In Dominica the word environment is taken to mean forests and rivers. Consequently, a blind eye is turned towards the built environment. If left alone, nature can look after herself. It is what we build upon the land that disfigures the landscape. I might add that we also ignore the social environment.
I am not advocating that we put the clock back and live under thatch. Nor am I writing this from the comfort of a palatial villa. With my family of four I live in a small space above my studio and workshop. What I am suggesting, is that we take greater care in designing buildings and structures and consider their effect on communities. Remember, the individuality of places, reflects the individuality of ourselves.
By design I am not referring to building codes and standards. Technicalities alone will not produce a structure that is pleasing to the eye and fit for its purpose. And a college degree does not necessarily solve the problem. Up to a hundred years ago, it was the master craftsman that determined good design and from his workbench beauty and function unselfconsciously united. Thomas Telford (1757-1834), the godfather of civil engineering, left school when he was twelve and served his apprenticeship as a stone mason. I am sure that Telford would have crossed the Roseau River in one dramatic leap, as he did the Menai Straits, and not by timidly leap frogging across in three hops.
Vernacular comes from within, not from without. A building and by extension, a lifestyle, that may be fitting for Florida or Dibai, is not necessarily fitting for Dominicans living in Dominica. It is hard to build something ugly out of natural materials. Stone, bamboo and hardwoods contribute to beauty, but concrete is less amenable. An architect’s job is surely not just to get concrete and steel to stick together. All too often the crucial design element, the bits we have to look at, suggests that many in the profession are visual impaired. Detailing, texture and scale are unknown attributes.
Architecture is our most visible art form: we live with it and look at it every day of our lives. Unlike paintings, furniture, and the clothes we wear, buildings cannot be moved around or changed at whim.
Physical planners and their respective ministries need a greater sensitivity to their homeland. Without it the whole island will degenerate into squalor. Roads have become parking places and a dumping ground for spent vehicles. Advertising hoardings are rampart and in Roseau pedestrians made exile. We need to revive the art of townscapes and create neighborhoods that are people friendly. Quick fix results and beautification (a word that sets my teeth on edge) will not solve the problem.
Land is man’s most precious possession: cars and gold chains pale beside it. God stopped making land a long time ago. It therefore behooves us to utilize what we have in such a way that future generations can be proud. Rebuilding from the devastation wrought by Tropical Storm Erika presents an opportunity to build back better, but building better means building back differently.
Other commentaries in Roger Burnett’s series on the built environment can be found under the following headings: Culture Made Visible; Building Back Differently; A Plea for the Practical; Re-locating a Rural Community to a Town Setting.