Friday, 4 January 2008

Our Architectural Vernacular

Where does the nostalgia for these houses come from? I grew up in the 1970s in a standard suburban Caribbean home, so it's not to say that I have childhood memories of this architecture.
Perhaps it is that these remarkable houses are so representative of our diversity. These old houses call to mind slower days, days when each house had to be crafted to catch the dying breezes of the rainy season, channeling them through wooden louvres and demerara windows. The steep gables give an indication of the high ceilings of most interiors, an integral part of keeping the house cool. The much beloved gallery was a place to relax, look out upon the happening of the world and entertain visitors.

Trinidad was a Spanish colony for far longer than many of the other English speaking islands. But being so close to the coveted mainland we were often bypassed in the busy traffic that was hurrying to get the plunder fresh off the Lama trails and across the Atlantic.
What does this have to do with our houses in Trinidad? Quite a bit. Our history was very different to most of the region and by extension, so is our architectural heritage. Never a French colony, yet very French in both custom and style. Many of the gingerbread trimmings such as fretwork bear a strong similarity to period houses out of Louisiana, Martinique and Guadeloupe; a reflection of the influence of the French cocoa planters that came to the then Spanish colony to plant cocoa, develop estates and escape political unrest in the French islands.
A visit to other islands throws up similarities, but Trinidad cannot be pinned down as being primarily Georgian like most British colonies, neither are we classically Spanish like much of the mainland and the Spanish islands such as Puerto Rico.
Strange because we were in fact only colonized by these two countries.
Our national architecture was influenced by many immigrants- East Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, Syrian/Lebanese. and others.
Throw the weather into the mix and things really get interesting. The heavy humidity and rainfall during the long rainy season dictated practical aspects such as long useful verandahs, often adorned with breadfruit fern baskets to provide shade and the beautiful demerara windows that have just begun to make a resurgence. Many of the older houses had lovely fretwork built into the sides of the windows. These windows are ideally suited to the climate and were often found in the kitchens as the served the dual purpose of letting in breeze and providing shade at the same time.
The building below is one of the Magnificent Seven that are found around the Savannah.
Roomor, as it is now known, was once known as "Mr.Ambard"s House".

According to "Searching for SugarMills. An Architectural Guide to the Eastern Caribbean" by Suzanne Gordon and Ann Hersh, the house was built by Lucien. F.Ambard, a prominent cocoa proprietor, after a Parisian chateau of the Second Empire where he had lived with his family. It is sometimes called the "Queen of Architecture". Towers, pinnacles, dormers and cupolas accentuate the roofline and the galleries. The house had Renaissance-style ironwork made in Scotland.
The Queen is a bit down on her luck these days. Privately owned, she is suffering from the ravages of a hot, humid climate, her glory days behind her.