ARCHITECTURE IS ARCHITECTURE

In the struggle to define Bahamian Architecture, there is a simple fact that must be faced: Architecture is Architecture. That is, there are fundamental qualities that must be met for a building to be considered Architecture. Only after a work has met those criteria does the question of local identity become relevant. In A nutshell, there are three areas of assessment that qualify a work of architecture: Context, Aesthetic Response and Symbolism.

Context

All buildings have context. That is, they are built in a specific place, with a specific climate, topography and social setting. A work of Architecture must visibly and sensually address these issues.

For example, a building in the Bahamas must clearly address the need for shade, the opportunity for outdoor living and the threat of hurricanes. It must then address its location, especially the topography and orientation. But while these issues are raised here for the Bahamas, they are equally issues for the rest of the Caribbean, Central America, the southern part of the US and a multitude of countries around the world, located between the Tropics.

Aesthetic Response

Balance, pattern, proportion, silhouette, scale, texture. These words are tools in the hands of every artist designing a building. And while there may be minor cultural deviations, these requirements for aesthetic judgment are quite nearly universal. For example, whether the columns are made of stone, wood or plastic, there is a requirement for their spacing and proportion to address those rules of aesthetic judgment. Patterns of fenestration, openings and handrails must meet the same standard.

Buildings in the Bahamas, most of North America, much of Europe and the Mediterranean tend to apply conclusions institutionalized by the Greeks and the Italians, developed by the Egyptians. And while the countries of the East and the North may use different historical references, their basic aesthetic judgment still uses very similar criteria.

Symbolism

Architecture, like all art (after all, it is the Mother of the Arts) is communication. The architect communicates the building’s function, its importance and its attitude towards social and environmental issues. Through various devices, he also communicates identity and aspiration. In this effort, the designer must understand the language with which buildings speak. The tools that give him voice are the symbolic vocabulary characteristic of his community.

The symbolic vocabulary is the only aspect of architecture that is defined locally. That is, a symbol in one place may have no meaning in another place That is what allows the architect to share the local community’s story through his work. The materials used, the ways in which buildings are assembled, the stereotypical shapes and forms used, the colours and textures used, the decorations and applied art all have symbolic value beyond their utilitarian value, and the use of their symbolic values allows both the sharing of local culture and the establishment of identity.

Clearly then, it is in this area of symbolism and the communication of local culture that the definition of Bahamian Architecture is to be found. This study can be understood in three categories: symbolism in Form, symbolism in Pattern and symbolism in Decoration.

Form addresses the local meaning of shapes and silhouette. Pattern explains the use of specific arrangements in the elements of a building. Decoration discusses the relationship between applied embellishment and local History and Culture.

In short, all regional architecture gains its potency from the expression of local symbolism in the design of buildings, primarily through the manipulation of the symbolism in form, pattern and decoration that reflect local cultural expression.

Form In Bahamian Architecture

The most powerful shapes for which Bahamians have developed particular meaning are the shapes related to the pitched roof and the shapes related to masonry construction (the arch, the vertical rectangle in a wall and the colonnade). Out of these basic references have come symbolic values for the following:
 The circular opening, or the porthole
 The triangular opening, or the gable vent
 The dormer, or window for roof-space
 The triangular gable wall
 The projected shutter, or perfect shade
 The four-columned portico, or Formal Entrance

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but simply to provide a snapshot of the ways in which buildings use form to communicate value.

Pattern in Bahamian Architecture

There are two pattern sets relevant to Bahamian architecture. The first relates to the patterns associated with the construction of the elements of Georgian Architecture. These include the mullions and muntins (glazing bars) of doors and windows, the handrail patterns, the patterns in raised panels and tiles and the patterns used in shade devices (lattice, louvers etc.).

The second set relates to the patterns of African origins, and except for the random stone patterns of walls and floors, are mostly applied decorations.

Decoration in Bahamian Architecture

As mentioned above, the two roots of meaning for the decoration used in Bahamian Architecture are European and African. The European set has been well publicized, as the decorative features of Georgian Architecture, and includes the following:

 Plaster moldings used in eaves, ceilings and other intersections
 Plaster and wood trim used around windows and doors
 Quoins
 Water Courses
 Contrasting colours of walls, shutters, trim etc.
 Pastel colour palette

The African inspired set include:

 Cutout wood details for fascia, trim, handrails etc.
 Rich colour, especially on wood
 Painted and decorated walls (murals etc)
 Nature patterns, especially reptiles

The study of symbolism is a complex discipline, worthy of deep and serious investigation, and our effort here is to acknowledge its importance in the study and definition of architecture. The study of meaning in the built environment offers the primary opportunity for the advancement of Bahamian Architecture, and its integration into the built environment is the greatest challenge for the Bahamian architect, who must be committed to three pursuits:

1. Pursuit of appropriate solutions to the built environment in the context of the Bahamian climate, society and lifestyle.
2. The pursuit of an aesthetic code with meaning for the people of this part of the world.
3. The pursuit of relevant symbols for integration into the design of buildings of all types.

Patrick A. Rahming RIBA
December 2004

Advertisements