Tag Archives: progress

This old house

Trinidad’s internet elite have a new rallying cry: Save the Boissiere House.

There’s even a Facebook group and an online petition devoted to the cause, so you know they mean business.

Boissiere House, located at 12 Queen’s Park West in Port of Spain, is one of the last remnants of a dying breed: a beautiful piece of creole “gingerbread” architecture, characterised by intricate and elegant fretwork.

The house is being offered for sale – asking price US$10m – but as Nicholas Laughlin points out (via Newsday):

Any private buyer willing to pay that will almost certainly bulldoze it and build an office block or posh condominiums to recoup their investment.

He’s right, of course.

And since Boissiere House does not enjoy the status of a heritage site, said property developer would be immune from legal challenge.

And if this old house is destroyed, it would not be the first time art, architecture and history would have been sacrificed to progress, and not least in this country.

I am a big believer in conserving and celebrating Trinidad’s architectural heritage, and I’m not just referring to landmarks like Boissiere. Because all over Trinidad – from Aripita Avenue to Vistabella – beautiful old houses languish in disrepair, or are broken down in order to construct office blocks or social housing.

Land in this country is not yet so scarce as to make such destruction anything but wanton; and our contempt for our built enviornment reeks of nouveau riche incivility.

Architecture matters. Consider Jeremy Taylor’s recent post over at Notes from Port of Spain, in which he declaims the the “dirty concrete” of the Central Bank, and the “ramshackle dockfront.”

Says he:

The buildings are dramatically out of scale and out of style with the rest of the city, and they speak of money, power, and facelessness, a truly ominous combination. They say that someone in this mad little island aspires to make us like Miami or New York by building skyscrapers; someone has the wild idea that development can be represented by size.

And have you really looked at the architecture of these buildings? It is so bad, so impersonal and anonymous, that truly these buildings could be set down in any city in the world, and it really wouldn’t matter which. There is not a shred of Caribbean in them, not the faintest echo of Trinidadian-ness: no awareness of a tropical, almost equatorial climate, no thought of energy saving, no anxiety about the sea rising and spilling over the waterfront.

They are just big, blank, anonymous, unimaginative, uncreative. In a word, gross. Without taste, without elegance, without grace. Just big. Just expensive.

Exactly. As architect Rudlynne Roberts told Newsday:

The worth of [Boissiere] is in its architecture. Its method of construction, design and layout tells us how people lived during that time.

And more than that, the building is beautiful – unlike the unrelenting concrete monoliths local developers and government seem to equate with progress.

Nicholas Laughlin wants to “persuade the government that the Boissiere House is a crucial and irreplaceable part of our national heritage, that it must be bought by the state, restored, and put to appropriate public use.”

He also offers a list of practical suggestions, including:

– Tell people the Boissiere House is in danger.
– Forward this blog post to everyone you know who might be concerned.
– If you have a blog, write your own post there, or link to this.
– Write a letter to the editor.
– If you work in the media, try to get your newspaper or station to run a story.
– If you own a camera, stop by 12 Queen’s Park West, take some photos, post them online, or just forward them to friends.
– If you know someone in the Ministry of Culture, tell them you’re concerned and ask them to speak to their superior about saving the Boissiere House.
– Call Town and Country and urge them not to give planning permission for a new building on this site.
– Call the National Trust and ask what you can do to help.
– If you know a politician of any party on any level, tell them you’re concerned and ask them to talk to their party leadership.
– Read about the history of the house in Olga Mavrogordato’s book Voices in the Street, or John Newel Lewis’s book Ajoupa, and share this with others.
– Come to the event we’re planning at Alice Yard next week Friday to discuss why this and other historic buildings are worth preserving.
– Email me (my address is in the sidebar to the right) and tell me you’d like to be on a mailing list to hear about further efforts. A website is on its way, also an online petition.
– If you know a member of the Boissiere family that owns the house, ask them to consider putting a no-demolition clause in the sale contract, or to negotiate with the government to arrive at a reasonable sale price that might make it easier to save the building.
– And if you are a multi-millionaire property developer, consider doing something truly enlightened: buy the house, pay to have it restored, put it to some use that will not damage its fabric.
– Finally: ask yourself if you’d be willing to stand in the hot sun with a placard, if it comes to that.

It may well come to that.