so full of the power of creation and destruction. They are like the clouds in Robert Fludd’s series on the creation of the world. Pierced by the rays of the sun, scattering patches of unbearable brightness over the water and the hills, it is difficult to escape the possibility of an epiphany. A miracle of the everyday. The experience of climate in the Caribbean is suffused by the sense of the immanent. The dramatic arrival of a storm, the sudden and inexorable arrival of night, the glorious arrival of the morning, the rustling sounds at the arrival of a breeze. The Caribbean sky is a fine and dramatic actor of its own intentions. When the rain comes, with its full, heavy, pregnant warm drops, it erodes the streets and the hillsides with an extraordinary violence. And when the rain has gone the equally spectacular return of the sun and its amnesiac, as if nothing happened.

Rain in paradise: the genesis of the house.

We plough the surface of the earth and take from it what the sky will allow. The earth and the sky are not homogenous, they are themselves layered from heaven to hell, from the core of the earth to the outer reaches of the cosmos. Where we dwell is merely the dividing line between two interactive layers. This is true in a religious sense as much as a scientific one. It is the way that these two layers interact that gives us the possibility of life and death. And so each element within a building defines itself in relation to that interaction. If we define that dual nature of our environment as an opposition we start talking in terms of oppositions, such thinking excludes the possibility of infection between the categories, we then see the house as the battleground of two categories. A more integrated approach will see a more sophisticated image appear, an image with the same roots but one where the experience of the house is assimilated to a more complex paradigm, that of the systems governing life. Because life is so infinitely complex and beautifully graded into conditional limitations and possibilities it is the matter for the ultimate analogy. And rather than discarding analogies as unsure and dangerous, we would do better by refining such analogies and looking to see where comparisons hold and under what conditions. When we look at the earth and the sky not as separate parts in hermetically sealed categories but as part of that fourfold of our experience, we can create a more sophisticated image of our house, as a thing that has its metabolism, a system whereby the oppositions are relativated into routes and conditions of entry and exit determined by form and protocol, signatures and keys. The signatures are all folded into daily life, the smells, the colours, textures and rhythms. The keys are the way in which certain forms and bodies can enter and exit through entries and exits adapted to their scale and modality. The form is created by the protocol of unfolding habit.


The abbé Laugier turned his puppet noble savage from the grassy banks by the side of the river to seek shelter under the trees from the rain, when these did not hold the rain sufficiently he made him hide in a cave and when the smell and dank atmosphere of the cave become unpleasant, he oredered the genesis of architecture.[6] Filarete evoked the beautiful image of Adam and Eve running from the rain as they were expelled from paradise by a wrathful God,. It is a fundamentally northern image, where rain is a necessary evil for all but the farmer.[7] The genesis of the Caribbean house also primarily resides in the response to climate, in the response to living under a certain climate and upon the land generated by that climate.

The Caribbean House

Climate determines the way people are in the world. Taking Jamaica as an example, architecture, after the annihilation of the Arawaks and the invasion of the English in 1655, had to slowly learn the climate of the island. Orientations, partitions and boundaries, methods of roofing and shading, the relationship between the inside and outside, the use of materials have all been determined by the locality, the topography, the available resources but all of them have been used along the dominating axis of climatic control. Houses which were by habit small as houses in Africa were small, were small because they were no more than treasure houses. Life goes on outside. The gingerbread served to filter the light and make shadows and jewels of light dance over the floor and against the walls. Houses were small also from socio-economic reasons, but the two reasons are not mutually exclusive. Houses were lifted off the ground, to take account of water and mud, to lift the house away from the unwanted vsitors, the creepy-crawlies, but the fact that the wind would weave itself though the pillars was not unwelcome. The greathouses developed wonderful methods to deal with the climate, Raised on pilars, louvred walls, reducing the wall to the column and the mullion, while all the rest a mere finned partition. Tallish spaces, large spaces. The eaves were never too long for fear of hurricanes and the window needed its own box or cover. Large verandahs upon which life was spent. Verandas are a curious thing. It is not that they are in between being out and iside, they are positively both. They are the resolution of an opposition, the philosophical prrof that the inside is not the opposite of the outside. Itr is our either or mind, so useful and so rigid that stops us from realsiing that categories are always provisional upon a perspective the view of a particular section.



A climate for classicism: traditional architecture in Jamaica

Traditional Jamaican houses are cauldrons in which the memories from England and its own imported (classical) heritage are fused with the deep-seated memories of West Africa, with its patterns of domesticity and its craftsmanship set within the landscape and climate of the Caribbean. The hubble and bubble also contains the weird and perverse aspirations of the people: The English entrepreneurs who wanted their house to remind them of Home, insisting at first on chimneys in the tropics! Or the excruciating pathos of those whose faltering memory of their own cultural heritage, lost under the pressure of a misguided system of production, caused them adopt as desirable the icons of their very tormentors.

But like Marcus Garvey who developed his eloquence in the language of his oppressor, so many builders turned an adopted language of architecture to their own advantage in the struggle towards their own dignity; appropriating styles foreign to them, but, like George Stiebel’s Devon House, making the style their own with a vengeance: just as the English had done with Italian classicism, just as the Italians had done with Greek Classicism and what the Greeks had done with Egyptian forms. The fascinating thing is that such things never happen without the weird and wonderful transformation of the original models, creating untold new possibilities of expression.

            The Jamaican great house, the bungalow and the small house, all bear the memory of distance: physical distance from England, temporal distance from the faded originals in Palladian Vicenza, Rome and Athens as well as the emotive distance from West Africa. The crumpling together of all these different forces shifted the priorities of the architecture away from overtly self-conscious mannerisms of the socially ambitious European to an immediate and direct language, which speaks of economic motives, of climatic demands, of social and racial stratification.

The strength of Jamaican architecture resides in a transformation of the model through the power of an impressionist suggestion rather than the limp following of the principles of classical order. The architectural language of classicism in Jamaica is abbreviated and subsequently expanded into a rich patois, an emergent and volatile language with all its poetic potential in tact. In this sense, much Jamaican architecture has the power and intensity of the pioneer who has to reinvent language to express and describe what he sees. Jamaican architecture is not a mere provincialism harking back to its model in England. It is itself, and always was, an emergent tradition with its own special focus.

Occasionally the designs for buildings were made by architects in England who knew nothing of Jamaica. More often they were drawn up by Anglo-Jamaicans, whose memory of their original homeland was overlaid with distance, nostalgia and economic opportunity and whose patience for architecture was utilitarian at best. The buildings were often conceived and produced by the craftsmen themselves. It is a Caribbean phenomenon:


“The béké and france-whites always wanted to build houses like the ones in their original province, wanted thick walls that would hold in the coolness. The big-time mulattoes reproduced these models. But on the construction sites, my papa Esternome witnessed how the spirit of the blackworkers undid and reinvented the dwelling. So, easy- here, easy there, Saint-Pierre moving this way and that way.” “in a special aesthetic,” I think he wqnted to say.”[8]



Being of African descent, these craftsmen drew on the ideas of beauty and the habits of craftsmanship of their own tumultuous heritage. At the same time they found themselves having to work with a language of forms which resided within the surreal cultural vacuum of expatriation. The result is difficult to characterise but very much worth the attempt.

One thing that characterises Jamaican architecture is that the rigid hierarchies demanded, for example, by an orthodox classicism are done away with. Classicism’s demand for absolute subjection to order is undermined. The application of classical elements is freed up and made contingent on other more urgent priorities such as utility, the desires of local craftsmanship, the growth of the building into its many extensions, the use of materials -especially spolia (pieces of building which are re-used after natural disasters) and the motive of profit. All this creates a very rich architectural text, something akin to the poems of Derek Walcott and the agile and delicious vapour of Glissant’s thinking.


Classicism is widely prevalent in Old as well as New Jamaican architecture of course, but the most evocative generators of form in architecture are habit, available materials, climate and the landscape. The British, unlike the Spanish colonisers, had no indigenous tradition for building in hot climates. There were attempts to emulate the Spanish and Italian climatic response. Colbeck castle for example, was an English attempt at Mediterranean living, with its galleries connecting the corner pavilions. But even then houses had to have an outward, centrifugal geometry.


The veranda

The colonisers of Jamaica soon adopted the wide wraparound verandas and comfortable lay-out of the Indian bungalow. Using Afro-Caribbean craftsmen, the Anglo-Jamaican veranda developed its own beautifully understated language of subtle colouring and light fretwork carving, allied to the decorative patterns of West Africa. The veranda was never an in-between place. It was the pivot where the inside and the outside have succesfully reduced each others presence to the limit and find their balance in dwelling. Only in northern countries is the inside a metaphysical opposite to the outside. In the Caribbean the inside is a logical extreme, a place of conjecture and myth. In the Caribbean the inside is a curious concept, and certainly no well circumscribed and hermetically sealed one. The inside is simply where the outside has been reduced to noises and breezes and where the sunlight has been filtered by the thin walls, the louvred windows and the bargeboards and fretwork pannels. The house is the diaphragm changing the extremes of the outside filter the harsh light into friendliness.


Breathing walls


“Some man or other must present Wall; and let him have some plaster, or some loam, or some rough cast about him, to signify wall; and let him hold his fingers thus, and through that cranny shall Pyramus and Thysbe whisper.” Bottom talking to his players in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act III, scene 1.


Louvers allow breeze but also an unsuspected presence. Walls in traditional Jamaican architecture are the embodiment of Laugier’s reductionism: partitions for social purposes and climatic adaptation, rather than burlesque supports for the roof. Columns support, walls divide. And in the Caribbean they select what they divide with a sophisitication not possible in the cold. The best Caribbean architecture consitute an integrated and overlapping system of filters: social filters, climatic filters.



Fretwork itself is a universal phenomenon, its function is to filter the light and diminish the glare and heat of the sun, to scatter the beams of light to play upon the imagination. It works. Jamaican fretwork captures the appeal in African Art, where images are not meant to reproduce reality itself for reference or possession, but rather to represent that reality as hieroglyphs of a more spiritual concern. The traditional Jamaican house is a piece of literature.


Eaves and the clarity of volume

The lack of eaves in many Caribbean late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings give them a unique formal quality. The eaves were left off to give the roof more of a chance of surviving a hurricane. No eaves. No leverage. Windows received their own small scale shading devices, easier to replace. In so doing, the relationship of the building volume to the roof is given a clarity it rarely has elsewhere, except perhaps in Africa, reducing the geometry to the simplest and therefore most dramatic confrontation between two forms: the roof and the square proportions of the building volume. It is that clarity of volume and contrast, which makes the setting of Jamaican buildings within the landscape so dramatic.


The relationship of the building with the landscape

This relationship begins with the way Jamaican buildings meet the ground. They are either set against a hill or upon flat land, which may be prone to flooding. The base or plinth of the building in both cases takes on a large and important role within the composition. When set against a hill, the plinth heightens the contrast in the bright colours and simple volumes of the house itself placed within the glorious theatre of the surrounding landscape. When set upon flat land and lifted above ground, the building mass is separated from the land by a dark shadowy area, which gives to the building an emphasis not unlike the underlined word.


The house at the periphery of the home

The most glorious quality of Caribbean architecture generally and Jamaican architecture in particular, resides in the relationship of the building to the continuously inhabited environment: the endless warp and woof of paths and places. Homeliness is determined by an outdoor domesticity. Not long ago I drove past a lady admonishing her two school-bound children while she sat on a well-worn stone underneath a majestic mango tree. The house was no more than a treasure chest with a bed. But her home, of which the house was only a part, was grand, majestic and open. This outdoor domesticity transforms the house, it places the building at the periphery of a much larger and more generous domestic setting. That is a luxury of climate. It determines 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.

Climate is the main condition of our functioning. The weather determines the activity on the streets at night, the languor of people during the day, their position relative to the shade, their greed for shade, it affects the kind and modality of each disease. It affects dress, hair and skin. It it affects the look of the world, its spatial relationships, its means of unfolding itself, and the way we move about the environment, the way we build.


The liturgy of conversation between people meeting on the street, with its clichés about the weather, is not just a formula of politeness, it is also an acknowledgement of what is really important, it is like a prayer before talk can resume its subjects of mortality and divine messages. The weather demands its place at the forefront of our awareness an unending acute consciousness of every modulation. All behaviour, all movement, the geometry of every relationship in time or space, the being in any place, is as much determined by the purpose as the condition. And the condition is the weather: the temperature, the glare of the sun, the humidity, the rain, the wind or the breeze.


The there are the days of summer and winter where the sun comes down and makes us live in the streets. Time and stime again, people who come to the islands remark on the number of people in the streets, seeming idle. And they do not think of the walls enclosing the countless idle people in the cities and villages of northern countries. And in their forgetfulness thay have already dismissed the Caribbean as lazy and slothful. But in their own countirs everything is gathered together in concentrations and given its place according to strict categories. Then if it is considered harmful to society it is hidden, if it is thought of as distasteful iot is hidden. But in the Caribbean such concentration into heterotopias is incomplete. Here we are still dealing with a post-babylonic society a society which is characterised by scattering. In the heat everything is revealed. Hell is where everything is visible, the heaven of the developed country is where everything is hidden or displayed. Houses have an diffierent geometricql relationship to the dweller’s patterns of movement. In the Caribbean, the non-spanish caribbean at least, the house is often no more than a treasuretrove. A place to store and sleep. Cooking and living goes on outside, in the street,in the yard, on the pavement, on the corner or on the verandah, but rarely inside.


The end of tradition

All this belongs to the traditional image of climate in the Caribbean, or rather those islands of the Caribbean which used to be colonies of the English the French and the Dutch. Where northern habits collided awkwardly with a different climate and where African habits persisted silently and stubbornly, finding new forms in the rediscovery of the world. The story of the Spanish and portuguese Caribbean is different. There the colonies and the colonisers could agree, there experience was exchangeable. There architecture, under moorish influence was already different, more inward, more used to heat. But the islands we look at today are also different.


Then there are the hurricanes. The weather forecast can remain dull  for days, almost ignored until the next hurricane announces itself with some rather inane name. Mitch, Gilbert, Lenny. In the inanity of the name resides potent force for the imagination. In its deceptive familiarity, lies the conception of danger. The increased warning we have of approaching hurricanes has caused a curious way of behaving. The feeling of purpose and self-justified selfishness in the shops as the hurricane approaches, the inability to concentrate on anything except the possible consequences. The excitement. The need for preparations to the houses and building as its path is determined. The indescribably experience of 200 mile winds where roofs and walls, whole houses loos their solidity and become as dry leaves in an autumn wind, played with as in a game. These extraordinary forces with their eye of a divine clarity and calm amidst a flux of wild power that remains for years in the popular imagination of those people who have gone through it all. A recurring theme in the talk of the everyday, so familiar that it is enough to mention a certain name to conjure up a thousand images. Gilbert, Mitch. Inane names


Not related to the climate of the sky, but to the climate of the earth are the earthquakes. Numbers, dates take on a myhological force, 1692, 1907. Dates when the buildings of Jamaica were simply raised to the ground.


Because of the working of extremes of climate the image of Jamaica has had to recreate itself after each disaster. Memory is razed, and ironically, each hurricane, each disaster is wonderful for the soil, so that with each hurricane the verdure grows with a vengeance to swallow anything the hurricane or earthquake might have forgotten.


Then there are the social earthquakes and hurricanes, the unpredictable winds of political change and the tremendous quakes of violence. All these have threatened the traditional image of the Caribbean generally but Jamaica in particular. Then came the twentieth century with all its aggression, its confusion, its technology and well shaped and carefully perfected traditions were lost in an instant to be supplanted by a new kind of technology one requiring professionalisation. A greedy desire for the modern overturned well-established habits in every country, releasing the opportunity to develop new ones. But these opportunities were only partially realised, best by governments who could be held accountable, also by the wealthy with a personal desire and a nose for the best, and worst by the people on the periphery, who had to take on things themselves in the belief that what they saw could be easily emulated, without that sophisticated and professional understanding.



Fear has become become the main agent of daily life in Jamaica. Fears based on real and horrible experiences, fear bellowed by urban myths, dividing cities into patches of the known and the unknown connected by channels of hermetically sealed and airconditioned traffic with its darkened windows as much against the sun as against the view within. The modern response to climate has in fact become a security feature. Airconditioning allows security, tightens the sieve. This agent of fear has transformed the urban landscape of Jamaica. It has rendered verandas useless; they have been transformed into empty cages made semi-opaque by the often ugly and aggressively present grillwork which has transformed many areas of Kingston into an inverted zoo where the creatures of mythological violence look in on the curious spectacle of middle and upper-class life. By these poor, these feared monsters, are themselves equally afraid, and they have baricaded themselves behind closed and boarded windows and high corrugated iron fences. A lady I asked told me she slept in a room with closed windows for fear of being brugled or raped. “Yes,” she said, “it was very hot.”



There is another agent affecting that traditional image of a life set within the Caribbean climate. It is the image and experience of modernity. The working of this image is complex and frustratingly difficult to reduce to a reasonable set of contributing factors, but here is a list of some of the issues involved, which are relevant to the problem of climate.


1.       Each individual’s conception of Modernity is generated and transformed from within the framework of their experience. The narrower the experience the more radical the consequences of distortion

2.       Ambitions of modernity are often dampened and retracted through the expectation of failure or, alternatively, pursued against overwhelming odds and against bvetter advice.

3.       Modernity, when conceived of as Western has a polarising effect on groups.

4.       Modernity is frequently felt to reside in the material object and not in the social, economic and cultural framework supporting their development and existence.

5.       Modern systems and materials often need more sophisticated maintenance than traditional systems and materials. Where upkeep shifts in the hierarchy of priorities there is an effect upon the experience of climate.

6.       Anti-modernity, nostalgia, one of the most aggressive modern agaents


With regard to the Caribbean attitude to climate this has had a number of deeply wounding effects.


Buildings which seek to emulate the global business ethos imitate the aesthetics of business as it has developed from the international style of the forties and fifties. This aesthetics is given form in  clearly recognisable sets of code: tall buildings, lots of glass, complete control of the internal climate, etc. These buildings, and their reliance on electric power have an iconic role in the country they represent. Postcards from Surinam, Cuba, Trinidad and Jamaica, often feature these buildings. Postcards of older buildings tend to be more recent and more market driven, while the postcards of modern achievements clearly have the stamp of a politically driven motive. Money is another good indicator of national or at least official sentiments with regard to modernity. And here the money of many Caribbean islands, apart from extolling the virtues of national heroes and natural wealth frequently refer to the projects of modernity in their struggle for an independence from the great Western colonisers whose developed status they are now trying to emulate.


Because of the inadeqaucy of means and perhaps, occasionally the misunderstood ends, the conception of what is modern can generate curious hybrid forms and strange predilections. Concrete becomes desirable not just because of its qualities as a building material but because it is modern as opposed to wood which is associated with the old and even the colonial and its oppression, but even more importantly it is often dismissed as belonging to the primitive, the savage.


A lady I spoke to in Trench town, having just visited the coffin maker, told me that “we are no savages down here, you know. Everybody think we are savages but we are not savages down here.” That is important. Her house is made of delapidating concrete patched with wood and anything she can find. The new is represented by the middle classes of Portmore, who can afford to pretty up their houses with concrete balustrades and serliana windows. Signs of modernity are the airconditioning units attached to the house and the tv dish, outsized because of Jamaica’ position relative to the united states tv sattelites an enormous presence on the roof or in the garden. Because of the ambition for air-conditioning houses have developed different priorities, inward priorities, privacy, lots of rooms, to escape the reality and the enormous heat kept by the tarmac and no longer absorbed by the trees.


Natural materials are reminders of the word primitive, of the idea of the savage. Concrete imposes a distance between the person and his fear of affiliation.


Battle fatigue

Often architects and architectural students are frightened to experiment because of the perceived conservatism in clients and contractors. Opting for well-tested solutions rather than lashing out in new directions. This idea that so little is possible stifles curiosity into the new, stifling the wish for modernisiation making the modern reside in the tradition of a stagnant and dogmatic modernism and the feeble formalism of a bankrupt spirit. This is the nature of the collision. Progressive architects and the newest developments often seek inspiration from the primitive with admiration and awe at their resourcefulness, ability to make do with simple methods. But the primitive is a label that students in the Caribbean dislike and have opted for the far more perjorative term intuitive, which really means that which is performed without conscious thought.  This is a strange paradox, especially when one considers that European Modernism was born, among other things, from the loving and admiring look at the primitive. But because of the homogenisation of Europe and Europeans in the mind of others, the pword primitive is still overwhelmingly identified with the fools who could not see the wealth of Africa and who demeaned its civillisation as lesser. Unfortnuately it is this trauma which still affects many afro-caribbean graduates in architecture and prevents them from looking at the possibilities of abstraction and

So what do we want? Solutions architectural, solutions social

One aspect about this article that I want to defend is that some of the solutions I present do not belong to the traditional sphere of design. It is essential for the improvement of the urban fabric in any city that we acknowledge that only an integrated approach can work. That integrated approach not only requires separate answers from the various disciplines, but it requires the various disciplines to consult each other in order to get their own approach refined. A lot about architecture is not about design, it is about the context in which design can flourish, the possibilities offered and limitations imposed by the landscape and society. The cultural and socio-economic situation of a society determines much of the image and qualities of the built environment. Design naturally improves immeasurably when designers are intimately familiar with these forces of influence as they can then learn to play with them creatively. Similarly, because of the peculiar nature of architectural services and the high input of the client and user in the development of many architectural products, society needs to acquire a sound basis.[9]


As  important as architectural advice on HOW to respond to climate is the attitudinal question on how we want to respond to climate. The point is that we have a number of choices.


1.       we can imagine that design and social issues should be kept separate and take comfort from the fact that we are not responsible for the politics of the country and therefore, never need fear that our shouting about good design is heard

2.       alternatively we can integrate design issues with social reform and establish a holistic image of what we desire of life and society and then proceed to build that image.


This means that we have to make a number of choices.


What do we want to live in


1.       The natural climate as it is with all its fluctuations

2.       A low technology artificial climate created by systems usually requiring the hermetic sealing of buildings.

3.       A modified climate using well-accepted technologies where the arrangement and modulation of volumes, openings and enclosure work with the natural characteristics of the climate to its own best advantage.

4.       An artificial and intelligent approach to climate, with intelligent walls, multi-purpose roofs and brilliant floors.


In order to make those choices we actually have to look further afield to the habits we want to change and preserve of the Caribbean way of life.

The reality of climate

“There was much to look at in the new house. It was a grand two-storeyed concrete house built and decorated in the modern manner. The concrete blocks looked like rough hewn stone; there was no dust-collecting fretwork hanging from the eaves; doors and windows were varnished not painted, and closed and opened in interesting ways.” V.S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas. p. 380.


In the ability to take the traditional means of tackling climate for granted priorities became silent and suddenly fretwork became dusty, fussy and even reactionary. Speaking of the old-fashioned.


We have to face “reality” however surreal its permutations. Traditional architecture was geared to a very low density population and that population led a life unfettered by recently developed life-style technologies requiring constant rtempratures to function well. Densities have increased immeasurably and the penetration of various forms of pollution have forced us to accept the very modernism that generated it.  Pollution is carried by the breeze. Noise and smell and the invisible filter through the tradtional buildings, making all sorts of situations difficult or impossible. The contradiction between climate and noise-pollution has become acute in Jamaica. To live in a well-ventialted space within the urban agglomeration of St Andrew, for example, means to subject oneself to a constant barrage of noise. carried by the air, pollution though street parties with their walls of sound, cars filled with boom-boxes vibrating to the hypnotic drum of the bass have joined forces with the domino players who dash the metal tops of their table with a ritualsitic aggression that makes any form of concentration impossible for those in the vicinity. School sare so ful that two classes teach in one room. A teacher at each end of the room. How can children concentrate in this atmosphere?


The climate of the caribbean and the outwards geometry of the non-spanish speaking islands conflicts with the demands of schools, offices and concentrations of activity generally.


This is fundamental. The arabic and Spanish methods of countering heat is to encapsulate spaces, create a world of internal courtyards and well-defended oasies. In cuba one sees very high ceilings and tall doors to absorb and filter the hot air. The historic development of the Englsih speaking Caribbean moved along different priorities.


What we want, a possible list:

Protection from extremes in weather conditions, hurricanes, tropical rains and their consequences: flooding, soil erosion, damage.


An outward and centrifugal geometry of the house, where the ambiguity between the inside and the outside is preserved, and where outside life can keep its significance.


A use of light and shade where neither is allowed to become too stark, except perhaps for the purpose of celebrating that quality but where they are broken and filtered, allowed to play with each other.


Controllable use of the available winds


Controlled use of volume and materials that precludes awkward hollow acoustics.


The use of bright colour to mould and take advantage of the glare of the sun


The accommodation of the heat by the provision of outside shade and comfort.


The integration of natural shading devices, such as trees and plants,


The proper terracing of the hilly ground so that soil stops eroding.


The use of proper specifications so that damage during hurricanes and earthquakes is minimal or easy to repair


Spaces where the demands of communication technology are met, or technologies which allow these machines to run in the normal climate of the Caribbean.


Spaces where concentration is possible without outside interference, and where the climatic and acoustic demands do not destroy this possibility this is especially important in schools and universities.


Ways and means

If we want open, centrifugal and generous buildings we need to establish, or rather enforce those social institutions which make the transformation of a house into a prison blatantly unnecessary.


Far from wanting to encourage mere tolerance, I feel it is necessary to learn to enjoy the harmless and engender courage in the meek and the fearful. If this sounds airy fairy and idealistic the city is already lost. It is not the violent who cause the city and its buildings to withdraw into itself, but the fear of people. Violent people need to be dealt with, by upbringing and education to prevent them and by punishment and withdrawal to set them straight, but the fearful need to be similarly educated to be courageous, to prevent violence having its day, and corrected when 


If we establish and enforce social institutions to prevent people from using architecture to battle the forces of social collapse, we can use our architecture for to dwell in the world with comfort and enjoyment.


If we want the simplicity of the supercivilised, i.e. that level of civilisation which realises the symbiotic nature of stable existence. Then we need to begin to use natural resources to help us. That means that we need to begin to help these resources to flourish: The re-ordered landscape. No hetrotopias,[10] no purities cleansed at the hand of violence: “Growing them all tangled up with each other never tires the soil.” Patrick Chamoiseau, Texaco, p. 128.


It is important, again through the strict enforcement of social instituitons to on the one hand to remove the causes of fear and on the other for the media to alleviate the pressure they exert on encouraging the growth of urban mythology.


This means that Caribbean cities need to consciously address the issue of segregation. Segregation is a moral high ground.


Certain materials insulate well, others conduct. There is the wish and the possibility to use the climate for the generation of electricity.


At the same time, design methods, building habits and above all cultural assumptions lag behind the latest pioneering work. The intelligent wall of the institute du monde arabe in Paris. The possibilities of glass.


Of course all these technologies are hugely expensive


High technology is not thought relevant to near third world conditions, because of the difficulty of maintenance, the need to train people to take care of this technology. In other words there is a lag between the professional vision of what is possible and the labour intensive back-up needed to keep things going.


This often forces architects to abandon the intricate and the ambitious and to settle for simple and well understood technology, such as air-conditioners, which can be replaced when broken, are relaitvely easy to fix.


At the same time, this simpler technology is also a last hold onto the idea of modernity. People want air-conditioning, not necessarily because of its climatic benefits, but more especially for its properties as a bearer of status and image.


My theses:

It is worth considering whether it is better to adapt one’s body to a climate than to adapt the climate to the body. I would not like to argue that the one is always better than the other. But a critical attitude to both possibilities will find a solutiion to each environment, suited to its set of purposes.


Never mistake a category of quantity for a category of quality. Less is more, less is a bore, are fashion statements, relative to what has gone before. They define a quality only in relation to experience. They are adjustments. So is inside and outside subject to greater modulations.


If architecture is made to perform the duties of a social institution, it becomes a political animal. As soon as architecture becomes a political animal, society has turned to stone.


Walls are a necessary evil. Think before you impose one on the users of a building and the inhabitants of a place. In this sense the wall is a messenger. Louis Barragan said that the wall is an instrument to make you look up. It is a further division. Our widest view is determined by the horizon, which again is the point at which the earth and the sky divide, the horizon is the limit of distance, the furthest “there” relative to “here” Beyond the horizon is a conceptualisation, an abstraction. The wall is an obstacle. Everything we do, we do at that moment of division, of contact, and our limit is defined between here and there.


It is worth looking at how nature copes with climate, how plants and animals cope with the conditions of the place. The leaf for instance is a surface for breathing, a channel for water, a factory for the production of energy and a cover, a form of protection. The walls and the roof are, in the most advanced designs, rapidly learning that lesson.


Only recently people have started seeing the possibilities of this. The roof ghas always been imagined as a piece connected to the walls, that which ulimtate defines the space of the building. But this is idea is being superceded. The roof shouold be seen as relatively independent, able to set its own agenda, and perform a multitude of tasks. The wall is a skin, it must be able to secrete, to allow through, to filter, to respond to light and dark, to hot and cold.


The floor needs no ground, it merely needs support. That is not the same thing. Harnassing the the powers and resources within a place can make.

The design task

The problem is not the possibilities at hand, the problem is


convincing the client that this is a good proposition

1.       Finding the leading idea which can align all the seemingly conflicitng issues into a hierarchy of priorities.


Now the leading idea must be the functioning of a space in the most generous way possible within the confines of its immediate purpose.



Think global act local

A Critical regionalism is embodied in the slogan: “Think global act local.” This phrase is allied to the literary super-nationalism of Louis Borges, who urged the local writer to tackle the universal themes, simply in his own mind.[11] The fact that the writer would do so from his own perspective and his own preoccupations, would automatically ensure a locality to become manifest in his writing. Simply the writer being there and recreating the handful of possible stories from within the peculiar realities of place would create such a local perspective upon the universal. Patrick Chamoiseau and Derek Walcott are the most wonderful examples. Old themes become new once they are spoken in the words of those who decide to understand them on their own terms. V.S. Naipaul searched for years for suitable material only to find his theme in the astonishment at his own situation as an Indian born in Trinidad, a colony of England with a Spanish, French and Portuguese past.[12] All his travels into literature were subsequently composed from that perspective. But to the idea of a critical attitude to locality, we should consciously involve that which is already implicitly present, a critical attitude to time.

Think future, present and past, but act now

Although traditional Caribbean architecture is glorious in its setting, tortuous in its historical aftertaste, and wickedly clever in its use of materials, signs and in its careful modulation of solids and voids, I would not want to advocate a regionalism that is uncritical and merely nostalgic. I do not like architecture which grovels to its context by adopting references which empty out as soon as they have no other purpose than referring to something of which the building itself does not chose to partake. That is a parasitical picturesque. It slowly sucks dry and kills its context, by treating the solemn sanctity of the everyday as the occasion of a permanent masked ball. Miss Havishams and Péloponèses all of them.[13] Figures of real tragedy who’s revenge is to dwell and wallow in ludicrous solitude. We have to grow above such a revengeful attitude to change. And yet we must look at traditional architecture and find what it did right and why it did it that way. And if we find the same needs, we need to learn from those ways, unashamedly.


Although modern architectures have a lot to answer for, they have, in their juggernaut progress and infinite destruction of memory, also achieved wonders and miracles. We need to look for what they did and do right.

Vitruvius and Hillier


Haec autem ita fieri debent, ut habeatur ratio firmitatis, utilitatis, venustatis. Vitruvius, Book 1, Ch. 3, § 2.


My attitude to architecture is simple, and hardly original. I am not afraid of history to tell me its stories and show me its ambiguous examples. I am not afraid of the present, with its groups of exclusion, its tortuous reasoning to maintain them and its blind desire for change. I am not afraid of the future with its possibility of negation. It is peculiar that the Vitruvian for good building: venustas, utilitas and firmitas, has, during the twentieth century, often been politicised and seen as the domain of the reactionary and the arch-conservative. That is a shame, robbing the idea of a thinking that has still not delivered all its possibilities of meaning. The reactionary and the anti-reactionary cannot think, they only fear or love the future they have created in their mind, and have lost their critical acumen to this idolatry. They have not the power to look, they only see blindly. Vitruvius can be looked at more practically. One way is to demand a cogent explanation of the exact connection, the natureof the relationship between these three conditions. As far as I am concerned the conditions for good building cannot be separated from each other.[14] Their tissue is too finely woven. There can be no venustas without utilitas and firmitas, there can be no firmitas without utilitas or venustas, and there cane be no utilitas without the other two. They are organically related, they are the organs of good architecture, the combined filters for its digestion.


Bill Hilier, re-writing Vitruvius, argues that “architecture has to satisfy four functions; to facilitate activity, modify climate, utilise resources, and act as a cultural symbol”.[15] In this reformulation Hillier has opened himself up to criticism. We may question Bill Hillier’s statement that all architecture must necessarily satisfy all four functions; an obelisk, for example, may not modify climate but still be architecture. At the same time, the phrase to act as a cultural symbol is problematic. All architecture has the ability to become a cultural symbol, simply by the experience of it in the city. That is not always in the power of the architect or the client to decide. What is in the architect’s power is to use the means at his disposal: structure, resources, climate and activity to give meaning and delight. So we need to modify these statements to the proposition that architecture should facilitate activity, modify climate, utilise resources to give meaning and delight in their use, while acknowledging that a meaningful and delightful architecture is of enormous social use. People will only participate in society if they want to. To want to participate in society is to constantly align and harmonise private with public purpose.


[1] Jack Berthelot & Martine Gaumé, Kaz Antiyé, Jan Moun Karété, Caribbean Popular Dwelling, Editions Perspective Créole. From an exhibition entitled “Kaz Gwadloup – Habiter Créole, Held at the Centre Goerge Pompidou in 19982-83, p. 9-10

[2] Clarke (1975) *

[3] Heidegger

[4] Lovelock*

[5] William Beckford, A descriptive account of the island of Jamaica, 1790, p. 8.

[6] Laugier

[7] Filarete

[8] Patrick Chamoiseau, Texaco, New York, Vintage Classics, 1998, pp. 77-78.

[9] It is well worth considering, for instance, whether a basic package of building principles, directly relevant to most householders should not be made part of the social studies or science package offered to secondary school students. To improve the urban fabric it is imperative to integrate design issues with social issues as the one often affects the other and vice verse.

[10] Foucault*

[11] Borges *

[12] V.S. Naipaul, The enigma of arrival, *

[13] Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, & Patrick Chamoiseau, Texaco.

[14] This was first argued by Edward Lacy Garbett *

[15] Hillier *