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Cry for Falmouth is a cry for Jamaica

Published:Sunday | February 8, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Chris Whyms-Stone, Guest Columnist

The shared concern of Member of Parliament Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert, executive director of the Tourism Enhancement Fund, Clyde Harrison, and permanent secretary in the Ministry of Tourism, Jennifer Griffith, echoes the sentiments Custos of Trelawny Paul Muschett expressed back in 2014.

Their concern is that the historic architecture of the town of Falmouth is being lost to new buildings that are out of character with the Georgian landscape. This is a cry that has been going on for decades by successive governments and public representatives. But this cry appears disingenuous on the surface, as it is they who hold the handle and not the blade, as their cries suggest.

Permanent Secretary Griffith has suggested that "agencies tasked with the responsibility to preserve the state of the town may be dropping the ball ... . We have a problem with enforcement in Jamaica".

In commenting on the new buildings, Custos Muschett described the architecture as "modern buildings with no character ... not for the better". Dalrymple-Philibert was quoted as saying that "buildings are being torn down and replaced with concrete structures".

Even if they are not aware of it, all quoted are primarily concerned with the character of the built environment, and though speaking specifically of Falmouth, the same can be said for virtually all the cities and towns across the island, which leads more directly to the point that really needs to be discussed - the recognition of the role of architecture in the built environment.

Did you know that in one of his first moves as premier, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew took control of the haphazard building design industry and strengthened the role of architects and culturally instituted the value of good architecture? Today, Singapore is a world leader in architecture and planning, demonstrating the value of good design in the tropical regions.

The Jamaican Institute of Architects has spent significant energy in an attempt to educate the local government and housing and works ministries that the role of designing and planning should be limited to trained professionals. This lobby is not about 'taking food from the little man' but about the positioning of the country's built environment to meet national goals and reap the best from its citizenry.

The reality is that Jamaica and, by extension, its leadership have yet to genuinely accept the value in the proper planning and design of the built environment at all scales of building and development. The occasional lip service for the need for building codes, respect for heritage buildings and concern over the state of the "chaka-chaka" environment has done little to change what currently prevails - that our leadership still maintains that anyone with a basic training in technical drawing should be empowered with the authority to intervene and shape the places we live, work and play.

This happens while those with a rigorous education in architectural history, theory, structure, construction and design move to foreign lands where their expertise is not only valued, but protected by law.

Good vs bad architecture

There are some who will argue that Georgian is not an architectural language but merely buildings built during the reign of King George. In fact, what is being discussed is good architecture versus badly designed buildings. While the preservation of an ensemble of buildings of a similar typology is important in some instances, the construction of new buildings in the same contexts, using the same materials and construction methods, may not always be practical.

There exists many renowned examples of how new buildings are successfully inserted into existing contexts, historical and otherwise. In some of these examples, the new buildings mimic the existing vernacular, while others, though different, are sensitively complementary.

These discussions, however, can only take place within the realm of architecture. Which group of professionals are best trained to engage that discourse?

Christopher Whyms-Stone is a practising architect and educator at the Caribbean School of Architecture , UTech. He is also a former chairman of NEPA/TCPA/NRCA with a special interest in tourism and community development. Email feedback to and