No one ever accused the PPP/C of being endowed with any great sense of aesthetics, let alone a sensitivity to our material heritage. Having said that, however, they did maintain the traditional character of the very few historical buildings to which they turned their occasional attention. Now we have a government, in contrast, which has declared its commitment to preservation, and whose head in particular is acutely conscious of the historical dimensions of our built world.
It was with a certain sense of disbelief, therefore, that the inhabitants of this city woke up one morning to discover that the walls of State House were being painted in a tawdry shade of lime green, and that the trimmings and shutters were the unlikely recipients of a somewhat luminescent moss green pigment. As if that were not enough, some of the traditional windows had been replaced by modern ones – hardly a gesture in the direction of conservation and architectural tradition.
It so happens that State House is a listed building under the National Trust Act of 1972, which means that according to the law the President is required to write the National Trust about any renovations to the structure and obtain its written permission for what is proposed. In this instance, as we reported last week, the organisation’s Chief Executive Officer Nirvana Persaud told this newspaper she had not been informed about the work, and that while the Trust had no problem with repairs being undertaken, major changes such as the colour and the modern windows ought to have been communicated first “so that we are all on the same page.”
President David Granger in his remarks to the press exhibited a surprisingly cavalier attitude in relation to the law. “I’m not aware that a law has been broken,” he cheerfully told reporters; “I am not aware that in fact National Trust needs to worry about the present decision to ensure that State House is in good repair … It doesn’t leak.” The fact that according to the President there is a lot of rot in the building and that some of the windows are falling off, all of which are now being repaired does not, however, exempt him from observing the law.
Considering his ignorance of the Act in this instance, one presumes he had no reference to his Attorney General before he embarked on this latest enterprise, an omission which constitutes a serious indictment given his position as head of government. It is incumbent on him to ensure that before he proceeds on any venture, he is not acting ultra vires; that is what presidents and prime ministers elsewhere routinely do.
State House underwent major repairs twice under the last government. On the first occasion it was rehabilitated so Dr Cheddi Jagan could move into it. The building had been neglected for a long time because even when Mr Desmond Hoyte became President, he didn’t live there any more than Mr Burnham had done, and only used it for formal occasions. Dr Jagan and Mrs Jagan found it painted white – shutters included − and simply retained that colour. It also underwent substantial restoration before President Jagdeo occupied it, and once again its traditional features and the colour were preserved.
It may be that neither of these earlier presidents followed the law by writing to the National Trust, but it would not have caused any public furore because neither the colour nor any traditional feature of the edifice was altered. In fact, had the current Head of State proceeded in the same way, it would have remained an issue between President Granger and the Trust. A garish green, however, is a hard colour for the public to miss, and someone would soon have noticed the substitution of modern windows.
State House is more than just the home of a sitting president; it belongs to the nation and has symbolic significance. As such, the National Trust acts as guardian for the nation, and that role cannot be unilaterally usurped by a Head of State. Since ownership does not lie with any incumbent president, he or she cannot make alterations according to their whim; the Trust ensures that renovation preserves the edifice, and where colour is concerned, is in consonance with the tradition of public buildings in this country and does not fall victim to an individual’s chromatic idiosyncracies.
It has to be acknowledged that there is a little wiggle room where colour is concerned: while the body of State House has always been white and should stay that way, there are periods in the past when the shutters were a very dark green, in company with some other colonial buildings (the present National Trust building itself is an example). Never, however, has the structure ever boasted such gaudy shutters glinting so unforgivingly in the sun while the disapproving public on the road tries to avert its eyes. Garish it is, but good taste it is not, never mind its divorce from heritage and tradition.
But the green make-over did not descend on us in a vacuum. The Ministry of the Presidency complex was painted over in green, for example, although in that instance no one in their wildest imagination could claim that that was a building in need of preservation, or that the original colour should not have been abandoned. One can only marvel that anyone in the previous administration should have decided that an amorphous collection of glorified cabins should be painted pink. On those grounds it might even be claimed that the present green paint job is better than what went before.
Unfortunately, however, in this particular instance that is not the point. What is the point is that this is the colour of APNU and more particularly the PNC. The original colour scheme had also included canary yellow, which is associated with the other member of the governing coalition, the AFC. Fortunately, however, a little common sense descended on whichever colour challenged official was holding the palette, and it was painted over before a howl of objections reverberated across Georgetown.
Since even the administration recognizes that on aesthetic grounds the colour yellow cannot be entertained on public buildings, as mentioned above, it has fallen back on the colour of the PNC – and by extension, APNU. It should be emphasized, however, that state buildings of any kind should never be given a party political character; they serve the nation and not a party, and they house state officials and not party officials.
While this is not quite in the same league as the PNC flag flying outside public buildings as was once done in Burnham’s day, given its implications it nevertheless comes within its penumbra. Among other things, it will raise unease in many quarters by conveying the impression that the main governing party regards state institutions as falling within its bastion, and that the government as a whole is inching its way to party paramountcy. Other issues aside, in a divided country like this one, that is an impression which the administration should be at pains to avoid. Despite the fact it will involve further expense, the government should nevertheless go back to Parliament for a supplementary to paint over the collection of uninspiring wooden structures on Vlissengen Road in some neutral colour other than green.
It is bad enough that the Ministry of the Presidency has been painted over green, but it is absolutely unacceptable that a national heritage building should be given the same treatment. At his press conference last Thursday, Minister of State Joseph Harmon told the media that a response would be sent to the National Trust setting out the reasons for the work on State House. However, in his usual Delphic fashion he would not be drawn on what any of those reasons were. That apart, whatever they are the law has still been broken. As for the President, when he was asked about State House going green, he responded flippantly by saying “Guyana is going green.”
None of this is good enough. What needs to happen now is that the work on State House should cease and the Ministry of the Presidency should bring itself into compliance with the law and hold discussions with the National Trust about how to proceed in the interest of preservation and aesthetics.