Most Caribbean architecture designed today gets it wrong… and usually for a reason that’s right under our collective noses, but that nobody seems to notice. No, the buildings don’t live and breathe like Caribbean buildings; they’re designed to be closed up and air conditioned as if they were built in Orlando or Atlanta because we’re designing to American performance standards based on the efficiency of the machinery, not the efficiency of the lifestyle. No, they don’t resist hurricane winds naturally, but rather flex their muscles thanks to steel structure and connections… never mind that one of steel’s mortal enemies is salt water, a substance in high supply in the Caribbean. And no, they don’t surround themselves with the enticing outdoor rooms that were so essential for so long to living comfortably in a climate that’s just about perfect for outdoor living. Yes, these items are errors, or at least missed opportunities. But even if a design got them all perfectly right, there’s another factor that’s missing: the scale and proportion of true Caribbean buildings.
Eric, Julia, and I were all part of the New Urban Guild charrette to design the early architecture of DPZ's Schooner Bay, working side-by-side with Galina Tachieva and the DPZ team. Town Founder Orjan Lindroth insisted on holding the charrette at Dunmore Town on Harbour Island. We didn’t realize at first how fortuitous a decision that was… but Orjan knew. Time and again, we would walk out onto the streets of Dunmore Town to see how the Bahamians had done it over the centuries. And time and again, we were surprised or even shocked at what we found. A five-bay house in the US, for example, might be 35 to 40 feet wide because each bay (the space in which a door or window is located) is usually 7 to 8 feet wide in well-proportioned architecture, and usually wider (and therefore squattier) in regrettable work. But we’d step off the Dunmore Town houses along Bay Street only to find that five-bay houses there were between 24 and 28 feet wide… unthinkable dimensions in the US. It turns out that the scale and proportional rules we normally follow are all broken by Bahamian architecture. And I now believe it’s precisely the smaller scale and tighter proportions that allow Bahamian architecture (and that of other Caribbean nations as well) to embody the Teddy Bear Principle like few other places… and to therefore be more endearing than that of most other places we ever visit.
What is it about the Caribbean that lends the architecture such charming proportions and scale? I believe it springs from the sea. Years ago, when we were designing the first Katrina Cottages (and more recently with the SmartDwellings) we explained that they were “small like a yacht”… meaning that everything was designed very compactly and thoughtfully because space was limited. Inland buildings can sprawl on without consequence beyond the budget, but a sprawling ship is more likely to break up in a storm. So seafaring vessels are likely to be as large as necessary… but no larger. And shipbuilders were often the best house-builders because they were so good with wood, so the design sensibilities of the seas came home to Bay Street.
Green architecture discussions usually center on mechanical performance. Far too often, it's all about Gizmo Green. But as anyone knows who has read the Original Green, if a building can’t be loved, it won’t last, and the carbon footprint of that building is meaningless once its pieces have been carted off to the landfill. Put another way, the first responsibility of architecture is to be lovable so that its durability, adaptability, and frugality is meaningful.
I believe the Dunmore Town charrette set the course of Schooner Bay architecture in a more lovable direction than any other new architecture being done today anywhere along the Caribbean Rim… or at least of any place I have seen. Here’s more on how that’s happening… and it’s not just us. Schooner Bay is an excellent example of a place giving birth to a new living tradition, and that tradition can have an influence for good on everyone who works in the place.
What do you think? What would you nominate for the most lovable places in the Caribbean? Is there one place that is head and shoulders above the rest for you, or do you have many favorites?