Last Thursday, I attended Parliament for the first time. Outside of that visit, I once attended a meeting in the Western wing of Parliament building and, in May, I stood among the crowd outside the gates of the compound for the swearing in of President Granger. Beyond that, I’ve just passed by a couple of times.
Parliament building is like City Hall and St. George’s Cathedral – you can tell that it used to be really beautiful at some point but now it just looks like it’s been through hell and back and it’s frankly exhausted and we should stop judging already. It was built in the early 19th century so it would have been through a lot: slavery, colonialism, independence, PNC rule, PPP rule, gridlock, prorogation… Not to mention our lovely tropical climate – humidity, heavy rainfall, harsh glaring sunlight 75% of the year.
In short, through hell and back.
Back to Thursday.
I attended Parliament to see, in person, the President’s address regarding Venezuela’s neighbourly and not, in any way, insane claim on Guyana’s territory. He gave some interesting context to the conflict, including references to instances where Venezuela promised peace between our two countries and instances where Venezuela broke said promises. And he summed up by saying Guyana has never threatened or provoked Venezuela which, if I were Venezuela, would make me feel a little ashamed of myself given my track record.
But that’s not what this post is about.
I’m here to share this particular photo with you because when I saw this in person I was taken aback:
Who knew this tired building housed such a gorgeous ceiling?
Aside from how beautiful it was, I was surprised by evidence that an artist was involved in the construction of the building I was sitting in. I have sat in a lot of buildings here and I can tell you that this is just abnormal.
Of course, I’m sure architects exist (though I’ve never met one) and people, of course, design the buildings they intend to construct. But architecture, as an art form, seems non-existent in Guyana. Contemporary architects (or the persons hiring them) seem to lean toward utility rather than style or beauty and most new buildings popping up around Georgetown tend to look like, well, warehouses. Even our newest “mall”, Giftland, really and truly looks like a warehouse from the outside (but still, great job guys! Love the cinema). Even private homes of the people who can afford a little style with substance end up looking like the inhabitants think they either live in New England or Florida. In other words, rather than create, people emulate.
I think I understand the motivation behind some of it – a need for permanence, battling harsh weather, ensuring security and, in some cases, the desire to project the always desirable “foreignness”.
And yet, I know I’m not the only person who greatly admires the “tropical Victorian” style of buildings that still exist in some places.
Maybe we shouldn’t be overly concerned with literal window dressing and maybe we’re right to leave the trappings of our colonial past behind us. But I think that our current version of “architecture” points to more than just a lack of style or imagination.
Years ago, I was staying with a friend who had a copy of Alain de Botton’s “Architecture of Happiness”. It was my first introduction to de Botton who is excellent at picking out big ideas in our every day life experiences. I’d never been interested in architecture but I thoroughly enjoyed the book and learned a lot from it, including why some spaces make us feel comfortable and others do not and why some are breathtaking and yet others inspire reflection.
Here’s a quote from the book that should give you a lot to chew on:
“We depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them. We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves. We arrange around us material forms which communicate to us what we need — but are at constant risk of forgetting what we need — within. We turn to wallpaper, benches, paintings and streets to staunch the disappearance of our true selves.”
If that were true, what moods or ideas do our buildings currently remind us of? What vision do we see of ourselves?
I don’t think these are purely academic questions to ask. I think there’s a reason significant effort is being put into the various clean up efforts that have sprung up since May 16. We think that our environment plays some role in shaping our psyche and well being. We know how we feel seeing trash everywhere.
In a similar fashion, I think that overt signs of neglect and downright ugliness create or add to feelings of disappointment and distress that some of us experience on a daily basis moving through the capital city. I think we are in desperate need of spaces where we feel uplifted and relaxed. And I think a revival of a culture of architecture as an art form would help create those spaces.
Anyway, that may all be hogwash because that beautiful ceiling doesn’t seem to have inspired the most dignified behaviour over the years.
Or maybe MPs need to spend more time looking up.