Wallpaper: Letter from the Caribbean

Extract from Wallpaper*

Turquoise seas, azure skies, white sand beaches, palm trees – the clichéd image of the Caribbean is familiar the world over. But when it comes to visual culture – the contemporary artists, designers and architects practicing in the Caribbean – there is almost no impression whatsoever. Little is available on the web, partly because the region is a bit behind in terms of internet usage, but also because architecture and cultural guides have tended to overlook contemporary culture, focusing instead on the historical ‘Caribbean Style’ that dates back to colonial times. So is there anything going on beyond the sun, sea and sand?

The economic development of the Caribbean stems from the 17th to 19th century trade in sugar. At that time, colonists with aristocratic pretensions emigrated from Europe to manage plantations, bringing with them the fashions of both Europe and America in the form of architectural catalogues and pattern books. The adapted Classical architecture that comes from that period is still influential and aspirational in parts of the Caribbean. Renovated plantation houses are highly sought after and even the most basic self-build often alludes to a Classical tradition in the choice of detailing. The influence of African culture brought by the slaves who worked on the plantations also had a profound effect on the region, though less obviously in architectural terms than in other areas.

Today tourism has replaced sugar as the principle economic force in the region and, as in colonial times, the design influences of the wider world are being brought to the Caribbean in the form of luxury accommodation – hotels and holiday homes. This time round, though, the architectural imports typically follow a Modernist tradition, and it could be said that Modernism is becoming the dominant architectural form in the region.

The rise of Modernism is also a result of more pragmatic concerns. While the traditional building material of the region is timber, the extreme climatic conditions – year round heat that can cause fires, a hurricane season and earthquakes – have led to a preference for constructing in concrete. This, combined with the cheapness and simplicity of concrete based construction, plus the wide availability of concrete building products (easily lending themselves to self-build) has meant that concrete architecture now dominates the region’s landscape.

As was the case with Classicism before it, this imported Modernism is being adapted to fit with the Caribbean. The importance of shade and the maximisation of ventilation are crucial concerns for building in the tropics and have led to the veranda or covered balcony as a key architectural space in both colonial and contemporary architecture. At the same time, concrete buildings in the region are highly perforated, so as to balance the free flow of air for ventilation, while maintaining security. In colonial times this was achieved through timber louvers integrated with windows, contemporary versions of which are visible in the gallery of architecture above. Meanwhile the cheaper Modern-vernacular favours perforated concrete blocks and elaborate metal grilles.

Many of the Caribbean islands have been formed by volcanoes rising out of the sea (the region lies on a fault line between two tectonic plates). Consequently, constructing in the region often involves building on steep slopes. The integration of water and planting often play key roles, especially in more luxurious developments and there is also an exuberant tendency towards colour and hand painted decoration of smaller vernacular buildings, though this is yet to find its way through to the more high-brow realms of architectural practice.

Gradually the region is waking up and addressing the question of collective cultural identity. Governments are using architecture to try and present themselves as modern countries, art scenes and film festivals are being coordinated on facebook, campaigns are being fought to protect Modern buildings and the architects of the region are holding regular national and Caribbean wide conferences to discuss their work, common themes and their appearance to the outside world.

Here, we illustrate a range of projects from the grandest (hotels and university buildings) to the humblest self-build houses and huts. The hope is to provide a snap-shot of the Caribbean art and architectural scene and bring to wider public attention some of the great architects and work that is being produced in this tropical region.

Read the full article at the Wallpaper* website