Fear and Triumphalism in 21st Century Guyanese Architecture

A friend put me onto a better piece of writing on Guyanese architecture. Thanks, friend. Now, I need to go back to the drawing board and learn how to write.

You can read it directly here or below:

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What is the purpose of architecture? Roman architect Vitruvius in the early 1st century AD declared it should satisfy three principles: durability – it should stand up robustly and remain in good condition; utility – it should be useful and function well for the people using it; and beauty – it should delight people and raise their spirits.

Now why would the toga wearing Vitruvius have anything relevant to say about modern day Guyana architecture …until one considers the proliferation in this far away land of Roman columns . When one really starts looking they are everywhere, in all shapes and styles- Ionic, Dhoric, Tuscan – on the grandest buildings, at the entrances to private homes, and even on the veranda of an East Coast spare parts store surrounded by second hand tyres.

Perhaps the building which most encompasses this Roman aesthetic is at Camp and Lamaha streets. Now in construction, this imposing five- storey monolith has a facade adorned by nine 60 ft fluted columns that support absolutely nothing. These punctuate a series of monotonously repeating square windows broken by what can only be described as a triumphal arch as its main entrance way. And then there is the tower, completely out of character to the rest of the building with a spiral stair case winding around an elevator shaft. One suspects this will be clad in blue mirror at some point.

The feeling one gets while standing in front of this building is of great heaviness. Not only the sense that the building is heavy but an internal heaviness caused perhaps by the way it dominates, even bullies its surroundings both in height, style and size. It is as depressing as it is high.

One should also question the economic feasibility of a building that conservatively must cost US$100 to US$150 per sqft to construct as well as more practical concerns such as the strain on an ancient sewage system and parking.

Other examples of unfortunate architectural design include the Ashmin’s store on Hadfield and High Streets which is similarly lumpen with graceless vertical slabs of concrete interspersed with glass and what appear to be non-functional flying buttresses. It is department store as mausoleum and one wonders how it could have been allowed to sully an area which includes the historic parliament buildings.

Then there is the Fort at the Russian Embassy Turn. With its drum tower and battlements this structure is actually far more modern than the Roman style buildings, if only that it harkens to the Middle Ages and looks more suited to fighting off chain-mail clad invaders than for living in. One could easily imagine the owner pouring hot oil over its walls. While this building is more about folly than about grandeur, it is a bizarre eyesore that belongs in a theme park rather than on the country’s seawall .

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Private homes have also been infected by the roman style but with the watered down quite innocuous designs that permeate Florida housing tracts. Only the grandest are reprehensible in their pomposity. More worrying is the insular and anonymous nature of the average design as exemplified by many homes at Le Ressouvenir. The occasional small veranda is a nod to the old past time of sitting out there in the evenings and watching the road . But no one sits out there. The homes have turned their backs on the world outside even as they cower behind high spiked walls, essentially becoming air conditioned islands, sealed and safe, the better to protect the interiors purchased straight out of an Ethan Allen catalogue.

More dangerously many of these homes are now ensconced in gated communities with all the sociological economic maladies such developments have created worldwide: the isolation from less fortunate fellow citizens, and the lack of reliance on public services that creates an attitude of indifference to their efficient provision. If one lives in a gated community does one really care about the local council’s garbage collection? So what do all these Roman columns, these grand edifices, and the plush interiors speak of Guyana in the early years of the 21st century? Many things but firstly of triumphalism…hence the grand arches. The emphasis on height is no accident. It is at its most banal level a statement on socio economic status. In Guyanese parlance the owner has literally “gone up”. After all in the modern Guyana the acquisition of wealth by any means necessary and its ostentatious consumption are considered virtues. (and the lack thereof is some moral failing.)

The grander buildings are really celebrations of the new commercial elite signifying their arrival, however in their insistence on size and solidity also betray fears about how permanent this elite’s supremacy might be. Secondly the ornaments of ancient Rome serve as merely lazy borrowed and unimaginative symbols of refinement, respectability and taste. They are tokens for the individual to appropriate and display but offer no inkling of individual style or thought. In that regard they show a lack of knowledge and respect for one’s own culture.And this is also perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the modern Guyanese home in its complete absence of local or family furniture – a wardrobe from the family home, a grandfather’s Berbice Chair. This absence seems to be saying not only how far one has come, to be able to afford all these new belongings, but how far the occupants have run from their past, to create a new persona, a new way of life with no reference to their history, their roots.

And the high walls of the gated communities simply reflect the fears of those more fortunate, another barrier of protection, but one that also separates a society increasingly divided between the haves and have nots. Architecture is not just about buildings, it speaks of a nation’s culture, its mindset. In this regard modern Guyana architecture offers some troubling pointers to the socio-economic health of this country.

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