I recently shared radio time with an artist and illustrator, Laurie Ingersoll. www.laurieingersollbooks.com We had been invited to discuss, with prompts from hosts Noel Loftys and Bob White, why the relatively small Caribbean island of St Croix entices a plethora of creative people to settle there, and the home-grown variety to stay. I was the writer element, and as often happens in free-flowing conversation the topic veered off course to include architecture.
There was general agreement the brutalism style of the 1950s and 60s did little to satisfy the needs of the people encouraged to live, and work, in the stark monuments to steel and concrete. Projects that conveniently housed maximum occupants and discouraged social interaction, but that did encourage the fermentation of groups of disengaged children and youth lacking space and beauty – those play areas so important in allowing opportunity for imaginative and artistic growth.
A month or so later and I’m still thinking of architecture and heritage, and the importance of our surroundings to our wellbeing, to a balanced and creative life that reflects our backgrounds and passions. Because isn’t that from where our moral and creative guidelines emerge? Our starting point within the home from which hope, ambition and progress spring; while accepting decisions and atrocities from the past must be left there, in the past, as long as lessons have been learnt.
From there my mind floated to the ubiquity of fast food outlets spawning a culinary cultural deficit. Where the primary reds and yellows of fried chicken and burger joints compete with traditional satay and roti stalls: architecture and food bridging cultures, encouraging a homogenous world. Same-same wherever we are.
I spend a number of months throughout the year in St Croix, the largest though least known of the US Virgin Islands –– and when asked about the main attraction, I reply, the respect given both people and their heritage, despite not all of the latter being honourable. There is pride in the diversity found on island, and on the whole an easy acceptance of whoever lands on its shores. There is pride in the old forts, in the custom houses and sugar mills that once were vital to the islands prosperity. Town homes, foot-thick walls built with bricks whose former purpose was ballast on Danish ships, tempt the passer-by into shaded courtyards. Deep overhangs protect the walker from the intensity of the sun, and the sudden squalls carried ashore by the Trade Winds. Hipped roofs cap wood and brick homes climbing the hills behind Christiansted harbour, new builds blending with old. Some of the buildings have been repurposed but retain the integrity and beauty of their original state, some sadly are falling into disrepair, but the nearest thing to fast food is Singh’s roti shop on Kings Street.
Progress is found mid-isle in the malls, the mainstay of the modern shopper, bold and bright script advertising services and wares. Supermarkets, their convenience recognised, are on the outskirts of the towns as are the petrol stations, and as a result both towns are charming, devoid of ugly signage and proud of the heritage passed down through the generations under seven flags.
How many delightful country towns, or ancient city boulevards and streets around the world have been destroyed by neon brilliance? Their honeyed stone buildings disfigured by brash new storefronts, their stately granite façades at odds with strident entreaties to try whatever is within. Historic buildings bulldozed, ancient canals becoming rivers of bitumen, borders blurred. Same-same wherever you are.
There are of course new and exciting structures being built – many in my alternate home of Houston, Texas – which in time will earn their place on the heritage trail. Or the Shard in London, for example, named almost by default through the denigrating criticism of English Heritage who called the design, “a shard of glass through the heart of historic London”. Instead the building reaches high above the city, its 11,000 panes of glass reflecting the changing seasons and weather as well as the constantly evolving face of that venerable capital. Renzo Piano’s inspiration, taken from the surrounding railway bridges, the city spires and masts of sailing ships of Caneletto’s 18th century London, invokes history, change and a brave future.
The importance of our heritage – sometimes a subliminal influence – seen through our customs and behaviours, our art, our music and dance, our architecture, all need to be respected. Surely both our historic surroundings and our new-builds should stand together unsullied by aggressive hoardings; new ideas and designs need both mental and physical space to develop, to in time become part of our legacy.
Progress needs to incorporate all that is good from our past, building it into our now, and our future. Which is why I think places like St Croix draw imaginative people, whether in the arts or technology. There is a sense of history, of time and serenity, which calms the flurried modern soul and encourages beauty and creativity in all its forms.
The radio show on an island surrounded by the shimmering Caribbean waters spawned more than an hour’s pleasant chat it seems; it solidified my thoughts on how it is important we do not become same-same wherever we happen to be in the world.