Fear, Violence and Architecture in Jamaica:

the Archaeology of a Collision




We have allowed an essentially beautiful little city to develop into a squalid, violent horror. Kingston is our reflection and it is sick -are we going to let ourselves die in the mirror? Patrick Stanigar, 1996.(1)


Only look about you: blood is being spilt in streams, and in the merriest way, asthough it were champagne.

Fyodor Dostoefsky, Notes from Underground 1864



Kingston is a large urban collage situated on the south coast of Jamaica in the parish of St Andrew.


The old city, dating from 1692, forms a neat rectangular grid covering just one third of a square mile located at the interface of a natural harbour and the Liguanea plains which rise gently towards the Blue mountains to the north and north east and the Red hills to the west. An organic and loosely radial sprawl has grown outward from this tightly regimented block to engulf an area of more than 200 square miles and well over 1 million people. Kingston is currently one of the ten most violent cities in the Americas. 1996 has the dubious honour of setting a new record with regard to murders committed in the city, over 1000. These murders sit upon a pyramid of threat, injury, robbery and the habit of rape. (2) The year 2001 promisses to take that record a stept further.


For all the frightening statistics, Jamaica is a country of people. The violence, even though it is a serious problem, is confined to a number of core areas: Olympic Gardens, Grants Pen, Southside, Trenchtown, Tivoli Gardens, Denim Town, August Town and Mountainview. If one respects a few simple rules of thumb there is little to fear. Despite the myths that have grown up around the name, Kingston is not a city of monsters. Nor for that matter is it a unique city. It is the product of forces which are global. For this reason we cannot dismiss Kingston as an other place and derive comfort from that distance. It is a mirror for all of us. The city of Kingston, largely a product of Western mechanisms, presents a potent diagram of the social forces that have shaped Jamaica out of the collision of three continents: America, Europe and Africa. At the same time Jamaica is a country where social and racial integration has perhaps been more successful than elsewhere. Where the issues of race have at least been confronted. Most Western countries are having to deal with the problems of social friction arising from economic and ethnic tension. Jamaica has been dealing with such issues for a long time. As such Kingston is an internationally relevant and urgent emblem of cultural dislocation, friction and integration, involving the issues of race, gender, economic and political division, to say nothing of an incisive environmental neglect. The consequences of these causes of urban division are occasionally violent.


This article can offer no clear-cut solutions. I will confine myself to presenting an image of the effects of violence as made visible in the architectural fabric of the city. Having said that, I do propose a thesis. And that is this: At a barely educated guess, and at the risk of trying to find an equivalence between apples and oranges in the effort to compare them, I would like to argue that 95% of the instruments of violence are deployed by the very people who would not see themselves as violent. There is a tortuous philosophical complexity about the issue of violence as it relates to architecture, which, although it drives us to the edge of the absurd, we need to understand in order to deal with the problems arising from a violent society. This is the question: How does the web of causal relations work? How does the reality of violence relate to the urban myths that it generates? How does genuine, and understandable fear complicate the problem? And what can be included under the arbitrary label of violent? It is these questions, which I hope to deal with in explaining and defending my proposition.


We are living in a time of increased social polarisation. Polarised societies harden the edges of their internal divisions. The metabolism between divided and polarised areas -at any scale of observation- is determined by mistrust and fear. The student of architecture and the student of social mechanisms need to be aware of the architectural consequences of social polarisation. I would like to argue that architecture is a soft option to the issue of violence, which, in its response with high walls and grills and the configuration of protective planning, congeals the ruptures and divisions it establishes. That is a problem, because at that moment the architectural response to violence starts becoming itself part of the causal chain plunging a city into a vicious spiral of urban degradation and blight.


Fear and mistrust are the main generators of design in Jamaica. They cause houses, neighborhoods and whole cities to cellularise and turn in upon themselves.


If the predominant cause of this introversion and segregation is cultural and ultimately political, the architectural effect is dramatic. To ignore the issues, or to give into the obvious response to threat, will result in the transformation of each place into a prison, each social, bureaucratic or commercial ritual of exchange into an absurd and convoluted dance through elaborate architectural systems of control and exclusion. When architecture becomes merely a vehicle of security and introversion, we know we are at war. How long before the cities of the West will themselves look like the cities of their most violent former colonies?



The issue of violence in Jamaican architecture plays a specific and tightly circumscribed role. There are three basic factors to be considered. The first is the violence, which lies at the very core of the foundation of Jamaica. That violence is the consequence of the mechanisms of colonialism and slavery and the geometric configuration that such mechanisms force on the landscape. The Second factor describes how the more recent cult of violence, carrying the weight of Jamaica’s past, affects the modulation of space and division in the buildings of modern Kingston. The third describes how the resulting architecture reciprocates and in turn does violence to society. To play on Le Corbusier’s facile dictum “Architecture or Revolution”, architecture in Jamaica has taken over where society has failed itself.

            In this way I have identified a largely self-referential and downward spiral of urban deterioration from which it is impossible to break free without the fatigue of the icons and fears that keeps a city responding to its own problems in a simple, reactive way. In this process actual violence plays merely an iconic role, it is a principle of authority that most people receive only through harrowing images of the media.


The cause of violence in Jamaica is manifold. It has been well researched in documents such as the World Bank report on Urban Violence and Poverty in Jamaica, a document I have relied on extensively. (3) One cause they identify is the necessarily narrow focus on survival as a consequence of economic conditions in the country. That is important.

Another cause, not unrelated to the former, is historical and metaphysical. It is the result of a way of seeing that has grown over time. I am referring to the consequences of racial and social segregation, which makes people from different backgrounds appear as different biological species. Racism and classism are the direct result of the habit of objectification; of making man into a thing, the process of alchemy that carefully selects individual examples and transforms them into hardened general principles. Such objectification creates a desultory and rebellious machine. I propose that the violence is partly the result of the simplification of a rigid existential taxonomy in racially complex societies. Man in these societies has become a victim of his own metaphysics, of his need to impose hardened categories of being on to his surroundings. He has stratified himself into a situation whereby he can all too easily be categorised as a racial, socio-economic truth, allowing himself to be generalised upon and judged without reference to his own humanity. This allows a cultural condition to become part of an urban hysteria and sold as an inherent and genetically programmed “essence”.  Social strata’s and racial identities appear too hardened in such an environment, too self-evident, too impenetrable and yet they are merely the result of cultural and aesthetic habit.

            The project of modern society has been to undermine the justification of these strata’s. The habit of racism is receding intellectually: as a result the categories have become increasingly unstable and arbitrary. Ironically this itself is a cause of crisis. Crisis is a word, which describes a precarious moment of ambivalence and instability. The city of Kingston is in such a state of crisis; it may mobilise its forces to rebuild a city in love with itself. Alternatively it may consume itself completely in a degenerate act of delirious self-destruction.



The real executive agent for architectural form ins such a situation is not the violence, but the fear of it. Fear is a legitimate emotion, to which architecture offers an immediate, compelling and permanent solution, which avoids the need of addressing the social processes which create that fear.

            The problem is that the proportional relationship between the fear of violence and actual violence is incremental. For every reported murder there is a disproportionate further entrenchment, further polarisation, further introversion of communities and a further growth of an increasingly insidious urban mythology. I would like to emphasize that the blame for this does not lie with the media, their role is legitimate, they must report. Nor can fear be adequately rationalised. There is a natural assumption that fear is the consequence of a persistent reality: it is thought prudent to build hermetically sealed vessels against this thing called violence. Fear affects the city. Being a legitimate state of being, fear is, naturally, not subject to the same social and institutional pressures as the violence itself. Architecture not only reflects. By reason of its permanence, it helps to enforce daily habits through the channels and obstacles -physical or psychological- which architecture imposes upon movement and exchange. Those habits are the shrines of social icons. The spiral identified above has become binding through such intangible intersubjective factors as the mosaic self-image, which the Jamaican has come to see as a homogenous identity. The architecture of Kingston is an important ingredient in that self-image, both as a symbol and as a habit. The question for architects and the superstructure which they serve, becomes: How can we respond adequately to fear without taking on the rituals and forms of hedgehogs, turtles and rabbits?


politics as an architectural act: tHE dEVELOPMENT OF kINGSTON

The historical development of Jamaica has, right from the start of British colonial rule, created the architectural and proto-urban climate of the city of Kingston.[1] The resulting architecture and the urban pattern now reciprocate the horrors of that period by reinforcing the habit of that history, creating an impossible circular labyrinth, a sick mirror.


Within the mechanisms of colonialism and slavery lies one cause of violence. The participants in colonialism allowed a social stratification to become possible along such simplistic visual categories as skin-colour. This caused a taxonomic violence of aggressive segregation that manifested itself in the systematic coercion and control of which the architecture servicing the slave trade and the plantation economy is a potent image. It is precisely the visual simplicity of this system: white master and black slave that made the polarisation so potent.

            It is important to note, as Orlando Patterson pointed out, that the slave cannot be defined as mere property. (4) The slave was first made into an object, a machine, which was then owned. It is in that dehumanising objectification that the banality of being an owned object became cruel. The cruelty manifested itself in the re-configuration of priorities for such everyday concerns as housing.


Housing, during slavery was not about dwelling, it was about product storage. (5) Enslaved people were categorised and stored according to their use and usefulness and not according to their own systems of personal relationships. They were consumer goods. But of course that metamorphosis into object was never complete. It was the complex dialectic of the partial and humiliating success and the partial failure of human objectification that defined the strange and disproportionate environment, which a slave-based economy created. That is the past Jamaica carries. The mechanisms with which the colonisers enforced their colony and the largely passive, internal resilience, with which the enslaved bore their enslavement, produced a setting and a set of social rituals from which a divided and antithetical culture emerged.


Architecturally the slave trade had a number of consequences. At the interface of the slave trade, the harbour, the form of the buildings had to accommodate the exchange, storage and movement of slaves. Being regarded as objects they needed only undifferentiated containment. Undifferentiated, that is, in terms of human concerns: family structure and kinship, tribal attachments etc. But there was in fact a very stringent differentiation: the slaves were sorted as products and stored accordingly. In the ship another functionalism determined the shape of the space: the maximum cargo possible with the minimum amount of maintenance to ensure the delivery of an adequately fresh product.


In laying out a sugar estate, in which the slaves would be confined for most of their lives, the principal objectives were a central location for the works and an overall symmetry in the ordering of buildings and crops. The monoculture of the sugar plantation describes a proto-industrial process. Maps and surveys of the plantation allowed the planter to impose his ideal models of order upon the landscape. Locating sugar works at the centre of a plantation, minimised cost of transport for the cane to the mill. The desire to minimise the time wasted in movement of labourers meant that the estate village tended to be near the works. The location of the greathouse or overseer’s house close to the works and the village had to do with the planter’s desire to maintain surveillance over the coming and going of his slaves.


The concentration of profit slavery made possible had two strange effects on architecture. Firstly it provided the absentee- landowners back in England with the money to fulfill their own architectural aspirations. Fonthill Abbey for William Beckford, “England’s Wealthiest Son” is a well-known example. Connected with that is the institutionalised reluctance to reinvest anything above the minimum in the colony itself. In other words much of the money generated in Jamaica was never ploughed back into the economy, never allowed to improve the land. A situation that continues today, as most savings are invested outside of Jamaica.


Another consequence was the treatment of the slave him or herself. Architecturally speaking the last aspect is largely negative. An owner did not have to be careful with a slave. Slaves were easily available. Bad slave management was, in a certain narrow sense almost a prerequisite to economic success. A high turnover of slaves was a measure of control over them. For this reason longevity for a slave was a very mixed blessing at best. He had nothing; he was stored in long barracks or in small huts where it suited the master to limit the dignity of the abode. Having to limit that dignity he had to keep it away from his own view, his “lordship of the eye” ans well within the view of the overseer. Was it then a surprise that after emancipation many “free” villages in Jamaica hid themselves from the eyes of their former master?


The slave had always to inhabit the periphery. In some cases this allowed the slave to regain some of his humanity. But whenever the slave broke out of the plantation, in what ever way, he was automatically relegated to the periphery by having to settle in unwanted land. The political power of the plantocracy meant that it controlled land tenure and settlement patterns as well as the internal organisation of their private domains.[2]


When slave society in Jamaica became unstable through protest and economical decline in the early nineteenth century, the dissolution of the mechanisms of coercion and control gave way to a period of social readjustment. That period is characterised by a re-stratification of society into a new order. This new order was slightly more complex than white master vs. black slave, partly because of the introduction of new peoples from Asia and partly because of the formation of a substantial black middle class. Nevertheless the old oppositions remained powerful. The extraordinary distortion whereby all white men were visibly wealthy, reinforced a simplified image of the world. Racial segregation continued; the architecture, the language and the cultural institutions as well as the urban pattern were its material signs. The socio-geographic enclaves defining the neighbourhoods of Kingston speak clearly of this segregation. But the most interesting urban events are naturally those where such an established order was tested. Devon House is one such event.


Devon House was built during the 1880’s by George Stiebel on millionaire’s corner on the outer periphery of late nineteenth century Kingston along the main artery leading into Kingston proper. George Stiebel, who had made his fortune digging for gold in Venezuela, was Jamaica’s first mulatto millionaire. Devon House is a manifesto of his equivalence with the best. In building the Palladian Mansion with its elegant concern for tropical comfort, George Stiebel did not set up his own icons of social success but instead competed on the established European norms of social display, significantly inverting some of them. He travelled Europe with a retinue of white servants. The act of encroachment was so brazen, so threatening to the less flexible parts of the establishment, that the Governor Generals’ Wife, Lady Musgrave reputedly took matters in her own hand. She had a road built on axis with the approach to King’s House, the governor general’s residence further up the road, thereby creating a link to an alternative approach to the city whereby she could avoid the odious confrontation with this bumptious upstart of the wrong colour who was so violently invading her social territory. The road, to emphasise the complexity of historical development, is still called Lady Musgrave Road, and is very pleasant.[2a]



With economic contraction in the nineteenth century and the crisis in the 1930’s came increasing urban immigration, people looking for economic opportunity. With racial segregation a cultural inevitability, people grouped according to a gravity of the familiar and according to what they could afford. Often these two gravitational forces overlapped in the colour of one’s skin. The growth of Kingston consequently presents a fascinating sequence of settlement and migration. The initial grid functioned on the one hand as a centripetal force for economic opportunity and on the other as a centrifugal force of acquired wealth, which cose to settle in ever widening concentric circles around the urban core and bringing small pockets of the servicing poor with it. Land settlement patterns followed no plan but the contingencies of a market driven economy of supply and demand whereby the atrophy of the sugar trade caused plantation owners to off-load their land. The West of Kingston was the obvious, first and eternally-temporary resting place for the rural poor coming into the city. At the end of the road into the centre lies the largest market for rural produce in Kingston: Coronation Market. West Kingston today is one of the most troubled areas.

            There are three further events that helped to determine the image of the city today. The first is the economic emigration out of Jamaica starting during the economic depression of the thirties and culminating in the fifties. This process severely ruptured the ties of much family life creating a sizeable subculture of displaced and dislocated children growing up in the looser affiliation of secondary family ties.

            The second is the development of New Kingston which started during the late 1960’s when a plan was launched to move the financial hub of the old city a mile northward, closer to the residential web of people it was meant to serve. These people consequently moved yet further away again, into Beverly Hills, Jack’s Hill, Red Hills etc.


A third element is the radical and racially motivated socialism introduced during the seventies under Michael Manley. He attempted to reverse the growth of the underprivileged class in Jamaica. Apart from instituting educational reforms and trying to widen the economic base, his party rather oversimplified the problem by openly declaring the people living in wealthy areas such as Beverly Hills to be “the enemy of the common man”. In a famous speech Manley told the people who were not happy with the impending new order that there were five planes a day to Miami. The emigration from Jamaica, which had always had an economic motive was now made more complex by the ingredient of political expediency and fear. Many of the affluent middle class took Manley’s advice, especially as they felt threatened by the increasingly open resentment vented by those who were set to gain by this politics of change.


These three factors quite literally caused Kingston to explode, leaving a huge crater in the centre. The vacuum was quickly filled by rural immigrants still looking for opportunity but finding it had moved on. With many of the wealthier middle classes gone, so had money and the economic and managerial base for production. The economy declined rapidly. Pockets of desperation dotted the old inner city. Existing buildings, neglected by their owners, deteriorated, gashing the city open. A few were inhabited by squatters, while other residential properties were slowly transformed into hollow yards of unfathomable human density and squalor. Land tenure in the Downtown areas of Kingston became uncertain and as a consequence settlement of the land became subject uncontrollable mechanisms as many of the landowners ceased to collect rent altogether, either because of fear or because they were no longer in the country.


The radical socialism adopted by what ironically was the former right wing of Jamaican Politics, the PNP, widened the gulf inherent in any two-party system, especially during election time. The economic slide induced by this process of radicalism, made winning elections a matter of extreme urgency for both parties. As a result of this urgency, the political agenda of each party became less well defined in terms of policy. Their common priorities to secure the popular vote gained an all -exclusive focus. A system of political patronage was set up within the constituencies of both parties to ensure that the popular vote went the right way. Extant divisions among groups, the culture of fierce loyalty and existing criminal gangs were mobilised to the cause. Guns were imported and the political parties became embodied in their slogans and party-colours. They demanded a tribal and unquestioning loyalty rather than a full belief in the political program. Good intentions were quickly hollowed out by expediency. As such the electoral history of Jamaica has created a surreal urban patchwork of antithetical areas in what should have been the heart of the city of Kingston.



The increasing numbers of urban poor and the need to secure their vote made housing an area both of genuine social concern and political potential. The Garrison community is the urban type created by that process. The geometries of movement, settlement and social friction were all redrawn according the political poles within a neighbourhood. Low income housing schemes, sometimes given cynical nicknames like Angola, or Pegasus, the pathos of which will be explained below, were populated through covert systems of political patronage by people willing to declare their loyalty to a particular party. It is important to note that this system was part of the grass root level of politics where small doses of administrative power were effective personal weapons within the war for scarce benefits and spoils perpetuated by political tribes. The resulting political “simplification” of an area duly resulted in the geographical polarisation of communities into garrisons, areas overtly defined by their political allegiance.


Trenchtown, a particularly potent example, is a desolate place, true to the omen in the name, even though the area was harmlessly named after a Lady Trench. In this area, the birthplace of BobMarley, the geometry of confrontation takes on a dramatic simplicity. A broad no-man’s land circumscribes the entrenched communities. Precariously situated on the edge of one of them is a lonely police station. Before it was built bullets used to fly freely across the divide, especially during the more frolicsome evenings. Aimed only vaguely in the right direction, the kill was an arbitrary piece of luck; the victim’s identity not important. It was enough that the victim be one of them: PNP or JLP. To prevent the main road being used by opposing posses, a roundabout was blocked by a house built over the road. The urban haemorrhage was treated by the creation of an urban thrombosis.


The no-mans’ land is still punctuated here and there by the ruins of past acts of futile good-will and foreign aid. A cinema lies in ruins. Community centres are places to plunder building materials. Health clinics disintegrate under the immense and insupportable weight of the problem. The result is a desolation, which achieves a brutal poetry echoed by the harsh words and provocative movements of Dance Hall Culture. Further development is discouraged by the people who live in these areas. They just want out. To them Trenchtown is a bad place; the thing they crave above all: jobs and respect, lie beyond its boundaries. (6)


As a result they have internalised their houses. The interiors scream of a desire for normality: photographs of pretty babies plaster the walls, what-nots and shiny ornaments make John Soane’s Museum look like an empty railway station. But outside, young, empty men sit, nothing to do, on fences, smoking the weed and bearing their extraordinary typology of scars as marks of respect and identification.


Many now realise that the social housing schemes of the seventies and eighties merely concentrated on alleviating the symptoms. High rise “Government Yards” called “South Africa Flats” were built at minimal cost in the naive but understandable belief that they were better than the self-build shanty towns they were meant to replace. The one called Pegasus, mentioned earlier, was given that nick-name because it lies on axis with a luxury Hotel of that name visible above the scarred landscape in the fantastically distant north of New Kingston. I think that contrast explains the problem. The popular opinion is that “Jamaicans don’t like living in high rise apartments” Looking at a South Africa Flat or government yard one can hardly be surprised! Surely it is not the high-rise as a generic solution, which is meant here, but this specific kind of high-rise: a dire concrete shell designed to alienate by the inadvertent evil of good intentions.

            Social housing policies globally have continually given in to the prevailing wisdom that ever lower costs, built by people with ever fewer skills at ever minimal standards would solve a problem for the moment: At least they have something was the argument, it is better than nothing. Research has borne out that that is not quite so. In fact these schemes created their own problems. Short term cheapness has an awful long-term cost. The need for unskilled labour prerequisite to this cheapness becomes the social depository of a paradox. Social Housing needs cheap people to build cheap houses for people with little money. In the process, the building industry has created, or at least failed to discourage the formation of a class of people without the means to their own dignity.


pATHS AND POLITICS: corridor city

The political climate is changing, becoming more pragmatic and economically opportunistic. Election time is still an excuse for political cleansing, but the system of political patronage is slowly being dismantled. Even so there is still an exclusive focus on winning elections. The recent past is still a prime determinant of the geometric description in zinc and concrete of the urban rituals of Jamaica today. The landscape of Kingston remains divided into a complex pattern of antithetical areas connected by an absurdly convoluted network of paths. To each city dweller the city presents itself as a customised patchwork of familiar fragments linked by corridors intersecting large blank areas, usually lined with zinc and inhabited only by hearsay and its mythological creatures. The boundaries of these patches in the politically more sensitive areas are marked clearly by the colour and signs of that community’s forcefully homogenised political affiliation. Countless deaths are still caused by a Romeo persisting in his love for a Juliet and crossing the line that has come to divide them.(7)

            The area of Southside is infamous for its complex partitioning into areas of a tribal loyalty for which the overt justification is political affiliation. The place is a labyrinth of imperative detours. People on their daily trek to the shops or to work are living proof that the shortest efficient distance between two points is seldom a straight line.


Paradoxically this urban complexity obtains for both sides of the divide, the poorer areas of Downtown and the wealthy areas of Uptown Kingston. Uptown and Downtown Kingston are mirror images of each other. For instance, landowners from both areas have capitalised on their land, creating yards (for the poor) or compounds (for the wealthy). These mercenary subdivisions have created a patchwork of domestic fortresses and an extraordinary network of non-connecting, narrow canyon-like paths.


Those of the poorer areas are lined by high corrugated iron fences, those of the wealthier areas are lined by concrete. Cars take up nearly all the available space in the resulting trench; drivers pay little or no heed to the army of commuting pedestrians at the wrong side of the puddle: school children, helpers, gardeners, farmers, beggars, churchgoers and nurses all negotiating the rough edges left to them: pavements have no priority in the urban planning of Kingston.



That same mirror image obtains for the home, which on both sides of the divide is being internalised to a degree which is absurd when considering the climate. Houses, built before the fear of violence became endemic, have attempted to reverse their generous centrifugal geometry with grillwork and boundary walls. Verandas and windows have been rendered lifeless by endless security bars and so-called “rape gates”. Uptown Kingston has become a zoo for the benefit of the have-nots, or worse, a monument to a Pyrrhic victory: their wealth obtained at the expense of its riches. Houses built more recently have crept together into the angst-ridden compounds, facing inwards and relying on tall walls and a huge and largely anonymous workforce of guards who sleepily regulate access through a single barred entry. Don’t worry, my neighbour said to me when I first arrived, everybody on the compound owns a gun.

            The poorer areas on the other hand, where the endless supply of helpers come from, have also become labyrinths of endless zinc fences. Boundaries to eternally temporary structures, the fences are there to ensure at least a modicum of privacy and to ward off the criminal and the outcast. Streets are mere channels, life happens in hidden corners for the fearful and in the wider streets for the fearless. In the stifling heat, single mothers sleep with their windows closed. The air-conditioning system in uptown Jamaica, having begun as a measure of social status, has now become part of the paraphernalia of security: it allows the house to be sealed off. Uptown Jamaicans and ex-patriates move around in air-conditioned cars and rarely venture into the areas dominating their television screens at news time.



From this effort at self-insulation an insidious and ultimately absurd pattern of expectations and fears is created whereby people from each segregated area re-invent the worlds of those other areas where they dare not venture themselves, or which they see only through bars. This cultural insulation has a curious effect on the image of the city. The city is filled with myths. Some urban patches, which actually function very well for one group of Kingstonians, are labelled as urban disaster areas for the other. One such example is St. William Grants Park,


Designed in the 1980’s by the architect and previous dean of the Caribbean School of architecture Patrick Stanigar. The park is always bustling with activity. It is a marvellous place full of lovers and delight serviced by photographers having to earn an income. But the park is invisible to the young of uptown Kingston and, in their eyes, a failure. Were they to venture there the photographers might be more lucky and the whole engine would start rolling again.


Architecture as a political act: aRCHITECTURE AS AN hEROIC dEED

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


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


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


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


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





1. Stanigar, (1996) p. 2. I would like to thank Prof. Ivor Smith, Alicia Taylor, Raoul Snelder and David Harrison of the Caribbean School of Architecture for their help and kind suggestions for improving the argument.

2. Levy, (1996) p. vii.

3. Idem.

4. Patterson, (1973)

5. Higman, (1988) pp. 5 ff. & 243 ff.

6. Thanks to Father MacDonald of Habitat for Humanity for an enlightening visit in 1996.

7. The anecdote was reported to me by David Harrison.






1. Map of Kingston (1977) Showing the initial grid and the subsequent sprawl. Trenchtown is situated just to the west of the grid. Southside is just to the east. Grants Pen Community is an enclave near “Four Roads”. Beverly Hills is situated on Long Mountain to the north east of Kingston.

2. Distribution of White Population in 1943, from Clark (1975) p. 181. Since then the pattern has moved outwards although no new data has been made vailable.

2a I am grateful to a mail from Mr or Ms Jay Nembhard for pointing out the following: On reading your account of George Stiebel I'd like to interject on a couple of things. The so-called 'black' middle-class that 'appeared' after slavery is not entirely true. Unfortunately we live in an age where America's Jim Crow laws have been ignorantly mixed with that of British Colonial nations. What I mean is that America had a racist 'one drop' policy which meant that anyone who had any black roots, no matter how distant was considered black. Does that mean a blond haired, blue eyed man whose great, great, great grandmother is black? No! The so-called 'black' middle-class of Jamaica in the 1800s were in fact 'mulattoes', that is, the mixed race offspring of white slave masters and overseers and black slave women. Unlike the USA, mixed race children were often looked after by their white fathers. They may not have inherited the father's estate but they were educated and as a result became successful businessmen and politicians. A good example is George William Gordon who became Mayor of Kingston. George Stiebel was one of those mixed race businessmen who married a white woman. Yes, having white servants and marrying a white woman may have offended the ultra-conservative Lady Musgrave. But I feel the "establishment" wasn't as threatened considering that slavery was abolished nearly fifty years before and white influence had since decreased as sugar plantations were not like they used to be post-emancipation. Being a seventh generation mulatto it does irk somewhat to be labelled 'black'. Not that I feel any more superior but I have a mixed heritage that is very much obvious and goes back nearly 200 years. I feel that somehow our history and culture is being side-swiped, not by hatred but by ignorance. Regards Jay nembhard

3. Density of Population in 1970, from Census (1977) p.23 The patterns of density have since grown but not changed position.

4. Concord Plaza and the Inez Bogues Museum in Fort Henderson (Photograph Author)

5. A Door within the zinc labyrinth of Grant’s Pen a shanty town enclave within Kingston, Skettel and Mantell are names for undesirable people.

6. The zinc Barricades of the Grants Pen Community. (Photograph André King)

7. A door to a yard in Kingston, a manifesto of faith hiding a pleasant little garden. (Photgraph Author)

8. The Francis Castle at Newhaven, A Castle built by a family as an act of faith. (Photograph Author)


Reference Bibliography


Brodber, Erna, A Study of Yards in the City of Kingston, Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, Mona Kingston, 1975.


Clarke, Colin G., Kingston Jamaica; Urban Growth & Social Change 1692-1962, University of California Press, 1975.


Census & Surveys, Division of, Department of Statistics, Kingston Jamaica, Demographic Atlas of Urban Areas; Commonwealth Caribbean Population Census 1970; Jamaica, Vol. 6, Part 1, Kingston 1977.


Higman, B.M., Jamaica Surveyed; Plantation Maps and Plans of the eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Kingston, 1988.


Johnson, Anthony, Kingston: Portrait of a City, Kingston, 1993.


King, André, The Zinc Architecture of Grants Pen; a Study of the Residential Architecture and Social Conditions within the Grants Pen Community, Unpublished MA Dissertation, Caribbean School of Architecture, 1997.


Levy, Horace, Barry Chavannes, et. al., They Cry “Respect!; Urban Violence and Poverty in Jamaica, A Report compiled by the Centre for Population, Community and Social Change, Department of Sociology and Social Work, University of the West Indies, Mona Kingston and the World Bank, 1996.


Norton, Ann, Shanties and Skyscrapers; Growth and Structure of Modern Kingston, Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, Mona Kingston, 1977.


Patterson, Orlando, The Sociology of Slavery; An Analysis of the Origins, Development and Structure of Negro Slave Society in Jamaica, Kingston, 1973 (1967).


Stanigar, Patrick A.O., “Our Ghettos and Us”, in Affordable Housing; The Continuing Search for Solutions; Proceedings of the National Housing Trust’s 20th Anniversary Housing Symposium, Kingston 1996.


Stanigar, Patrick A.O., “Kingston’s Future”, Text of the Eleventh Annual Bustamante Lecture, 1996.


Stone, Carl, Class, Race and Political Behaviour in Urban Jamaica, Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, 1973.


[1] CF Raoul Bunschoten, Urban Flotsam, Sun, 2001

[2] CF Higman