Articles

The houses of history

23

By Judy Raymond

Caribbean Beat Magazine

The houses of history

By Judy Raymond


Caribbean Houses is a vague and slightly misleading title for this lush and beautiful volume. Michael Connors is specifically interested in the “historic Caribbean houses of planters and governors”, and this book presents some of the finest extant examples, along with even grander edifices.Connors, an American university lecturer in the decorative arts, favours the great houses built from the proceeds of sugar, so few buildings are as recent even as the 19th century. This survey covers the entire region, including the Hispanic Caribbean. Santo Domingo became a colony in 1496, and one of the “houses” in this book is Diego Columbus’s palace, built in 1510 and still filled with 16th- and 17th-century furniture. Some of these buildings are positively medieval: the Gothic manner persisted in the region long after it had been abandoned in Europe, so these castles and mansions look even older than they are. Other buildings are also featured: there’s a sugar mill or two and Havana’s baroque 18th-century cathedral, perfectly described by Alejo Carpentier as “music turned into stone”.Owing to the diverse history of the region, there is no single Caribbean style, Connors explains, although there are some common features, such as the use of indigenous wood and stone, and architectural strategies designed to cope with the extremes of sun and rain, hurricane and earthquake: louvres, thick walls, long galleries, and high ceilings. Otherwise, styles of architecture varied according to the metropolitan influences in each country, so the book is divided into five chapters, one for each colonising power – France, Spain, Britain, Denmark, and the Netherlands. There’s a vast range, from the stark Moorish grandeur of Dominican castles to the cosy townhouses of the merchants of Willemstad.The photographs are glorious, although a few are rather stagey (in one image of a mirror in a Havana townhouse, a blonde señorita can be seen reflected, posing with a fan and a long white dress on a spiral staircase). Even if you don’t trouble to read the informative and detailed text, this makes an excellent coffee-table book for the pictures alone.Caribbean Houses: History, Style and Architecture Michael Connors
(Rizzoli 978-0-8478-3213-2, 272pp)