Five hundred years ago the painter and sculptor was also the engineer, architect, town planner, philosopher and poet. Hence, the glory of the Renaissance. Today, we are taught to specialize in one thing and creative thought and solutions count for naught.
To combat the dreariness of our surroundings and the increasing dreariness of our lives, we need to re-establish those all-embracing skills. In doing so we enable a desperately needed grass-roots art form to develop: the art of environment.
The art of the environment and, by extension, the art of townscape, is all about preserving the identity of places and not allowing Dominica to become the same as everywhere else. The defence of the individuality of places is the defence of the individuality of ourselves. It is not just about the design of buildings and other structures, but rather about how they are arranged to create a dramatic sense of place and belonging.
We must be cautious of allowing others to conceive the content of our environment, and purchasing it off-the-peg in one-size-fits-all.
We have to regain confidence in the wellspring of our own being.
But you may ask: isn’t this the job of the Planning Department?
Gordon Cullen (1914-1994), who wrote the definitive book on the subject*, began his working career right here in the Caribbean as a frustrated town planner. No doubt some of our own planners feel equally frustrated. Art, for in essence that is what we’re talking about, cannot be tied down within a government department and decided upon by committees. Committees are the death knell of creative thought and creative solutions.
To explain what the Art of Environment is all about, let me tell you what it is not:
-Cars parked on pavements.
-Street lights along rural roads.
-A Civic Square for car parking.
-Housing estates that comprise of rows of identical “little boxes”.
-Town houses for villagers that previously grew their own provisions and kept hens, goat and a pig in their backyard.
-Derelict vehicles on the roadside – even before Maria I counted twenty along the two miles between Canefield and Antrim.
The Art of Environment is all-inclusive both in content and participation. The content ranges from seemingly minor details, like the lettering on street signs, to imaginative planning for our towns and villages. The participants include every man, woman and child.
Seven years ago I responded to the government’s request for designs for a Roseau River Promenade. However, as I am neither a contractor, architect or town planner, my submission was not deemed eligible. Pity, as the best idea for a major UK regeneration initiative came not from the experts sat around a board room table but from a housewife standing in the queue at the Post Office.
My idea for a Roseau River Promenade is different in that it looks at a broader picture. It includes re-developing the area alongside the river that is bounded by Great George Street, Hillsborough Street and Hanover Street. Within that area we could create a new Market Square enclosed by multifunctional buildings – shops below, offices and residences above – buildings that reflect our Caribbean vernacular, rather than a pastiche of styles from elsewhere.
Thus, the creation of a new heart for Roseau and a vibrant focal point for citizens and visitors. The land occupied by the present Roseau Market could be converted into an adjoining carpark and bus terminal, together with an unobstructed through route for north bound traffic.
This is the kind of all-embracing initiative that results from creative thinking in terms of the Art of the Environment. Different, yes! But perhaps our moto should be: Yes we’re different – and proud of it.
*The Concise Townscape by Gordon Cullen.