Following is the second part of “Building Under the Sun” by Rory Westmas

Ideas suffer a sea-change
But the discipline of classical architecture on its way to the Caribbean went through a middle passage and suffered a sea change. We can be sure that ideas came from many sources and were copied and re-copied many times over losing their original significance, becoming mere decoration or gaining some new meaning.

The Dutch, French and English were here as colonizers; the Africans, Portuguese. Chinese and East Indians were brought as slaves or agricultural labourers. Most of them have left some mark on the architecture of the country, some appear to have left little or none. Yet the scene is even more confused when it is remembered that in 1760 Storm Vans Gravesande, Secretary to the Dutch West India Company in Essequibo, opened that colony as well as Demerara to all nations, offering free land and ten years tax holiday. How many nationalities answered this invitation is* not known. A hundred years later 400 Germans came as settlers but in three or four years yellow fever had reduced their number to 20. At about this time there were in the colony over 65,000 Creoles born here. Africans numbered over 15,000; there were nearly 10,000 West Indian Creole immigrants; Maderia Portuguese 2,000; whites—English, Irish and Scots—numbered over 2,000. By the end of the 19th century “every race except Polynesian” was represented. When the English came on the scene in 1796 and again in 1803 the ideas they brought with them were also those of a late renaissance —an English interpretation of classical architecture.

The ideas of Georgian architecture are English. But here again another example of ‘cultural diffusion’, a fine euphemism, should be mentioned. In Holland the Dutch had just passed through a Palladian period as well as a period of an even more austere architectural style. England after 1713 developed trade with the Netherlands. Emigre engineers, craftsmen and artisans from Holland had helped develop English industries. The English copied from Dutch designs. The process continued and the association had its effect on English architecture. This had already been influenced by Palladio by virtue of the tradition of the Grand Tour and direct study of Palladio’s works. By the turn of the 18th century the ideas from both sources had been well assimilated and transformed into an English architecture so that the growing prosperity there saw the erection of many Roman villas on the periphery of several towns.

Clues point to stages
To return then to the development of the house in the 18th and 19th centuries. The evidence of the process of addition is everywhere. It is possible in some cases to see where the house had been raised an extra few feet, where a back gallery had been added or a front gallery extended and so on. The clues can be read as one could read the progressive stages in the stonework of an English cathedral. The presence of windows from the main bedroom to the front and back galleries in many examples is a clear indication of the existence, in the first case, of the body-house as the main structure. These windows, usually glazed Georgian sash-windows would have surrounds and sloping, projecting timber sills consistent with that of a window in an external wall.    Apart from this however, how else can we interpret the presence of ship-lap weather boarding and even shingle on the walls in question.

The rider to this is that the builder mentioned earlier, erecting a building forty years ago, would construct the full length enclosed gallery, the body-house and back gallery in one operation and would still construct the bedroom window to the gallery as though it opened to the external air—obviously this was the gestation period of the house showing the stages of its evolution.

A touch of  elegance

One of the many perhaps forgotten examples of old-style wooden architecture

Another delightful detail resulted from the otherwise unfortunate enclosing of the verandah. This element still to be seen in some houses as an open verandah extending the width of the house in the best examples was a hipped shed-roof of fairly steep pitch where slates were used supported on turned columns. A handrail and footrail framed panels of turned timber balusters. Raised to first floor level the verandah provided a cool sitting out area or place to hang a hammock from which to gaze at the cabriolets or pedestrians in the streets.

To create an enclosure the balustrading was boarded up on the inside leaving the turned balusters on the weather side. The open areas above sill height would then be filled in with top hung louvred shutters. These would be kept open with window sticks but even when closed against the driving rain would still provide more than adequate ventilation. This treatment of the baluster panels being a temporary solution was unsatisfactory. A little thought created the happier solution where the balusters were taken out and the panels boarded from the outside. To retain the original idea and provide decoration the balusters were split in half and planted on the outside. Ideas die hard and there are many examples of this use of a building element, no longer functional, in a decorative and in this case “correct” and elegant manner.

The balusters and columns would have been turned in green-heart as were some of the columns on the groundfloor supporting the gallery and these often closely adhered to the classic Tuscan style in shape and proportion. Greenheart, the wood of Guyana, though excellent for piles and fishing rods is difficult to work with hand tools until the skill is acquired. Probably for this reason as well as the absence of good mills, pitchpine and white pine or American board were imported.

Treatment of external walls
White pine and the ease with which it can be worked was no doubt the basis for another treatment of the gallery walls. The area below sill height, was broken up into rectangular spaces by a series of facings and mouldings in white pine often with a turned boss, again in white pine placed centrally in these octagonal panels. The treatment can be described as a translation of Georgian interior panelling into external timber detailing. The internal partitions as well as external walls of many traditional buildings were boarded up with white pine and clad in wallaba shingle. This formed an excellent thermal insulation while giving a pleasant texture to the wall but fear of it harbouring insects has very much reduced   its   popularity.

Windows and coolers
Pine, in this case pitch pine, was also admirably suited to the construction of louvred timber shutters, sash windows and coolers as this timber showed much less movement in the hot and humid conditions than native timbers. The twelve paned sash window, a typically Georgian detail, often existed on its own or behind a sloping top hung shutter called a Demerara window. This had at sill height, supported on two ornamental brackets, either a flat extended window board slotted at the bottom or a board with upturned edges on the three outer sides. The triangular sides above were enclosed with pierced triangular timber pieces. The purpose of the cooler it has been suggested was to hold blocks of ice which would cool the air passing over them into the rooms of the house. Ice was brought from the American lakes to Guyana and stored in sawdust or sand until sold. It is easy to imagine that only the richer house owners could afford such luxury: the cooler however was built into the fabric of quite poor houses. It was also an ideal place for drying small items of clothing and, until the fairly recent proliferation of refrigeration, in the days when ice was still sold from ice carts the cooler housed a large earthenware goglet which with a lump of sulphur in it provided cool potable water.

Mention has already been made of the fretwork or gingerbread detailing to be found over doors, at the sides of panelled entrance doors, and in the arches between gallery and drawing room.    These and other details such as a variety of fretwork bargeboards were cut out of white pine.


Work of art

The larger houses in the 18th and 19th centuries followed a general pattern. Rectangular on plan but often approaching a square, they were raised to first floor level on brick columns or piers of rusticated concrete blocks. Where timber columns were employed these had to be set on short columns of concrete. With the advent of the Victorian era many of the large houses were built with the more slender cast-iron columns typical of that style, especially supporting the gallery.

The main or first floor was approached by a centrally placed timber staircase ending in a porch which was often richly decorated in the type of fretwork mentioned earlier. Up to a few years ago there existed a few examples of these houses with bifurcated staircases centrally placed—staircases in true Renaissance style. The elevations of these buildings were symmetrical about the centre line but the lines of fenestration and panelling to window sill height often bore no relation to the column spacing on the ground floor. If anything this too is a very clear expression not only of the fact that the detailing resulted from the whims of particular builders and was not the result of Tee-Square and drawing board but also of the evolutionary process through which the local house was passing.

The former mud sill raised 9 to 12 feet in the air was now the basis for the platform on which the building was to be erected. It is a form of construction called platform framing. Once the width of the building was broken up into comfortable spaces for the size of sill used the builder as it were forgot what went on below and notched in his studs to suit his own ideas of the styling the building should receive. In spite of the fact that lines do not run through—the brick, timber or cast iron columns below bearing little relationship with the lines and patterning above—the eye somehow ignored this and accepted the whole as quite pleasing.

The basic fact of ventilation in our environment is that for one to feel cool, air must be felt to be moving over the body. This idea was the reason for another innovation in gallery design—the jalousie. The spaces between the studs in this case were filled with pitchpine louvres with timber pins set in stiles drilled to receive them; the whole frame set in panels below and above the window sill was openable to an angle of about 750. When closed they were secured by a metal pin hung on a chain. This system allowed the whole wall to breathe and no doubt added greatly to comfort but with frequent painting the movement often seized up.

It is tempting to ascribe this feature to French influence— a building with this type of gallery may have been built at La Jalousie and the idea copied—but lacking further evidence it can only remain as a logical, useful and pleasant feature found in some traditional houses and probably French in origin.

The larger house now under discussion would have a second floor raised above the body house and back gallery and approached by an internal staircase located usually for a north-facing house, in the south-west corner of the back gallery. The first floor would then be given over to living areas with the gallery and half of the ‘body-house’ or drawing room as a sitting area and the other half the dining room. This was the age of the large family so that in town and on the estate where the overseers often ate with the manager the dining table and dining room would be very large by modern standards. The back gallery would accommodate a pantry and staircase or would be part of the living space. In any case it led on to an area, a pantry, still often latticed, which housed the safe—a meshed food store, maybe a mortar and mortar stick, a knife sharpening board with pumice box and sundry other household items as space allowed. The kitchen would be as described earlier but having regard to the time about which we are speaking would be on a large scale and staffed by many servants.

The second or upper floor housed the bedrooms, again very spacious, with plate height (9’—10’) partitions, panelled doors and Demerara windows. When water closets became available the projection over the backlanding and kitchen was used to house either another bedroom and or the w.c. and shower.

Roofs, double hipped or double pitched and covered in slate both in the 18th and 19th century buildings showed small eaves projections. As this is not altogether suited to our environment it is possibly the result of an instruction to the builder or his interpretation of a drawing shown to him of similar English eaves details and may not be a matter of economy. It is possible however that the reason for that amount of projection was the hammer-beam roof with which many of these early houses were built and which gave under-eaves ventilation. Nevertheless with a near approximation to a cyma recta metal guttering painted white on a white faceboard the eaves projections preserved enough classical features to be easily identified.

The main roof was of a fairly steep pitch in order to take the slates. The ridge in later examples often carried small cast-iron decorative ridging with finials to stop crows and other birds from fouling the rainwater which, collected and led off to wallaba vats in the yard was the normal source of potable water. The presence of ridging was a commentary on the standard of refuse disposal then existing. Crows, living in the many coconut palms helped to keep the town clean.

Set well back in wide sites with flower gardens and lawns, fruit trees behind and white picket fencing with symmetrically placed front gate, often two gates with semi-circular driveways, these houses could well be the Guyanese version of the Roman villa, built here by schooner captains, managers and merchants. It is intriguing to see even in remote villages how odd bits of classical detailing have been used to ‘beautify’ a house and much of this must have occurred during the building boom between 1839 to 1845 when emancipation permitted the then free black people to purchase plantations, build houses and establish villages.

Growing density brought buildings nearer the lot line and was conceivably the reason for moving the porch from the central position and turning the stairs parallel with the buildings. With the 19th century innovation of towers on some buildings the straight flight was abandoned for a dog-leg staircase housed in the tower shaft. The towers said to be built by schooner captains had a railed catwalk or “widow’s walk” outside the upper level from which ships could be sighted as they came into port. The design, no longer axial, became a composition in massing more or less successful. The building of towers on smaller buildings was  often sheer imitation.

To return to the question of fretwork decoration mentioned earlier as being possibly of Moorish origin, two things could now be mentioned. The Moors who invaded Spain and established headquarters in Cordova in 760 AD were Muslims. In the other direction the Muslims had invaded north India and established their religion in the 8th and 9th centuries. Could the details referred to have come with the Indian indentured labour? Though not impossible it seems unlikely if only because the skills at that time seemed to be mainly with the Africans. Again such a strong design style has almost completely died out even though half the population is of East Indian descent.

The only other remaining vehicle for these ideas seems to be the English. The Georgian period mentioned earlier was a time when their architects imitated the styles of Egypt, Rome, Greece, China and India in basically ‘classical’ form and with romantic   essays   in   medieval   and   ‘Gothick’.

With the indebtedness of Gothic and Renaissance to Saracenic architecture the picture assumes a more complex and yet in some ways more understandable pattern. Ideas culled from their Muslims at the time of the Crusades coursed through the arteries and veins of European Gothic architecture to find their way naturally into the Renaissance and become a revival style in the villas and town houses of the Georgian period.

It is likely therefore that the decorative spandrels are a representation in wood of Saracenic revival details ‘originating’ in Georgian times. This detail was also present in later cast-iron Victorian buildings.

Even in outlying districts can be seen bow-and-bay-window interpretations of this Italianate or Gothick style.

The openable skylight with a panel of fixed timber louvres on either side set in the gable ends was also a constant feature of the traditional house and served the purpose of ventilating the un-ceiled timber roof space.

The method of raising smaller buildings on stilts was one in which tiers of crossed white pine logs were used with jack-screws to inch the building’ up to the required height. Times have changed; no longer do we hear the work songs of the builders as they turn the windlass yet the ‘blocks’ are still used as Guyanese find that little extra money to lift themselves a little higher out of the past.

This then was the evolution of the Guyanese traditional timber house and while the progression as described is nowhere documented there is everywhere much evidence to substantiate it. Slave labour, cheap skilled labour, an abundance of good timber, a climate hot and wet but not too enervating, the importation of “foreign” ideas all basically renaissance in building style, fire and many other factors have combined to give us a small bit of architecture distinctly  Guyanese.

But where do we go from here? Timber buildings, at least those in which white pine was used, suffer very much from termite attack while any type of timber domestic building with a waxed floor, oil-painted walls and with its normal complement of clothing, bedding, drapes and timber furniture certainly presents a fire hazard and creates a fear justified by the many large fires which have destroyed areas of the town.

A growing city, increased demands on living space, potable and piped water supply, refrigerators and lately air conditioners, all parts of a technological revolution occurring in the world and having its effect here, have somewhat outdated the traditional house. Fragmentation of building lots, erection of buildings in the back lots—buildings from which no one can see activity on the road—all this, to which must be added a little affluence, tended to make the house turn inward with more emphasis on entertaining in a living room and less traffic gazing from a rocking chair in a gallery.

The commercial stores also have played their part by helping the swing to metal windows, glass louvres and reinforced concrete or steel framed buildings. Traditional house design has come to a stop and except for small houses in the countryside which do not advance the cause in any way, many of the better examples are being taken down to be replaced by reinforced concrete structures of anonymous architectural style and little relevance to the past in our culture.

As has been mentioned earlier, building in brick never really-caught on. The Public Buildings designed by Hadfield and built in 1832 is a brick building with painted cement stucco scribed to resemble stone. The building, standing on brick footings which in turn bear on a raft of timber logs, has a facade of cast iron columns, railings, pediments and entablature. It has also a well thought-out coffered timber ceiling by Castellani complete with mutules and guttae. The whole must have provided a model for much of the detailing used on other buildings; the point here however, is that this was most likely the heaviest building put down in the country until the 1960s when the Bank of Guyana and other many-storeyed buildings were completed. The details were copied—in timber; few, if any, copied the method of brick construction.

The skills in timber construction, in process of being mastered through four centuries, within a few years seem to have disappeared. The old builders knew for instance when and where to use knee-braces to help give rigidity to their platform constructions; many timber buildings today are constructed without this bit of triangulation and this is not because it has been found unnecessary.

Now that we are becoming conscious of ourselves as a nation, reaching out in new directions, thrusting into the interior, environments different from that of the familiar coast will present new problems. The better bearing strengths of those soils will permit us to build tall buildings and cities as large as those in any other country of the world—should we need them and want it so. The common brick will then come into its own. At Lethem, for instance, a small clay-brick and tile industry has been going for years. In those savannahs the Amerindians today build with wattle and daub or adobe and with troolie palm roofs. Built with material from his immediate surrounds these sometimes well-conceived, simple structures, though not architecture, are the Amerindian’s answer to his environment and his needs. His buildings, his skills and techniques should not be ignored as they may prove invaluable in our first phase of conscious pioneering development.

In similar context it is well to remember that the first European settlers in New England erected buildings for themselves which in no way equalled, for comfort or suitability, those erected by the indigenous Americans.

The truth of the matter is that good design, good building, good architecture is generated mainly from the silent demands and limitations of environment and the test of good building, the test of whether building has become architecture, will depend in the main on how closely the finished product reflects the stresses of its creation as well as its appeal to the eye. Fitness to material, fitness to function and fitness to form must be satisfied before the argument can begin. The natural environment usually provides the immediately available materials best suited for the environment but the material selected must be suited for the use to be made of it and the shape into which it is to be worked. The needs of the particular occupant or user, the purpose for which the article will be made will dictate the requirements of function while the shape of his hand, or length of his legs, the climate or the nature of the site will determine the form or shape of the finished article. It is immediately obvious that the inter-relationships are many, that influences exert themselves in all directions and that before the total can be assessed account must be taken of time, social and economic levels, tools available and scale of operations, and that all of this must be multiplied or divided by the creator’s individual out-look as part of his peoples’ psychological background and concept of beauty.

Each new thing man makes helps to change his environment, and man, too, is changed to look with new eyes on the solutions of the past, searching for those qualities which could be preserved.

Continuity in our architectural development has been broken not only in the timber construction craft, new materials—plywood, hardboard, imitation veneers in plastic laminates, glues and tubular steel—have all helped to make the once skilled joiner a rarity in our society.

We had a chance in the late Victorian period—just yesterday— of grasping our heritage firmly and consciously reshaping it to our changing needs.

There are a few houses to be seen which show this consciousness of our past. The buildings designed by Sharpies in timber and cast iron are exceptionally good examples of the refinement of the traditional style and show in elevational treatment at least a meticulous concern for details especially over and around the entrance door which is characteristic of the end period of any style. The richness of surface decoration of a Sharpies house is in direct contrast with the more austere panelled exteriors of some of the older houses but even though new motifs have been introduced it follows naturally on from the older designs. So it appears that before we can take stock of our situation the tide of ‘progress’ has begun to rise, rolling away some of the gems, covering up others and depositing on the shores many questionable pieces, a few jewels and much flotsam and jetsam.

The design of the modern house is still being worked out. The requirements for air, living space, and room for entertaining and sitting out; higher standards of comfort in the bedrooms; security; aluminium pots, cooking with oil, gas and electricity; the need for car space—all dependent on supplies, cost of materials and the banks, building societies and methods of financing— every force in our society is combining and interacting to produce the new design. Will this be a work of art, will we produce a house to satisfy our needs in a style that is characteristic and in appearance artistic? The answer of course is ‘yes’—whispered in the winds. But for this to happen a conscious evaluation of our environment must take place. It may well be that we may have to acclimatise to completely new ideas, on the other hand we may find that those already worked out in the past contain the germ of a truth which must be nourished. For example, the use of air conditioning to help control the climate within a room and so improve working condition, has been on the increase in recent years. The effect of the air-conditioner is to de-humidify the atmosphere. This is no problem to the occupant of the room who soon adjusts to the new temperature and humidity but if the furniture, walls and floor are in timber the effect on these inanimate things is quite startling. Seams open, boards warp and table tops sometimes split with a bang.

The reason lies in the fact that the conditioner extracts cell moisture unevenly from the timber thereby disturbing the stress equilibrium, and the board warps and splits. The real reason of course, lies in the fact that that type of air conditioner was not designed for our environment. In fact until our actual ‘comfort conditions’ can be determined the use of timber furniture in such rooms will be limited unless certain precautions are taken; wall construction will be limited to a certain type of unit-construction. When it is considered that recent research is advocating plastic cellular walls filled with water as a means of controlling internal climate it must be admitted that the ice block in the cooler did approach the problem in a simple, logical way. And yet even this is not the whole story. Even though there are devices for increasing air moisture, industrialised countries produce air-conditioners for their own use in their own temperate and Mediterranean climates. If and when the tropical market is large enough and critical enough the problem will be solved. If and when we produce air-conditioners for ourselves the solution should then be better still.

Again, the faceless buildings of the international style are creeping up on us. Many people are enamoured of the clean lines and efficient appearance of these buildings with their blank walls, brise soleil and curtain walls of glass and would like to imitate them. But once more it should be remembered that that style envolved in the temperate zone along with central heating and air conditioning. Glass in those countries is an excellent method of trapping heat. Without getting too technical it heats up the rcon for the same reason that a greenhouse or cloche can keep seedlings alive through a winter.

In many fields we are facing this inadequacy in design for our specified needs. From ashtrays to automobiles, from telephone booths to buildings we must think things out for ourselves. Ours has been described as a derivative culture—like an old lean-to-shed taking support from, and at the same time propping up, an older body-house. Let us now dismantle that old structure and using what material is good along with fresh sound scantlings erect a new building under our sun and on our piece of earth—the only two things, after all, of which we can be sure.

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