Concrete carbuncles

Stabroek News
October 15, 1999

Anything goes in this folorn capital city of ours - speeding mini-buses, white noise from all kinds of sources, piles of garbage, dirty drains, broken thises and thats and general disorder. These are things, however, which theoretically could be put to rights if the City Council, the City Constabulary, the Guyana Police Force and the Government were determined that they should be. Rubbish dumps, for example, are a temporary disfigurement of a streetscape unless the authorities through inertia or whatever allow them to become permanent. However, there is a more insidious scarring of our urban environment under way, which is of an inherently long-term nature.

Take a stroll down any of our major streets, and some strange edifices bearing little relationship to Guyana's architectural traditions will heave into view. Clumpy, clumsy, concrete structures with bulbous balustrades and tawdry paintwork assault the visual cortex wherever one turns. And who, one wonders, in the City Engineers department, gave authorization for the construction of such unrelieved monstrosities? Where is their sense of aesthetics? Where is their sense of tradition? Where is their sense of grace?

Even beautiful cities have their 'follies,' or the odd excrescence blighting an otherwise elegant avenue, but Georgetown has a whole rash of the things. Take, for example, the one in a respectable suburb looking for all the world like a misshapen wedding cake with its ungainly contours, spotty facade, grotesque banisters and bilious orange walls. Although relatively new and well-advertised, it currently stands empty - a testimony, perhaps, to the innate good taste of the Georgetown tenant class.

Architecture is one artistic field in which Guyanese have acquitted themselves with distinction in the past. The architects, contractors and artisans of last century bequeathed to us a wonderful tradition of building which was cleverly adapted to local climatic conditions and which was replete with features both innovative and aesthetic. Where else in the world, for example, would you find the Demerara shutter, whose tray would be packed with ice in order that when the breeze blew through the louvres it would circulate cool air around the room?

And what about the early Hindu temples, with their delicate, lacy quality, octagonal shape and coloured Portuguese glass? Unique to this country they have virtually disappeared, often to be replaced by formless, concrete structures of alien provenance.

No one denies that building in wood is not the most economical way to go in these difficult times; however, even the not very malleable concrete can be designed in such a way that it captures some of the flavour of the traditional building style. What it requires in the first instance is simply a commitment and some imagination. And most of those who are inflicting their concrete carbuncles on the city of Georgetown do not appear to be short of funds; their problem seems to be one of cultural alienation, rather than monetary constraints.

It is time that the aesthetes of the capital protested. The relevant agencies and authorities in tourism, heritage and culture need to embark on a sensitization campaign to attune the public to what constitutes appropriate building design in our circumstances. Most of all, the City Council and City Engineers Department should be targeted. We have enough travails to endure in Georgetown without adding philistinism to the list.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples