Architecture, Independence, and Identity in the Commonwealth Caribbean

• February 2013

Queen's Hall, Port of Spain, Trinidad. Competition entry rendered perspective, Architect Colin Laird c.1956

The attainment of independence for Commonwealth Caribbean states was informed by ideologies consistent with many of the socially driven political agendas that guided global politics in the latter half of the last century. The independence movement was driven by an essentially modern ideology and vision with a clear and determined focus on the future, one that entailed the emphatic rejection of the colonial past. The political and social significance of independence and the subsequent transformation of the various societies cannot be overstated in light of the fractious and repressive history from which these Caribbean states emerged. This essay investigates the relationship of architectural culture to this profound historical sociopolitical transformation, particularly in relation to the idea of cultural identity.

Culture and cultural production played a central role in the formulation and evolution of nascent Caribbean societies and was engaged and actively exploited in the articulation and promotion of national ideals. The political imperatives of sovereignty and citizenship were amply reflected in the collective enthusiasm with which political, sociocultural institutions, and practices were redefined. Cultural expression took on critical importance and absorbed the energies of a wide range of cultural practices as practitioners in all disciplines aligned their work with the political and social aspirations of the time. The nature of cultural production inevitably reacted to the repressive strictures of the colonial past and addressed the local as a primary source for the affirmation of identity in its engagement with dance and folk culture and corresponding themes in literature and the theater. Having cleared the way to political independence, cultural assimilation raised questions revolving around identity, a focus that continues to characterize the thematic orientation of much cultural production.

The ceremonial lowering of the Union Jack and the raising of the new colors of the fledgling nations initiated the transformation of institutions, values, and behaviors and required comprehensive cultural recalibration. Although tacitly understood as a cultural imperative, this was a process that proceeded with no clear precedent or strategy. While notions of modernity guided the broader strategic impulses, culture was still inevitably infused with the strong formal parameters and constrictions of the modes, mores, and manners of the former colonially dominated institutions and forms of cultural representation. In their respective fields, cultural practitioners were faced with the reconciliation of the complex interpretation of the loaded history of their own colonially conflicted cultural formation, while simultaneously committed to the assertion of entirely new modes of cultural practice. This emergent scenario offered the possibility of reflecting and supporting the cultural, political, and social aspirations and values of a new society, but one in which the boundaries, parameters, networks, and character were not defined. This was and continues to be a complex and unresolved position requiring the negotiation, decoding, and reformulation of layers of cultural and institutional value and meaning. While largely excluded from contemporary discourse on Caribbean culture, with its focus on painting, the performing arts, and literature, the identification of architectural culture constitutes a significant coordinate of this transformative arc.

While the role and status of architecture as a significant manifestation of culture is universally established, the manner in which its operation or practice is interpreted or related to architecture as a cultural product is often less clear. Architecture occupies an unusual status in relation to conventional preconceptions about art and culture as a consequence of the complexity that the process of its conception, development, and implementation entails. Notwithstanding this, architecture remains rooted in the realm of culture and occupies a very particular relationship to society, combining function and need, aesthetic and symbolic relevance and objectives. Certain buildings, places, and cities—and sometimes landscapes—are clearly recognized as having been conceived and created with clear and particular architectural intent and are loaded with cultural meaning. Such understanding and perception is a reading or interpretation influenced and informed by broader cultural, social, and political parameters. The context in which any form of cultural production is created is as important to understand as the cultural artifact itself, generating or influencing the need to conceive of the artifact and its production, reading, and interpretation.

In addition to this location of architecture within the broader contextual spectrum of culture and society lie more particular thematic preoccupations, including the relationship between the universal/modern and the vernacular. For the most part we can identify contemporary architectural production as essentially modern 1; however, vernacular architecture still plays an important role in our collective consciousness. Vernacular architecture, while generally not created with a deliberate conscious aesthetic, is imbued with significant cultural and aesthetic value. With vernacular architecture, we may not possess the skills to construct what we see, yet we can often understand its tectonic form—how it was constructed or assembled. The materials and how those materials are combined is comprehensible and understood in a way that is often reassuring in contrast to more contemporary architectural forms that derive from industrialized or optimized technique, the cognitive basis for which appears to reside elsewhere and with which it may ostensibly appear difficult to establish a direct tactile relationship. Thus, while a simple Caribbean dwelling may not be equipped with high-modern amenity, it still conveys an emotive and reassuring appeal and possesses an aesthetic quality that resonates with notions of what is understood or read to be authentic or local or belonging to us.

Political developments in the twentieth century gave rise to a widespread socialist tendency that took root in developing nations and particularly in societies undergoing the transition from colonial to independent status. For these societies, although they wished to embrace the idea of the local and pursued this interest in folk culture, in the establishment of an architectural culture they favored the universal modern language of architecture, since it provided an effective vehicle for the expression and accommodation of the advancement of society consistent with modernist ideology. Architecture and urban planning offered a tangible operation that permitted the transformation of colonial spaces into spaces that both symbolized cultural independence and provided a tangible alignment with a universally recognizable aesthetic promising new and alternative realities.

In spite of the desire for the formulation of an autonomous culture, this transformation and the application of modern architectural ideology was nevertheless mediated through what was ultimately a colonial mechanism. In her essay “The Networks of Tropical Architecture,” Hannah le Roux describes how colonial influence persisted through the network of the Commonwealth and continued to exert a strong influence on architectural culture long after independence.2  This tendency was developed through the systematic and comprehensive adoption of a variant of the modern language of architecture that emerged in the United Kingdom and was promoted by the architects Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew through their work in Nigeria and Ghana and their publication Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone (1956).3  This was an approach that became know as tropical modernism and that accommodated the desire and need for modernity, permitted the rejection of colonial structures and models, and appeared equitable and universal in that it did not discriminate in terms of archetypal hierarchy—for example, government buildings were built of the same materials and used the same syntax as social housing.

The colonial/institutional nature of architectural practice triangulated by the academy, the professional institute, and the regulation and operation of practice was replicated in the emergent professional architectural networks. Many Caribbean architects were trained in the United Kingdom and schooled in the aesthetic doctrine of tropical modernism, then returned to the Caribbean in the 1960s, forming institutes and associations and embarking on modes of practice predicated on the structure of British architectural practice together with its associated ideologies and architectural and urban models. These invariably included the tenets of Fry and Drew, whose work represented a form of manual, allowing architects to apply in their various tropical settings the modern architectural principles they had studied.

Tropical modernism expressed an appropriate means of deploying a universal architectural language ostensibly sensitive to the needs and requirements of modern society and tropical conditions. However, as Le Roux cogently argues, it was an approach that was nevertheless grounded in architectural ideas and concepts that ultimately originated and resided outside the fields of its deployment. Consequently, it did not effectively address the idea of the local or the regional beyond its negotiation of the peculiarities of climate—through the manipulation of tectonic form and prescriptive technique—and its capacity to accommodate and demonstrate the need for a new responsive approach to the optimism of the independence movements.

Tropical modernism was widely adopted as a definitive and ethically appropriate approach to production and was deployed within a robust centralized planning system; it consequently informed much of the architectural and urban planning production that evolved immediately after independence throughout the Commonwealth Caribbean and in most of the Commonwealth in general.

By the late 1970s, however, there was growing disillusionment, regionally and globally, with the capacity of modern architecture to effectively respond to the notion of the local or the collective memory and with the attendant values perceived as being embedded in traditional architectural and urban form, whether colonial or vernacular. Notwithstanding its association with slavery and cultural, political, and social domination, colonial architecture was seen as embodying aspects or readings of history that were worthy of reverence and appreciation and that needed to be preserved and retained. Modern architecture began to be viewed as an unsatisfactory mode of architectural representation, which, while responsive to a wide range of social and cultural imperatives, overlooked essential themes and motifs that had traditionally informed architectural production. This was a universal reaction and tendency that evolved into a period of architectural production known as postmodernism and was reflected in the production of architectural and urban models that engaged modern construction and planning technique expressed through the application and integration of historical forms, references, and associations.4  Many architects were critical of this short-lived but significant tendency and saw its representation as a form of appliqué or scenography that betrayed the sociopolitical function and potential of architecture and its capacity to advance society. While this form of the representation of the past was popular, among architects schooled in modernism it was seen as regressive and counter to the capacity for societal advancement inherent in modernist models and strategies.

Kenneth Frampton’s seminal 1983 essay “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance” addressed this dilemma.5  Frampton invoked what he termed a redemptive strategy, positing that in order to address the challenges of postmodernism—viewed as an unwelcome commodification of contemporary culture and a form of subversion of modernism—architects need to retain the progressive principles the modern project offered and addressed in their work: the sensory peculiarities of climate and place. In this way the liberal capacity of modernism could be reestablished. In opening his essay, Frampton quotes Paul Ricoeur to articulate the dilemma facing architects in developing states:

Thus we come to the crucial problem confronting nations just rising from underdevelopment. In order to get on to the road toward modernization, is it necessary to jettison the old cultural past which has been the raison d’etre of a nation? . . . Whence the paradox: on the one hand, it has to root itself in the soil of its past, forge a national spirit, and unfurl this spiritual and cultural revindication before the colonialist’s personality. But in order to take part in modern civilization, it is necessary at the same time to take part in scientific, technical, and political rationality, something which very often requires the pure and simple abandon of a whole cultural past.6

Many architects tacitly recognized the dilemma identified by Frampton and began to explore alternative means of production reflecting preoccupations outside the remit of the now mainstream modernism and examined how varying perspectives could be enjoined with a more responsive vision for the future. In Trinidad the position and work of architects such as Colin Laird reflected Frampton’s strategic and critical position.7  It was an approach that permitted the steadfast maintenance and adherence to the doctrinaire modernist and functionalist principles in which they had been formatively versed, principles that essentially mirrored the adaptive methodologies and approaches proposed by Fry and Drew but that offered a renewed vision. In response to the postmodern historicism that prevailed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, the architect John Newell-Lewis—an English architect who had settled in Trinidad in the 1960s and whose work had been up until the late 1970s uncompromisingly modern—published Ajoupa.8  Ajoupa identified a domestic archetype drawing on the vernacular and proposed a national architecture aligned with the sociocultural aspirations of independence. Newell-Lewis’s approach to his architectural work represented an innovative exploration that evolved into an examination of architectural typology and investigated and experimented with the integration of local motif and typologies into modern form. Newell-Lewis’s work subsequently influenced the Trinidadian architect Roger Turton, who developed and advanced this approach with considerable skill and success until his death in the 1990s.9  This theoretical trajectory was mirrored regionally in Guadeloupe in the work of the architect Jack Berthelot and in his seminal text Kaz Antiyé.10  Berthelot articulated a comprehensive taxonomy of archetypal vernacular form and endeavoured to invest his own architectural production with local motifs to assert its regional value.

Although many architects recognize and seek in their work to resolve the issue outlined by Ricoeur, few have been successful in doing so. Much Caribbean architecture appears to be unresponsive to critical formal or theoretical questions, favoring instead mimetic reproductions of often functionally and climatically inappropriate North American or European archetypes or work that scenographically and superficially mimics vernacular—or perversely—colonial architecture. Sadly, the collective discourse of architects revolves not around the nature of their production but more on the parochial and political subject of professional boundary protection. The creation of the Caribbean School of Architecture in the 1980s at Utech, in Kingston, Jamaica, offers some hope for such discourse but has yet to develop any significant research or inquiry in a manner that might effectively address the fundamental questions confronting Caribbean architecture.

From the beginning of the 1990s, the institutional structure of central planning and procurement and the commissioning of architecture began to deteriorate. Caribbean governments—traditionally the primary source for the commissioning of architecture—increasingly outsource architectural design, arguing that they must do so through economic necessity, with the consequence of a significantly reduced role for professional architects. Architectural practice and the role of architecture continue to be radically marginalized in comparison to architecture’s active engagement immediately after independence. This development may be seen as a consequence of trends in global procurement practice, but it also points to the public silence on the part of architects and the lack of coherent advocacy or demonstration of the value of architecture to society. Architectural production has been commodified and is generally perceived not as an active component of development but as an activity of secondary importance. Combined with the collapse of centralized planning, the adoption of an expedient and ad hoc approach to physical development compounded by poor governance has resulted in a marked deterioration in the quality of the physical landscape and built environment. The relationship between architecture, culture, and society remains an evidently problematic and frequently articulated issue and reveals a fractious and unsatisfactory status for what is a critical cultural practice.

Notwithstanding the current malaise, there remains a desire for coherence and a widely perceived need to reconcile the desire to formulate an approach to design that is responsive to a more global context and that is also responsive to both functional and aesthetic aspirations capable of reinforcing the relationship of the individual to the specificities and peculiarities of place. There is a role—a dire need—for the design of the built environment to contribute to a physical development aligned to cogent political, social, and economic objectives. Postindependence architectural production demonstrated how such an alignment is achievable. While current political and economic trends do not permit such an alignment, the potential and resources are certainly present. What is required is stronger advocacy and representation of the potential of design in this context and the promotion of the idea of design as a critical functional and aesthetic component of society.


Mark Raymond is an architect based in Port of Spain, Trinidad. After completing his studies at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, he worked on projects in Europe before returning to Trinidad to establish his own practice. He has been responsible for a wide range of projects in Trinidad and various locations throughout the Caribbean, on his own account and in collaboration with others.


1 The diverse application and interpretation of the terms contemporary, modern, and postmodern—and the nuanced meanings they may convey when applied to architecture art as opposed to art—requires clarification in this context. By contemporary I do not refer to a stylistic tendency reflective of the present but refer to any architecture that is produced at the present time, regardless of stylistic or cultural influence.

2 Hannah le Roux, “The Networks of Tropical Architecture,” Journal of Architecture 8, no. 3 (2003): 337–54.

3 Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone (New York: Reinhold, 1956).

4 The term postmodernism applied within architectural discourse, although related to shifts and movements in contemporary art and culture that emerged in the early 1980s, refers specifically to a period of architectural production characterized by the introduction or reinterpretation of historicist elements in the formulation of architectural and urban production

5 Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (San Francisco: Bay, 1983).

6 Paul Ricoeur, “Universal Civilization and National Cultures,” History and Truth (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1961), 276–77; quoted in Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism,” 16.

7 See Mark Raymond, “Modern Trinidad Outlined and the Works of Colin Laird and Anthony Lewis,” Docomomo Journal, no. 33 (September 2005): 64–70.

8 John Newel-Lewis, Ajoupa (Washington DC: American Institute of Architects Service Corporation, 1983); also published as Architecture of the Caribbean and Its Amerindians Origins in Trinidad.

9 Mark Raymond, “Roger Turton, Unfinished Pictures: A Prelude,” Small Axe, no. 37 (March 2012): 53–70.

10 Jack Berthelot and Martine Gaumé, Kaz Antiyé: Ja moun ka rété (Pointe a Pitre, Guadeloupe: Perspectives Creole, 1982).


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