Tue | Sep 26, 2017

Jamaican architecture: the people's views

Published:Sunday | June 22, 2014 | 6:00 AM

Patricia E. Green, Contributor

As I walked along the hallway at the University of Technology behind a bobbin backpack on a young man striding forward into destiny, we encountered a man standing with shoulders drooped and head bowed perusing a pile of papers. It was during the week of final grading in preparation for their validation.

Clearly, this was a lecturer. He may have been overwhelmed by the weight of acceptance and rejection of his grades. As we approached, the young man chimed, "Sir, yuh OK?" Looking up and curling his top lip, he stuttered, "Yeah, man," then quickly chirped "And you, son?"; The young man beamed loudly without missing a stride, "Yeah, man! Yuh waan si, mi deya still, yuh know." Possibly, my bouncing backpack may have already heard his grades, and had advanced into the next academic year.
 
NATIONAL STADIUM: 1963 GOVERNOR GENERAL'S AWARD

This was during Architect's Week titled ‘Excellence through Architecture'. So I carried that interchange with me to the Courtleigh Centre where the Jamaican Institute of Architects was displaying more than 40 entries in eight categories for the 12th coveted Governor General's 2014 Award in Architecture. I chuckled as I viewed the work of architects, and remarked to myself,  ‘Yeah, man! Yuh waan si, di architect dem deya still, yuh know.'
 
The first competition was held in 1963, and the first award went to the National Stadium that was completed in 1962 for Jamaica's Independence. My question during the week was, how would these entries be graded to take Jamaican architecture to the next level?
 
EVELYN MITCHELL INFANT SCHOOL: 2014 GOVERNOR GENERAL'S AWARD
Two distinguished jurors were invited to Jamaica for the official award selection. From the McGill University in Canada came Mexico-born prof architect Dr Alberto Perez Gomez, and from Ghana, prof architect Ralph Mills-Tetty, practising architect and registrar of the Ghanaian Institute of Architect, former dean at the University of Ghana. Both jurors traversed Jamaica to see the architecture across the parishes of Clarendon, Hanover, Kingston, St Ann, St Catherine, St, Mary, St James, and Westmoreland.
 
Gomez, returning after his first visit as a teenager, gave a soul-moving lecture at the Caribbean School of Architecture at UTech titled ‘Built upon love and cultural responsiveness'. Mills-Tetty, as a first-time visitor, delivered a thought-provoking lecture titled ‘The Ghanaian man's home is his castle'. Each prompted many questions about the present condition and future direction of Jamaican architecture.
 
As a team, they brought intriguing dynamics to their evaluation on the night of May 31. Both became one in emphasising, "It is important to understand that architecture cannot be judged from boards on display in an exhibition," remarking how exciting it was for them to see the actual buildings, experience the spaces, and hear the views of the users. "A living building is one that houses life, and enhances the life of people," they added.
"Gated communities act like fortresses in communities and functionally challenge the concept for enhancement of life," continued the jurors, who also emphasised that the city should be for people, not just for cars.
 
Having recognised some honorary mentions and awards of merit within the various categories, the night culminated with the 2014 Governor General's Award in Architecture going to the ‘Evelyn Mitchell Infant School' in Top Hill, Clarendon.
"We had so much difficulty finding this building, as it was in a very remote part of the country," the jurors noted. "Yes, it had the nice design, and construction, but what impressed us was how the users shared their love for the space, and how the architecture became part of its rural environment and made such a difference to it."
 
JURORS AND THE PEOPLE

So, the 2014 award for excellence in architecture had a people-centred emphasis. This was made even more evident throughout the weeklong exhibition prior to the announcement of the winner. Architects Week could easily be judged a winner because of the people who excitedly participated. One retired public servant read about The exhibition in the Gleaner, then heard about it on the radio. She invited her friend and both walked from the Tom Redcam library to the exhibition venue. Two teachers from Green Island, Hanover, saw the announcement in The Gleaner, filled a bus with high-school students, and drove across the island to view the displays.
 
Concurrent with the Governor General's Award, another set of grading was taking place that week by the people for the ‘People's Choice Award'. As I talked with the people, or overheard their discussions and debates about architecture, or as they shared with me their joys, or bemoaned that unqualified persons were practising architecture (I was surprized how many persons were saddened and disgusted by this), I now reflect that the jurors and the people concurred.
 
After the public's initial emotions over colour, the landscape, shape of the roof, and, or how the inside looked, I observed that many spent hours deliberating and arguing over the architecture they would eventually select. It was a serious process, and for persons from such diverse backgrounds as retirees, public servants, students, professionals, and John Public. Interestingly, like the judges, they too were swayed by the architecture. Hence, the people also concurred with the jurors that architecture could not be judged solely from exhibition boards!
 
When the ballots were tallied - and yes there were some disqualifications - the majority of the people chose the ‘Faculty of Medical Sciences, Teaching, and Research Complex', UWI, Mona. It therefore begs the question, would the people have also selected the Top Hill school if it were not in such a remote location, and more visible to John Public?
 
So, what was the lesson learnt? Grades may vary, A, B, C, even D-. However, the criteria are consistent. Jamaican architecture? Yeah, man! Yuh waan si, it deya still, yu nu!

Patricia Green is an architect. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.