So as we waved our flags and sang the National Anthem leading up to the celebration of our Golden Jubilee, bulldozers were knocking down another one of our historic architectural masterpieces, MacLeod House at the old Friendship Hall estate in Central Trinidad. "But say wot!" Those old "great" houses from back in colonial and slavery days are best consigned to the dustbin behind the new poured concrete edifices of our revised post-independence history, right? Perhaps not.
Much of MacLeod House, as eccentric as it was, was typically post-Emancipation in style and typically, timelessly Caribbean in its synthesis of seemingly incongruous architectural elements from all over the world. And as much as this was the house of the "big shot" estate owner William John MacLeod it borrowed liberally from the architectural language of Caribbean residential architecture—a group of related traditions that architectural historians refer to by the unfortunate term "vernacular architecture".
When we consider the architecture of the now-demolished MacLeod House we realise that it took myriad building traditions from four continents to come up with it as they all collided in one place—the Caribbean. In fact, despite its massive size and the many idiosyncratic Asiatic flourishes that the original owner's son Norman added after his time in the Royal East India Regiment in World War I, the building was essentially part of Trinidad and Tobago's revered gingerbread house tradition.
Walking by or stuck in traffic around the Savannah or in Woodbrook, Belmont, Fyzabad, Siparia or elsewhere we will sometimes see a gingerbread house and give it only a passing thought. There's a certain nostalgia these houses evoke when they are in good to semi-good condition, but a certain sadness when they are dilapidated. Of course, if we are a developer, the sadness is about the land being wasted under "dat ole house."
What many of us do not see as we pass by is the Amerindian decision to keep the house cool and dry by elevating it off the ground, a decision replicated by colonial Europeans, then Africans and Asians too once they encountered the Amerindian ajoupa. What we do not see is the African porch or "gallery," a shady, cool place where you can socialise with people without necessarily inviting them into the inner sanctum of your home. What we don't see are the French dormer windows up in the gables that let out rising hot air,
nor the roof ridge ornaments that hark back to the Gothic nor the Mediterranean-inspired portico to shade us from sun and rain as we traverse the walkway. We do not make any special note of the liberal use of louvred windows and doors instead of solid walls, which keeps the place aerated and allows privacy to the people inside—an idea from Spain's Moorish period when sequestered women could spy the goings-on outside without being seen themselves. We don't think of the British Victorian colour scheme of these houses in their pastel hues with white trim nor the tilted Demerara windows that let you close the window while still letting light and air through the sides and bottom of the window frame.
Oh, we certainly see that lovely openwork, nicknamed "gingerbread" because it looks like the pretty icing on pastries. But do we know it comes from Mughal India brought here during the subsequent Raj period in the form of frilly looking transoms (called jalis/jallees) above the doors? These transoms allowed air to circulate from room to room but once imported to the Caribbean, they inspired a whole design programme: gingerbread fretwork spread to the bargeboards running along the eaves, and indeed all along the edges of the roof, as well as to the brackets where posts met lintels and ceilings. Some gingerbread houses were even annexed by circular Chinese pavilions like at Boissiere House, and most had some Orientalising pinnacle at both ends of the roof, not just as a typical Caribbean flourish but also to protect the joinery there from pelting rain followed by blazing sun. It took all of our ancestors to make the gingerbread house of which the MacLeod's estate house was a sub-category. There was hardly ever a profounder embodiment of Pat Castagne's words "where every creed and race find an equal place."
Yet we drive by on the way to Chase Village or St James unwitting of these testaments to our unique and priceless heritage. Our bureaucrats too continue to put always one more point on their meeting agendas before the preservation proposals defending these ingenious houses ever come up for discussion or voting. So MacLeod House, Boissiere House, Mille Fleurs and others must wait for the next meeting, then the next, and then the next to call to order. Meanwhile our history and our testaments are ploughed under by that high-priced "progress" of calypso fame, and the lessons they might teach us about our past and our future, the examples they give us to understand, avoid or emulate are lost forever.
Now the newspaper web pages and social media are abuzz with this controversy and I have read some 'pragmatic' and materialist rebuttals there to what people think is our sentimental and bourgeois outrage about MacLeod House and other architectural treasures. They suggest that Citizens for Conservation, International Council on Monuments and Sites and other groups fighting for the preservation of structures like MacLeod House, Boissiere House and others are proposing to waste government money on dilapidated structures instead of on clean running water. They bypass all kinds of government waste on the highest levels to pit the standard international practice of national monument preservation against, say, flood prevention.
However what these 'pragmatists' fail to understand is that a crisis of self-knowledge and therefore self-respect (for our rich, diverse heritage and all its inherent complexities and contradictions) is precisely what leads to many of the socio-economic ills we decry—societal problems which these pragmatists now propose are yet another reason to push cultural conservation to the back burner. If you don't know or care just who you are then maybe you don't have to invest too much in the place you were born.
And that lack of commitment to the nation, which comes in part from the lack of knowledge and understanding thereof, can be traced not only in lost or misspent government and private dollars, but also in exported brains, half-baked politicians, and lacking infrastructure. But some pragmatists can't think on that scale where cultural knowledge equals patriotic purposefulness. Perhaps over the next 50 years we might all consider the virtues of CULTURAL Discipline, CULTURAL Production, and CULTURAL Tolerance.