COMMENTARY: Culture made visible

Illustration taken from 'Caribbean sketches' by Roger Burnett
Illustration taken from ‘Caribbean sketches’ by Roger Burnett

In the recent E. O. LeBlanc Memorial Lecture, Professor Hazel Simmons-McDonald highlighted the importance of the Creole language in terms of preserving Dominica’s cultural identity. Whilst supporting a case for preserving the Creole language – and by extension Creole dance, music and dress – I consider that one significant aspect of Dominica’s cultural identity is being largely ignored: that being, the built environment.

Throughout life we are confronted with man-made surroundings. Increasingly, our houses, offices and public buildings reflect a foreign influence. Their design and material of construction does not relate to the local environment. Regimented housing is replacing scattered settlements. Hence, Dominica’s visible identity is being eroded. It follows that the individuality of places reflects the individuality of ourselves.

Villages and townships tend to grow of their own accord over a long period of time. There was seldom a pre-determined master plan. The people and their dwellings fitted into the topography of the land: they had to, because in earlier times there was no heavy earth moving equipment to make significant changes. When these settlements are viewed from the air or on a map, it seems that our forefathers had a great contempt of straight lines and regularity!

It is the higgledy-piggledy nature of these country communities that gives them their distinctive appearance and attributes. Not least of these attributes is yard space. Dominica’s sparse population in relation to landmass allows yard space that is the envy of city dwellers throughout the rest of the world. The yard is the family’s domain. It acts as outdoor extension to the house and a breathing space between neighbours.

Dominica has all the natural resources to sustain and promote a vernacular built environment. What is needed is the revival of necessary skills. Take a look at the old wrought iron balcony supports in Roseau and compare them with the shoddy welded fabrications of today. A skilled craftsman cannot be trained in six weeks, let alone six years. It is not just a case of wielding a hammer or pushing a plane, it is the accumulation of knowledge that is handed down from father to son. The great cathedrals from the past were not designed at the drawing board by architects but by craftsman at the workbench. Thus, the craftsman’s eye becomes a gauge to measure beauty by.

The built environment is particularly relevant at this point in time. Tropical Storm Erika has destroyed whole villages and displaced hundreds of families. Just as you cannot easily uproot a tree that has been growing for a lifetime and re-plant it in a new location; the same difficulty applies to re-settling a community of people. It is one thing to re-locate one by one, in one’s own time and inclination, be it to the next village or to a foreign land. But it is quite another for whole communities to be faced with an unforeseen immediate need to move and leave everything behind.

But a community is not made up of houses alone. Numerous other elements are needed to sustain life. They range from church to rum shop and from school to the village store. Not least is the means of employment and preferably employment within walking distance from home. In the past these elements came together of their own accord over a period of time. To instantly plan a township is an art form in itself. Interestingly, the man who wrote the definitive book on the subject began his working life in the Caribbean. The book, The Concise Townscape by Gordon Cullen, should be required reading by all involved in the re-settlement initiative.

Another book that has relevance, is News from Nowhere by William Morris. His vision of utopia was set down over a hundred years ago and deemed to be “pie in the sky”. However, at this point in time, the book could be considered as a viable blue-print for Dominica.

Incidentally, it is interesting to speculate how Dominican’s would have coped with the aftermath of the storm had it occurred eighty years ago. I suspect that every man, woman and child would have immediately started re-building with the resources at hand, albeit initially thatch and gaultry. In doing so they would have been putting into practice a line from one of Rudyard Kipling’s poems, a favourite of E. O. LeBlanc:

If you can…watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

In all of this I am not advocating that we return to the dark ages. As an engineer I embrace technology and as an artist, I believe that all work should be creative and pleasurable. Equally, our man-made environment should reflect our individuality and be pleasing to the eye, whether it be the chair we sit upon or the house we live in.

The re-building from Tropical Storm Erika could be a first step towards the restatement of Dominica’s visible cultural identity and in turn set a benchmark for the rest of the Caribbean.

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3 Comments

  1. Youth
    October 19, 2015

    Very interesting article.Make no mistake the Post-Erika building will reflect our present individuality and cultural identity.
    The thing is we continually deny this reality, maybe because it is so discomforting and painful.

    • Wrong Button
      October 20, 2015

      Sorry Youth, I pressed the wrong button. I totally agree with your statement. Keep strong!

  2. October 19, 2015

    The writer mentions “News from Nowhere”. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s a classic utopian anarcho-socialist fantasy that might have been on John Lennon’s nightstand while he was writing the lyrics to Imagine: no countries, no religion, and no possessions.

    It’s a well-meaning and fascinating theory, and I appreciate its basis in nonviolence, but re-organising Dominica as a giant hippie commune is probably not conducive to either individual or collective prosperity.

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