Architecture in the tropics is best based on a simple principle: keep the sun and the rain out and let the breeze in. Simple! - Simple?
The tribal peoples described as ‘American Indian’, or short Amerindian, who inhabited these latitudes long, very long before we all came, lived in houses that were built along those simple principles. Their ajoupas, made of forest materials, provided shade and shelter and were yet airy. They were built differently by the various tribes, sometimes rectangular, sometimes round, sometimes with tapia walls (a mixture of mud and straw), sometimes with woven materials, they might have housed single families or several families or even the entire tribe.
The ‘primitive’ ajoupa was so well adapted to its surroundings, and so comfortable and practical for its occupants, it became the prototype of Trinidad architecture, observed John Newel Lewis, British by passport and Trinidadian by heart, who spent many years of his life researching principles of Caribbean architecture.
“We find the Amerindian ajoupa style carried through, clothed in various ways as the population had mind to do, with no imperial boot kicking it around or destroying it, or putting colonial palaces in its place,” writes Newel Lewis in his book ‘Ajoupa’.
The Spanish settlers in Trinidad were never very numerous. They mixed with the native Amerindians, and since social and administrative constraints on them were minimal, they also adapted the ajoupa very freely. Three hundred years later, the coloniser Philipe Rose-Roume de St. Laurent describes Port-of-Spain houses in 1777 as made of whitewashed mud and thatched with palm leaves. The Spanish ajoupas were fast to build, cheap and comfortable to live in. It is possible that the Spaniards adapted the ajoupa to their tastes, extending the walls of the house to form a courtyard to keep the domestic animals in and other varieties out.
It was with Trinidad’s settlement by people from the French Antilles at the end of the 18th century that a large amount of people came to the island for the first time. They brought with them many cultural practices and tastes which were to dominate Trinidad for the next century. The French built their ajoupas with walls of timber and roofs of shingle. They added coings (corner stones), dormer windows, balustrades, mansard roofs, masonry and a second storey that protruded over the sidewalk supported by arcardes. From the simple wooden cocoa estate house, to the lavish ornamental great houses: all are variations on the theme ‘ajoupa’ - that being to let in the cool breeze, and keep out the rain and the sun.
With emancipation, the descendants of slaves were building communities in compounds called yards. These yards were outside of planning regulations and the cradle for many cultural expressions, amongst these shango, limbo, stickfight, bongo, calypso, mas and later the steelpan. They developed their own version of the ajoupa: natural materials like tapia and thatch for walls and roofs, but with structural supports of pre-sawn timber. Later on, the materials changed to clapboard for walls and galvanised iron for roofing. The African ajoupa was raised off the ground on bricks or tree trunks.
The British, who came very shortly after the French and Africans, had to find a way to make their presence felt in the already multicultural reality of Trinidad. Architecturewise, they did so by designing new public and clerical buildings that bore a definite Anglo-Saxon stamp, formal structures like the old Police Headquarters on St. Vincent Street, the Red House, the President’s House etc.
“The result in the 19th century was a town of Afro-Franco creolised ajoupas with English style cathedrals.” (John Newel Lewis)
With the British official style, classical orders and shapes were introduced to Trinidad. The Red House, for example, has Corinthian columns, and the General Hospital had Doric and Ionic columns. The Police Barracks at St. James are built in the Georgian style, the style which is prevalent in other West Indian islands like Jamaica or Barbados. The British colonial style does not have the ajoupa’s characteristics of being cheap to build and to recycle, and made of materials sourced from the natural environment. But the British architects found their own way of adapting to the climatic necessities of building in the tropics.
The indentured Indian labourers, after leaving the estate barracks, were free to build their houses as they thought most comfortable. They did so in the traditional Indian fashion - which did not differ very much from the Amerindian ajoupa. What makes the East Indian ajoupa special, however, is the use of clay for floors and walls, and the front porch being backed by the kitchen porch, with a wall between them. It also has a large clay-covered area around it, swept clean, with stumps of trees and no vegetation. Instead of using a pre-fabricated timber frame like the Africans, the Indians built their ajoupas with round poles and bamboo, to which they would apply the tapia mixture. The house was usually thatched with palm leaves (tirite), later with galvanised iron sheets.
George Brown’s influence:
Brown came to Trinidad from Glasgow, Scotland, in 1883. He brought with him the idea of the Gingerbread House and created an elaboration on the ajoupa with iron and wooden fretwork, jealousies and a gallery. The Gingerbread House has a timber frame and roof made of slate or galvanised corrugated iron. After the great fire of 1895, Brown rebuilt many houses, introducing the iron frame to make the buildings more flame-proof. Most importantly, he introduced the lantern roof to Trinidad, which brought air and light to the center of larger buildings.