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Caribbean Contemporary Architecture

Written By Kerry Dragon B.A(Hons), M.Arch., RIBA Adv. Dip., RA, BIA

Images Supplied By Architects Cubed Inc., P.B. Simpson Architects and Leslie St. John

Looking around Barbados today, it is clear that there is a wider range of architectural styles being used than ever before. This starts to make you think, what is influencing design on the island today and what are the most popular trends? Are there names for the most commonly used styles and what is next for architecture in the Caribbean?  


In conversations with architects and designers in Barbados, you will hear words like “post-colonial”, “transitional” and “modern design” being tossed around as current Caribbean architectural trends. These terms are a clear indication of a shift away from traditional Caribbean design, with an emphasis on replicating architecture from the ‘Motherland, to what could be described as a more modern or contemporary approach to island living.  


Although “modern architecture” has been present since the early 1900s in different shapes and forms, there are many opinions on how to define this style today. Typically associated with buildings that emphasize function, it favours a streamlined form over ornamentation and usually involves sharp, clean lines. Describing this style in our local context is an interesting proposition - it seems in complete contrast to the Caribbean's close links to colonial architecture, charactierized by elaborate and decorated facades.  


We sat down with Paul Simpson, a Jamaican-born architect based in Barbados, to chat about his thoughts on modern and contemporary design in the Caribbean, where his architectural brand fits into it and his aspirations for regional design. Paul’s portfolio of work spans from Jamaica in the north to Guyana in the south, including a number of islands in between.  


In Paul’s eyes, there is a distinct difference between modern and contemporary architecture. He defines his style as “Caribbean Contemporary”; a design style that is more than just modern. Rather than being stark, it moves away from simply using straight angles and lines. What ties his style to the Caribbean is a distinctive rhythm to every line that he draws.  



Q. How would you describe your brand of modern architecture?   


“My work is contemporary Caribbean architecture. You can say it’s like a dance, as there is a blend of colours used and the intentional collision of volumes and shapes to create distinct buildings.” 


Q. What makes your Caribbean style of architecture “contemporary”?  


“Many people see contemporary architecture as blocks that you can stick together to create a building. When you are dealing with something flat you are talking about the lines that make it up. To me, it is more about the movement of those lines. It's like the rhythm of the Caribbean. This moves the design from a series of blocks to a more rhythmic way of responding to our Caribbean context.   


Q. What is one thing that is crucial to developing a “Caribbean Contemporary” design?  


“I always ask myself, is the building design soft enough or is it too harsh?  Am I giving it the softness that I desire for the space and if not, how do I get the right balance? I can achieve this feeling of softness with not just materials, but colours, light, and landscape as well.” 


Q. What are some of the features we can find in your designs?  


“I tend to use a lot of wood and add courtyards in my buildings - they add softness to my designs. I also do a lot of work with flat concrete roofs. I have experienced three category-five hurricanes and I believe a concrete roof is one design feature that can help mitigate the effects of hurricanes. The safer you can make the structure for occupants, the better.”  


Q. How do you translate your style “Caribbean Contemporary” into commercial design?  


“My approach is similar to residential, except that commercial is more externalised: it becomes more about the external facade, and how it comes together to give you that same contemporary feeling. Unlike when designing for residential, which is more personalised internally, the internal functions of commercial buildings will always be what it has to be.” 


Q. How would you see your brand of contemporary Caribbean architecture evolving in Barbados?  


“You have to be mindful of what we consider to be contemporary and how we use it locally. It should always tie back to the Caribbean. It’s a creation of my language and I’m not looking at it in a Barbadian framework but rather a wider Caribbean setting. My language will not be the same as someone else’s but the key component never changes.  What makes a building design contemporary and how you translate it from paper to reality is the key component.” 


Q. How do you address environmental issues and sustainability through contemporary architecture? 


“Barbados is a small island but the environment in every region is slightly different. The west coast is different from the east, the center from the south and so on. Changes of environment across the island mean that my design should be specific to each microclimate. Looking at natural light and ventilation and what happens at different times of the day and year is also key.  


“Things like tackling natural disasters, while also ‘greening’ the building - these all need to be achieved in a Barbadian and Caribbean sense. How you treat your surfaces and how you reduce the level of maintenance is also very important. We need to be mindful of the materials we use and where certain functions are located for users in buildings.” 



Q. What is your vision for Barbados and the Caribbean? 


“It's not about what I want, but what I think one should strive for as a Caribbean architect; it is a clear definition of what we call modern or contemporary Caribbean architecture in this new age. We had colonial; where do we go from there? There are obvious aspects of it that worked, but how do we translate that into the modern ‘Bajan’ environment? What is it that Barbadians want to see, feel and interact with? How do they want to be portrayed? How do we then take all of that, and interpret it into the architecture that we want as Caribbean people and as predominantly black Caribbean people?” 


Q. What are the challenges of designing “Caribbean Contemporary”? 


“I am always mindful that I live in the Caribbean. Living here you need to remember that you don't always have the budget to do all the things that you want. Although you need to temper your ambitions, it doesn’t mean tempering your creativity. You can still make your building look good by using other things. It requires more thinking and knowledge and designing. The challenge is to take those external elements which may be outside of your budget and replicate it in a more affordable fashion.”  


Q. Any words of advice to students and young architects?  


“Where you can push the envelope try it, however small. It's your mark and it may influence others. It may influence thinking, discussion, a feeling, and you never know it may even be a movement. We all tend to get caught up in what a building should be, but you need to be creative and don’t restrict yourself - it's about you being as creative as you can be. We come from one of the most creative regions in the entire world. As Caribbean people, our culture, food, and natural existence are all forms of creativity. Although most of our architects are trained abroad in other people’s cultures, the idea is for you to take what you have learned and marry your designs with our local context and the feel of the Caribbean.” 


Q. What is your main goal?  


“It is trying to get to that level where my architecture feels like soca, calypso, reggae, dancehall, zouk - where my architecture feels like it belongs here.” 


Contemporary architecture is certainly the architecture of the 21st century, where internationally, no single style is dominant. Here in the Caribbean, it may be safe to assume that things are a little different. Like our people, our present day architecture is one big melting pot, and from that a very distinctive style is starting to emerge. From our chat with Paul, it makes you wonder how local architects can personalize our take on contemporary architecture. Although this style plays homage to modern architecture and even postmodernism, there is something more contextual about it. It appears that the Caribbean’s version of contemporary architecture encourages the use of island colours, texture, natural materials and the integration of tropical landscaping to a special connection with our inherent environmental conditions.  


Most of our Caribbean architects are no longer transposing foreign designs locally, but rather incorporating elements of what they have learned abroad and transforming their designs to suit our vibrant culture and environment. We are excited to see how “Caribbean Contemporary” architecture will continue to change the built landscape of Barbados and help forge a new identity for the island and the wider Caribbean.  

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