Wednesday 14 March 2012

Architecture in Trinidad and Tobago

The city of Port of Spain from an architectural perspective attained, albeit in a modest manner, a high point in the 1920s. During this period, the city contained most, if not all, architectural styles built over the previous 120 years.
There were the wooden, shingled buildings built by the French that had survived the fire of 1808. There still remained some buildings which had been built in the Spanish colonial style. These were built by Venezuelans for refugees from their country 30 or 40 years after the British conquest, e.g. the "Cabildo Building" on Sackville Street.
Most of the buildings on Henry, Charlotte, George, Nelson and Duncan Street as well as the streets that crossed them, erected after the fire of 1808, with their massive blue limestone walls, were constructed in a style very similar to what exists in Fort de France, Martinique, today. They were distinguished by their tall doorways, "quoined" corners, brick filling between dressed stone, dormer windows and  stone balustrades as still seen on the roof of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Independence Square.
Frederick Street was very up to date in the 1920s, some may say even futuristic. After the fire of 1897 that had burnt out lower Frederick Street, George Brown, a Scottish architect, designed and supervised the building of "The Stores." Complete with iron banisters, plate glass windows, mezzanines and lantern roofs they were fashionable, attractive, up-market and more or less survived into the 1980s. Brown's facades were reminiscent of New Orleans because of the intricately cast ironwork.
The French influence was all-pervasive in Port of Spain and was to remain so until the 1950s. There was also the simple, wooden chattel house, standing on pillar trees, usually two-roomed, and neat as a pin. The idea for those houses was more than likely imported  from Barbados, where ordinary people hardly ever owned land but built chattel houses that could easily be moved if the need arose.
The town's suburbs, Belmont, Newtown and Woodbrook, were expanding, driven by a modicum of prosperity as a result of the Cocoa economy, which had peaked in the last decade of the previous century. The little "Gingerbread" houses of those neighbourhoods were equipped with porticoes, jealousied windows, pitched roofs with dormers, and lots of lacy woodwork. Some were quite petite, others large and rambling, some imposing. You will find variations of these in Haiti, Martinique and Guadeloupe. All this had come with the French people; it was part of their cultural baggage, along with Carnival, long dresses over many lace petticoats, fine embroidered "foulards" and a gay madras kerchiefs tied so as to tell whether the lady was a widow or "looking".
Right alongside all of this was real poverty, lived out in the barrack yards. These yards were old stables and slave quarters of a previous epoch that had been hired out for rent when the original owners had moved on to better parts of town. Trinidad's first slum lords would have balked at such a description, and may have sought excuse by saying that the peppercorn rent charged saved many a West Indian immigrant from homelessness.
Most of old Port of Spain's old French buildings that once clustered round the Catholic Cathedral were destroyed by fire in the 1980s or willfully left to degenerate into dilapidation. Most towns in the Caribbean possessing such architecture do what it takes to preserve those buildings. We in Trinidad, however, not dependent on the visitor market for hard currency, let our old town vanish. It all began when some one said, "Massa day done", and when people without a grasp of cultural and aesthetic values got so rich that they were able to buy properties and sacrifice the historical and architectural gems on them for yet another air-conditioned atrocity. - all under the excuse of the three "p": popularity, progress and profit.
The face of the city also contained formal or polite architecture which may be described as architect-designed and builder-built. There are classical buildings, defined as one whose "decorated elements derived from the architectural vocabulary of the ancient world, the classical world" (John Newel Lewis H.B.M., from John Summerson's "The Classical Language of Architecture"). Newel Lewis goes on to say,
"The sense of authority and dignity, which the classical order inspires, makes it a suitable language for official buildings. The Red House uses the Corinthian order both in columns and in half columns... The General Hospital employs the Doric and Ionic. The Tuscan is often used, in the Railway Station for example... It is surprising how many orders are found in Port of Spain."
The Building and Loan Association building, on the corner of Queen and Chacon Street, is an excellent example of classical artwork in the cityscape. Around and about one may still see the Georgian style. It exists in the Police Barracks at St. James and the Salvation Army's Men's Hostel on the corner of Sackville and Edward Street. One excellent example was the old Deanery on Abercrombie and Queen Street; that's gone now.
The overall destruction of the buildings of Port of Spain and of our architectural heritage all over Trinidad and Tobago is a disturbing indication of what is taking place in the ... of the body social and the body politic. We the people, we the town planners, we the architects, we the property owners, ongoingly destroy the buildings that define our history, ourselves. Every old mansion acquired by a developer is torn down replaced by a block of apartments. So-called city planners award the permissions for that, and in so doing destroy future generations' proud heritage.
Also, whenever there is a fire, there is no thought of restoration. The old Town Hall and Princes Building were examples for that. In another country it may have been rebuilt so as to maintain the personality of the town, but we, a society whose children don't re-use even a plastic fork, don't seem to have that in us. In Europe, whole cities were rebuilt in the style and manner of there prewar condition. The preserving and restorations of a nations architectural heritage is about maturity, it is about valuing what we have so as to impart it to another generation. Maybe it takes a couple of wars and total destruction for a society to mature.

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