Caribbean baroque : historic architecture of the spanish Antilles / by Pamela Gosner.
Passeggiata Press, Pueblo, Colorado : 1996.
XIX, 425 p. : il.
Sbc Aprendizaje A-72.034 BAR
Caribbean houses in the eye of an antique lover
Alina Ochoa Alomá | Excelencias Magazines, 2010-12-00
Five hundred years of history of the Western Indies are covered in the Caribbean Houses book by Michael Connors donated to Havana by the author after its release. Dr. Connors, with more than thirty years of experience as an essay writer, professor and fine arts advisor in New York, is also known as an antique dealer and an expert in architecture. This time he presents an illustrated edition that, as well as his former books Caribbean Elegance, French Island Elegance, Cuba Elegance, is an exquisite account for connoisseurs and collectors and general readers. As noticed from his previous titles, it is obvious that Connor finds the Caribbean heritage fascinating, and his willingness to combine his thorough historical research with reflections on the cultural contribution to the region, and wonderful images of houses and palaces in a high-quality sizeable editorial format is highly appreciated. Caribbean Houses covers the mark of European colonizing powers (Spain, England, France, Holland and Denmark) in the Antilles, structuring the analysis of the legacy of the greater and lesser islands throughout centuries of colonial and postcolonial history. The author shows in a concise way the research scenarios and provides a clear analysis of the legacy of the islands, facilitating the comprehension and arousing the interest of readers. Making good use of the terminology, Connor brings to light several historical events and studied the cultural contributions of architecture and its decorative details. The author puts together a text full of information that can be used by connoisseurs of the subject, contributing abundant literature of more than 70 books. Published stories about these islands of Carpenter’s “marvelous reality” don’t usually offer a comprehensive and deep-enough views on the Caribbean region, particularly on one side of its material on culture as well structured and complex as architecture is. Another scholar of this heritage, Venezuelan Ramon Paolini, wrote in his great book The Caribbean: After the Rijzwick Treaty in 1697 […] piracy is brought to an end and the Caribbean region enters its greatest moment […] a generation has came from the Iberian Peninsula, Netherlands, England, France and Denmark mixed with the little that is left from Siboney and Taino indigenous tribes, accompanied by an immense contingent of slaves from the far Africa, has the opportunity to undo the ravage left by more than one hundred years of disorder. There is time to reinvent the city and the home. […] The building of the city is retaken and prosperity invades the region thanks to the astounding increase of trade between new flourishing ports […] the Caribbean is the exchange and meeting place of nations fighting over supremacy. This writing is certainly the most synthetic statement Connors may have seen to focus his study of the Caribbean architectural legacy. In the preface to the book, Connor wrote: “Most of the great Caribbean houses from the colonial era remain in ruins”. The cover of the Caribbean House is a picture of the extraordinary porch and hallway of the Calvo de la Puerta (de la Obrapia) House in Old Havana. The photo was impeccably taken by Andreas Kornfeld with manipulation of the interior garden by Denise Barros. This revealing Cuban colonial mansion, currently restored, is just the beginning of a repertoire of residences and palaces offered by the author after his travels across the Antilles. The Caribbean geography spans across 27 independent insular nations and other overseas colonies, though its cultural geography is actually bigger than that according to specialists. Connor’s study shows in detail the similarities and differences between each of the colonizing process in the Caribbean islands, as well as the characteristics of the mother countries. Starting from there, Connors goes deep into the production of real state that today is a cultural legacy in a globalized and endangered world in addition of being a tourist asset associated to the geographical and weather mildness. If there is something that can define the Caribbean architecture is the vernacular vocabulary. The merging of European influences with local practices and materials in the art of building of the 16th century through our days, exploiting its particularities according to geography and weather, gave rise to a local architecture that has certainly became an regional inheritance currently dedicated to a large extent to tourism. As we leaf through the extensive book, we realize that stone and timber are the materials prevailing in classic great houses scattered around beautiful landscapes. Different to the Hispanic Antilles –Greater Antilles–, British, French, Dutch and Danish colonies –Lesser Antilles– became almost exclusively plantation lands without any major settlements, where the remains of its original architecture show the wide use of timber, and occasionally, of stone. The houses were also characterized by steep slope roofing of attics and dormer windows, spacious hallways in front of staircases due to the elevation from the ground, large airy porches to rest; all of it decorated with exuberant carved details. The colonizing process, especially in the English Antilles, gave rise to the well-known Caribbean Victorian houses, also known as “gingerbread” as well as modest chattel houses and shotgun houses, typical in Barbados and other islands. Spanish colonies, on the other hand, being more densely populated, favored the development of a more long-lasting architecture that left a mark, not only in great urban houses and farmhouses, but also in churches, government palaces, theaters, factories and fortresses. The main features of this architecture such as the wide use of quarry stone and rough stone in walls, wooden roofs covered in fired clay taken from the Hispanic-Arabian tradition, gothic, renascent and baroque reminiscences in the details, the use of arches, galleries, and carefully-symmetric patios, the use of polychromatic stained-glass windows, iron works and nailing woodwork in the big front doors, make a difference with the tropical architecture of the leeward arch. The monoculture of sugar cane in nearly all of the islands, (“in the 17th, 18th and first half of the 19th century […] sugar was queen of the Caribbean,” Connors says) left irrefutable evidences not only of the houses owned by landowners who became rich with the sugar trade, but in the different production structures such as sugar mills, warehouses, slave huts, and others. One of the best facts about this book –if not the best– is that it provide us with in-depth analyses of the domestic architecture of outstanding mansions of plantation estates and the magnificent urban palaces that are still standing in the Caribbean, making up a repertoire that, according to the author, has been excluded by many travelers to the Caribbean in their accounts during colonial times, and also from the literature of the 20th century about the region. In the chapter “Spanish Antilles and the Early Colonial Era” Connor’s sharp eye selects eleven extraordinary houses of the region –two in the Dominican Republic and nine in Cuba– making documentary emphasis in Alcazar de Diego Colon (Santo Domingo), Velazquez House (Santiago de Cuba) and the Captain General and Segundo Cabo Palaces (Old Havana), considered by Connor as jewels not to be missed due to its artistic and preservation level. The author quotes important researcher Pamela Gosner (Caribbean Baroque: Historic Architecture of Spanish Antilles, 1996) as saying: “These stone ‘pearls’ have Elizabethan gothic characteristics, which can be seen at the Cathedral of Santo Domingo and other early structures of the 16th century”. “Santo Domingo represents as a whole a basic (primary) example of the Caribbean early architecture,” Connors wrote and went on to explain how under the Laws of the Indies enacted during the reign of Philip II, “Spanish engineers and architects from the 16th century strictly followed the instructions in reference to the planning and organization of colonial settlements, so that streets were laid in a straight-angle reticule shape.” Definitely a landmark revealing the conquest of the Caribbean, the Alcazar Palace, residence of Diego, Christopher Columbus’s son, has been since 1510 through today “the best example and domestic structure of Santo Domingo,” that is said to have been built by around 1,000 natives. The author makes a detailed characterization of another extremely important house, Diego Velasquez House in Santiago de Cuba, another icon of Caribbean architecture of the 16th century which has fortunately been restored. With the analysis of the not less extraordinary Captain General’s Palace of Old Havana, Connors said “Spanish architecture on the colonies became grander and more opulent than ever and combined elements of Baroque colonial and Moorish styles with emerging neoclassic trends.” His following chapters are dedicated to the inheritance of the leeward Dutch islands, where he focuses on the conquest of trade and its impact in the constructions; the English islands, making emphasis in typical colonial plantation houses; the French Lesser Antilles and the architecture of Creole states; and concludes with an account of the so-called Danish Virgin Islands, known as the land of seven flags because of its history of conquests and re-conquests of colonial metropolis of the region. Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, which were the main Antilles under Dutch colonization, basically grew as trade ports and big salt producers. Through more than 1,000 sites of interest and a little more than 300 farmhouses in different conservation states, these islands still show a past of singular buildings. When analyzing the features of its colonial architecture, the author mentions elements brought by the mother nation that can be immediately identified: curved finishing of the scrolls characteristic of saddle roofs, the use of contrasting colors and the wide variety of sculptural ornaments, among others. The detailed review of the San Juan Farmhouse, from the 18th century, one of the Dutch urban houses of Willemstad, capital of Curacao, vouches for the characteristics of the Creole architecture. The English islands, particularly Jamaica from the Greater Antilles, as well as the smaller ones Saint Kitts and Nevis, Barbados Antigua, Montserrat, Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkish Islands and the group of the Atlantic islands of Bahamas’ archipelago, also developed the salt (called white gold) trade, as well as a sugar market, among other crops. The widespread use of local hardwood described as exotic hardwood by the author but considered humble by locals, was the main material used in rural constructions. However the eventual use of stone gave rise to a particular style featured in the Caribbean Georgian collection, and which was widely spread in Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and other island colonies. One of the most representative houses featured in the account is the extraordinary Rose Hall mansion in Jamaica, which is to the author the greatest house in the English Islands of the Caribbean. With plenty of majagua woodwork elements and other handicraft decorations of great quality, Rose Hall synthesizes a style, a refinement and a relevant artistic conjunction of the different architectural trades. Equally emblematic are the residence of George Washington in Bridgetown and the Codrington College in the parish of St. James, both in Barbados, as well as the White House of Cayo Sal in the Turkish Islands. Further in the book, Connors reviews details about the heritage of the French islands, particularly Martinique, Guadalupe, San Cristobal, not overlooking Haiti and the disappeared baroque palace of Henri Christophe, Sans Souci, called the Versailles of the New World for its majestuosity and size. In this part of the book, Connors shows how Mediterranean traditional architectural techniques and styles were adapted to local conditions. A display of beautiful pictures of La Rosa farmhouse, in Haiti; La Pagerie Room, birthplace of Josephine de Beauharnais Bonaparte in Martinique; among other equally important ones is also included. Nearly at the end, there is a closer look to the Danish Islands’ repertoire, particularly of sugar cane plantation houses from Saint Croix like the Whim, Cane Garden and Cane Bay, all dating back to the 18th century. These houses fall within the Caribbean Georgian trend or more specifically within the “Neoclassical Palladian,” but the fact is that they are part of the extraordinary heritage of the Caribbean region. Many of them are well preserved by their current local or foreign owners or dedicated to high class tourism of which part of its profit is used to maintain them. The merit of a book like this one lies mainly in the effort to provide us with an insight of the Caribbean particular architecture and the life of the social class that gave rise to it, houses that “constitute a collection of hybrid vernacular examples,” as the author said. Paraphrasing Mexican writer and historian Carlos Monsivais: Michael Connors’s book is a commitment with the memory and culture of this part of the world. Havana, December of 2010
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The Neobaroque and the Americas
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