Above: Corner of Queen and Picadilly Street, Port of Spain. Photo by Brian Lewis.
Originally published in NewsdayTT on December 07, 2021
A review of Brian Lewis’ Port of Spain: An Architectural Record, by Mark Lyndersay.
Brian Lewis’ visual survey of Port of Spain gets off to a stumbling start with a foreword by Mayor Joel Martinez that is startling in its cluelessness.
Martinez considers a city of “structures which symbolise power and force” alongside “quaint gingerbread homes,” both of which, “transform into a Carnival spectacle at the drop of a hat.”
Its probably unfair to pillory the Mayor, who might have been saddled with a metaphor-prone speechwriter, but it’s long been a city management strategy to laud its beauty marks while stepping gingerly over its effluvium.
That willingness to ignore the overall impact of the capital city’s deterioration while cheerfully applauding its occasional shining moments is a good part of the reason Lewis’s final words in the book resonate, as he wrote with a tragic flourish, “It could have been a beautiful city, the gem of the Caribbean.”
While the book is long on words, offering up a diversity of opinions and perspectives on Port of Spain’s history and potential, it is the photographs that sit front and centre as a document, narrating a history of development and aesthetic conflict.
The photography of the book is Lewis’s usual considered, architecturally correct work, carefully timed for optimum light on the structure’s facade.
It’s an approach that’s quite different from his approach for his first book, Contemporary Caribbean Architecture, a love letter to modernist buildings built to accept the lines and environment of the region.
For that work, the photographer emphasised drama, sculpted with natural light and patiently studied his subjects over the time he had available, divining architectural detail and design intent.
Faced with subject matter that might be considered occasionally dreary in his survey of Port of Spain, he declines dramatic angles and considers his subject matter with a relentless perspective that of a viewer facing the building from across the street.
There are few angles on these structures and those that exist emphasise some aspect of the subject building that isn’t immediately clear from that direct, face-on contemplation.
This is a photojournalist’s journey, one undertaken with a remorselessly documentary view, seeking design understanding, one carefully chosen building at a time.
Asked about these challenges, Lewis responded: “These images are records not heroic architectural photographs.”
“Yes, hedges, walls, cars, wires were a constant challenge – some districts were more challenging than others – Belmont for cars, St. Clair for walls.”
“Over the scope of the city, the subject matter altered presenting difficulties in composition. When I could not control the composition I just took my time and did my best, knowing it is not an architectural photography book.”
This assembly of buildings gathers the many architectural designs that make up Port-of-Spain, from those crafted through historical inspiration and religious aspiration to works that can only be described as the result of design whimsy.
The brutalist and the ornate sit alongside each other cheerfully, every creed of architectural design finding an equal, if not always harmonious place.
Of his decisions in making the photographs, Lewis noted that: “When I came across buildings that I thought were well designed I spent a little more time to capture their proportions.”
“An example is the old Central Bank building on Independence Square. The Woodbrook One tower was another case.”
“When I found a worthwhile building with the right conditions, I would spend a little more time recording the building in its best light.”
Of the houses that are recognisable as Port of Spain buildings of ancestral provenance, some are dramatic commercial refurbishments that offer a nod to their original design concept, others are in marginally contained disrepair, their history showing in rotting wood and rusting galvanise.
One quaint and well-maintained gingerbread building is bracketed between a faux modernist blue wall and the insistent echo of modernist architecture as social aspiration as a tower of One Woodbrook Place looms like a photobomber behind it.
As a photographer myself, I am sure that Lewis must have been tempted to just remove these modernist intrusions, but the work is a determinedly honest appraisal of Port of Spain’s reality, a clangour of discordant and conflicting architectural notes.
In another image, an ageing wooden house sitting on flaking noggin, visibly bowing inward to the weathered steps that rise to the entranceway at its midpoint.
In that open doorway are a disembodied pair of legs, their owner having pulled a bashful curtain in front of herself.
And all that’s just in St James alone.
While the photographer has an active voice in the text segments of the book, he sensibly draws on a range of concerned citizens who bring their own perspectives to the development; past, present and future of the capital city.
Geoffrey MacLean traces the history of the development of the Amerindian fishing village of Cumucurapo, the ornate and lavish structures that drove its development as a major port and sprawl to the north and west as more and more land was given over to business.
MacLean’s considered review of this development and sentiment for the breezy considered street plan developed by Governor Sir Ralph Woodford between 1813 and 1929 speaks of a halcyon golden era in the city’s urban development and growth.
Little of this is left today save for the respite in the centre of the city that’s named after him, Woodford Square, though as Geoffrey MacClean points out in his essay, the city remains predominantly green, couched on its northern boundary by the expansive Queen’s Park Savannah and the hills of the northern range, damaged but still not dominated by construction and careless clear cutting.
One green space that the book reveals as nobly recovered is to be found in an excerpt from Stephen Stuempfle’s book Port of Spain: The Construction of a Caribbean City 1888-1962, in which the author describes the transformation of King George V Park into the St Clair Cantonment, home of officers and NCO’s during World War II.
Steumpfle’s excerpt doesn’t explain why the buildings were removed, but we can all remain grateful that they were, allowing nature to reclaim the space.
As a voice on the ground, doing the legwork of assaying and capturing the images in the book, Lewis wonders in his foreword: “”So, what are the issues facing the city of Port of Spain?”
“Traffic and parking? Billboards? Overhead wires? Homelessness and vagrancy? Crime? Restricted land to expand? Declining residential population and lack of urban renewal projects? All of the above?”
In the wake of Lewis’ blunt survey of selected buildings in Port of Spain, several essays consider how to move forward through redesign, adaptation and rethinking architecture as a more central aspect of cultural orientation.
Margaret McDowall of the National Trust explains how conservation of the country’s built heritage can be achieved, but emphasises that the best option for preservation is use, whether as a historical artifact or as an adaptive reuse of the structure, which makes use of the building either residentially or commercially while preserving its character.
This doesn’t happen very often. It’s much easier to tear down a building than to sensitively repair and conserve it.
Rudylynn De Four Roberts makes an earnest case for preservation as revenue, the establishment of architectural artifacts as a reflection of the nation’s shared, diverse history. Roberts has been making this case for at least 40 years, beginning with the activism of Citizens for Conservation, the first major civil society effort at raising awareness of the importance of preserving the nation’s built heritage.
The essay series closes out with a consideration of the business of the city centre, which inevitably becomes a contemplation of the politics of the city’s governance structure, by Gregory Aboud. Aboud’s impassioned plea for accountability and transparency in the city’s administration and greater attention to the actual results of the annual allocation given to the city corporation are both sensible and likely to be ignored.
Changing that would fundamentally change the balance of power in Port of Spain proper from being driven by the largesse or frugality of the state to a circumstance which would give greater weight to commerce and investment in a city from which businesses are fleeing.