A while back, I was on a trip to a small island in the West Indies to investigate a site for a new project along with an interior designer and another architect, both good friends. On the final day when all other work was done, we set out to see the whole of the dramatic mountainous island. This wasn’t an afterthought, or simply a sightseeing trip. We all saw it as a critical part of understanding the idea of the place in which we were to build.
A local told us that it should take about 45 minutes to circumvent the body of the island, formed by a large cloud-shrouded volcano. But we knew better. This would take time. In fact, it took us 30 minutes just to zig-zag our way out of the small colonial village, where we had started- every corner offering a more interesting route out of town. Our road now led us through a landscape of a rich and brutal history, forged first by the French- then British, who extinguished the native population only to replace them with African slaves. Abandoned sugarcane fields, ancient quarries and places with names such as Bloody Creek and Queenie’s Well, lent new meaning to a paradise amid swaying palms and tranquil turquoise seas.
But with every mile this rich history spoke to us. Tiny hamlets nestled around a small stone church, or the old stone kilns used for boiling down sugar breaching the jungle canopy offered a look into the rich heritage of this isolated place. “Stop! Stop!” was the call every time someone’s eye caught something of note. Often, we were halted simply by a textured and patinated wall, a shutter detail, or a shadow pattern strewn across a plaster wall by a rusted and pitted tin roof.
But it was the scenes of a dignified simple life expressed in a six-foot by ten-foot shack with an intricately patterned rail, or complex fretwork eave that gave us wonder. Shanties of perfect proportion with colorful shutters belying any other want but beauty, stood with noble pride within a community.
Our last stop was an abandoned sugar plantation. It’s masters had abandoned the place and the structures given over to time long ago; the island now committing its economy to the tourist that arrive by over-sized cruise ships that out-populate the island itself. Beautiful stone shells of classical buildings and sculptural sugar kilns rest peacefully beside a small seaside church that holds the tombs of the old masters. They are all now gone, the fruits of their labors tended by goats.
Our journey of course lasted hours. We weren’t just looking, but attempting to really see; to seek the uncelebrated, the overlooked, the meaningful; for as designers, as architects, as those who build for our future, we hope to touch upon the richness of life. We seek that which gives us pride, that which gives us reflection, that which gives us longing- and that which is shared among a people and a future to be.
It is with sadness that I receive the continuing news of Irma’s impact on the Caribbean. I hope that the affected island’s cultures, people and terrain are able to recover. As in the past, while storms are tragic events, they offer an opportunity for renewal.