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My home is my castle

Published: 
Sunday, October 25, 2015

Recently, I had the pleasure of reading the work of a budding local anthropologist/architect Ms Leniqueca Welcome on “Class Status and Identity in the Trinidadian house.” It described and visually documented the ornamentation and construction of various local houses in San Fernando and Port-of-Spain from the late 19th century onwards.

The project used cross-cultural anthropological and architectural evidence from around the world to build support for its narrative on how homes and houses over time can reflect the acquisition of status and the achievement of social mobility.

Urban anthropologist Dominique Malaquais, for example, who studied architecture among the Bamileke of West Cameron and who describes how in Bamileke culture architectural features and structures are necessary to gain status is quoted saying, “human beings and their dwellings are linked in a symbiotic relation, at the heart of which stands one fundamental concern: the acquisition of status.”

As Ms Welcome notes, in Trinidad the lack of preservation laws make it hard to put together visual and descriptive accounts of residences across time. Yet, class status and cultural identity can still be seen across eras in many different Trinidadian houses and in the shifting symbols and types of additions to their houses, homeowners choose.

In Port-of-Spain, the most obvious buildings displaying their class status and cultural identity are the Magnificent Seven. Ms Welcome suggests on one level these once grand mansions were designed for colonial elites to flaunt their wealth to an audience. 

In Trinidad of the early 20th century, this audience wasn’t simply other members of the elite, but a newly emerging black and brown middle-class who historical documents suggest, in their travels and leisurely strolls around the Savannah took in these ostentatious mansions visually. And perhaps came to understand ornamentation as a language to display wealth and their membership of the better social classes.

This new socially mobile and emergent middle class may not have been able to build anything like the grand stone castles with turrets and the rest of the Magnificent Seven. Yet, in designing their homes, Ms Welcome suggests the emerging middle class began to imitate and borrow ideas of class and beauty reflected in these and other elite mansions. 

For example, the characteristic house of this emergent urban middle-class in POS was a one-story wooden dwelling with a simple, thin, rectangular form within the dense urban fabric. 

As Ms Welcome describes, “At the front of these houses was usually a veranda and miniature porte-cochère directly referencing those found in the grander mansions. With the simplicity in form, it was the detailed accents that brought complexity and charm to the house. Decorative wooden fretwork, whose use was promoted by architect George Brown, became a prominent stylistic trend and one of the most commonly used forms of ornamentation of the middle-class house.”

Speaking of Woodbrook, a few decades later in the 1940s Ms Welcome explains how a change from timber to concrete and clay products as the major local building materials, became a visual sign of social mobility among the local middle-class. The durability and permanence of concrete and clay blocks, unlike the termite and rotting susceptibility of wood, symbolised on one level the achievement of economic status because one’s house was now a fixed part of the neighbourhood fabric.

As the housing stock in Woodbrook transformed, the few large-scale Gingerbread houses of the elite remaining still maintained their ties to their European heritage and ornate Euro-inspired building style as a means of validating their visual class superiority. At the same time, Ms Welcome shows houses of the middle-class, hybrids of the ornate and the austere, reflecting a gradual adoption of attitudes deviating from the flamboyant. By the end of the 1940s many of these new concrete houses populated Woodbrook.

Welcome goes on to describe architectural transformations across various local houses and suggests practical reasons for the choices many homeowners made during the 20th century. However, she suggests, as a good anthropologist might, that practical explanations are not always the only context for explaining such changes. 

For example, de-emphasised roofs appear in the 1940s with austerity, and later boom with Caribbean modernism in 60s and 70s. But steeper gabled roofs re-emerge in prevalence in the 1990s with a return to ornamentation. These changes Welcome suggests highlight the relationship between culture and home construction. In the lead-up to independence, the desire for reproducing European influenced extravagance eroded as the cultural zeitgeist of the middle class moved towards building a collective national identity and rejecting European influences.

Over the rest of the work, Ms Welcome goes on to discuss the various preferred aesthetics of the Trinidadian home across class and ethnicity during the 20th century and covers functional characteristics, building components, windows and window frames, fretwork, lighting, ventilation, decoration and ornamentation in many ways. These examples illustrate the visual communication of wealth and class status in Trinidad. In particular, how homeowners use cultural artifacts in, of and outside the home to broadcast symbolically their class and cultural identity. 

Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at the UWI, St Augustine Campus

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