When mention is made of the word “vernacular” (from the Latin vernaculus/ domestic, native) in our day to day exchanges, reference is made to a form of grassroots verbal communication, a native language, the common daily speech of a community, for example in Aruba and Curacao – Papiamento, in Suriname-Tak-e-Tak-e, now renamed Suriname-Tounge; in Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Lucia and Dominica – Patois, and in Grenada – Creolese.

The word “vernacular” therefore, when used in architecture is borrowed from language and literature to describe the local “expressions” of buildings, generally houses of the lower class of a society reflecting the lives of the peasantry through their homes.

All West Indians, from Cuba in the north to Trinidad in the south, not excluding Guyana, Suriname and Cayenne on the northern shoulder of the South American continent and even Brazil to some extent, are descendants of transplanted peoples – when between the 1600s up to the mid- 19th century millions of African slaves and later Indians were convoyed to the islands. The conditions under which they lived were unbearable, but out of their struggles and endurance emerged a creolese culture and way of life which has become the genesis of a Caribbean Civilization.

The new conditions of slavery, climate and the socialization with the native Caribs whose shelters known as the carbets and ajoupas, together with the influences of the colonisers were well suited to the climate and became the antecedents for contemporary creole houses, which are topped by broad projective roofs which allow fresh air to circulate underneath resulting in cool interiors, in addition to the use of vibrant colours, wooden filigree eaves, decorative motifs, jalousie shutters and artistic wooden detailing combine in creating this new Caribbean form of expression, which is not in congruence with our modern day slums, gettoes and the pervasive blight of urban squatting-the product of the ugly face of capitalism and post colonial independence, which in my view, has failed the Caribbean working class in lifting its standard of living.

Architects Jack Berthelot and Martine Guame of Guadeloupe in their book “Caribbean Style” observed that the first characteristics of a truly Caribbean Style (the vernacular) appeared during the 18th century. This style further developed by borrowing from different cultures (French, English, Spanish, Dutch, Swedes and American) that were in contact throughout the Caribbean, including the need to satisfy the requirements of the large plantations, such as wooden portable cabins and barracks for the slave workers on the estates. Some example of barrack living can still be seen at Douglaston Estate in St. John’s.

Vernacular architecture of the Caribbean therefore, is a synthesis of different influences. Each island bringing to it, it’s own unique personality, which is first and foremost an architecture of the out-of-doors and often consists of more than one building eg. the kitchen and the water cabin for doing dishes and bathing.

Caribbean vernacular “represents an architecture without official agreement or approval. It is not involved with learned concepts and does not frequent the seat of academia”. It is a living style and the fruit of empirical knowledge, experience and the metaphysical energy and creativity of the peasantry.

Unlike Barbados where the Chattel House is regarded as a component of its heritage and cultural assets and is recognized as a national architectural and aesthetic feature; and is so recorded in its (social) history, which has become a boon to its Tourism Product. Here in Grenada however, hardly any mention is ever made of these artistic and cultrual expressions of our ancestors, not to mention our lowly JANET HOUSE and Slave Pen.

Perhaps this is a good time in HERITAGE MONTH to contemplate the value, recognition and inclusion of these and other aspects of our built heritage as we become more sensitive in our quest to construct a solid platform in structuring our national identity and the improvement of our economic fortunes to which a cultural industry, of which the built heritage can be a significant contributor to our (GDP) Gross Domestic Product.

Norris Mitchell Chartered Architect/ Urban Planner for the Willie Redhead Foundation April 7, 2015.