Architecture of Independence: Colin Laird and the Building of a NationMonday, July 9th, 2012 Categories: Features, Reviews, Updates
On June 28, 2012, the exhibition entitled “Public Spaces: The Architecture of Colin Laird” opened at the National Museum in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. The event coincides with celebrations of Trinidad and Tobago’s fiftieth anniversary of independence. “Public Spaces” puts a spotlight on the work of architect Colin Laird who has spent over fifty years contributing designs that function as symbols of a Trinbagonian cosmos. Laird’s architectural offerings have sought to teach us how to live, study, work and play together in a Caribbean place. Speaking at the opening reception, exhibition committee member and architect Mark Raymond declared: “Architecture is a fundamental part of culture. This event allows us to reflect on that.” If we do allow ourselves to reflect, we must ask: What is culture? And what is the relationship of architecture to culture? Among the many definitions of the word “culture,” we may turn to architect, critic and historian Kenneth Frampton who provides a useful framework. Frampton observes that culture addresses itself “to the specifics of expression – to the realization of the being and the evolution of its collective psycho-social reality.” With this line of thinking, architecture can therefore be understood, in relation to culture, as a critical practice that can tackle what it means “to be;” as that which can address the ontology of a space and a people; architecture can be seen as that which can play a pivotal role in the expression and shaping of identity.
Over the years, since his move in 1952, from England (his birthplace) to Trinidad and Tobago, Colin Laird has engaged in architectural practice with an awareness of its inextricable link with culture. In the 1950s, Laird soon found himself in the climate of a nationalist movement, which swept the islands. With Trinidad and Tobago gaining independence from the British Empire in 1962, he also found himself within a nascent, post-colonial, independent space. His architectural designs would respond to that socio-cultural milieu. Laird drew from the principles of tropicalist architecture to try to construct an autonomous, collective, local identity – indeed to build a sense of what it means to be Trinbagonian in the first instance, as well as what it means to be Caribbean. Liane Lefaivre and Alexander Tzonis elucidate a difference between tropicalist architecture and tropical architecture. They write:
“Tropical architecture has traditionally been taken to mean an architecture adapted to the tropical climate. This has been the case since the late eighteenth century, when the British transformed the peasant Bengali banggolo into the colonial bungalow and diffused it all over the British Empire…. However, after the Second World War, some architects building in the tropics started to view this definition in a critical manner and rethink its limited and narrow scope. They began to conceive of architecture not only in terms of sun shading and ventilation devices, but also as an extension of the mind, a cognitive tool, that expressed the values of a particular people and time in the way that film, art and music do. This critical rethinking is what distinguishes…a mere tropical architecture from a tropicalist one.”
A tropicalist stance responds to the context of post-colonialism and later, to globalisation. It emerged out of postwar debates about regionalism in architectural practice. According to Eleftherios Pavlides, a professor of architecture, regionalism is an effort to “generate local character in architecture.” Some architects operating in tropical, post-colonial places felt that their practice should not only be linked to climate and geography. They believed architecture should also intersect with the issue of national/regional identity. For example, as early as 1950, Sri Lankan architect Minnette da Silva took up this position and Lefaivre and Tzonis tell us that she coined the phrase “modern regional architecture in the tropics” to describe her perspective.
In Trinidad and Tobago, Colin Laird quickly emerged as a trailblazer, leading the way in the application and fine-tuning of tactics of regionalism in a tropical Caribbean place. He used an approach to building design that embraced, yet went beyond concerns about climate. He sought to remedy a colonial spatial order – one characterised by a closed-in style that reinforced a division between those who governed and those who were governed. Laird took into consideration how he might design space to affect a new way of being. He considered how he might integrate people and therefore deployed an inclusive design strategy. This is most evident in his conception of and creative commitment to public spaces.
Public spaces are those with functions that are shared by society: hospitals, schools, libraries, concert halls, sports arenas, town squares, promenades and the like. They are points of contact and social exchange – spaces open to the public. Colin Laird has designed numerous public spaces, which reflect a particular structural poetics, in other words, he has designed several spaces that demonstrate a very specific “how” or manner of formulation. The language of Laird’s “how” is distinguished by a conscious attention to the promotion of societal cohesion, participation and a sense of community. He understands – to use Yi-Fu Tuan’s words – that “the built environment…has the power to define and refine sensibility. It can sharpen and enlarge consciousness.” Laird is mindful of how the built environment can make us aware of ourselves and of each other. He therefore gives deliberate thought in each of his designs to how we get our bearings, that is, how we find and identify ourselves in relation to each other. He also emphasises an organic unity between a building’s interior and the world outside. According to Laird: “I believe that it is important in complex civic building that the occupant and visitor are set at ease and can subliminally orientate in relation to the entrance/exit, other internal spaces and events, and the world outside the building.” His is ultimately a language of connection and rapport – an aesthetic of affinity.
Among his designs are Bishop’s High School Tobago (1955), Chickland Hindu Temple Freeport Trinidad (1958) and the Point Fortin Police Station and Courthouse Trinidad (1977). The exhibition is a celebration of such works with a focus on four significant public spaces located in Trinidad’s capital city of Port of Spain: Queen’s Hall (1958), the National Stadium (1982), the Brian Lara Promenade/Independence Square (1993) and the National Library (1999). These spaces demonstrate Laird’s powerful legacy of bringing people together. Colin Laird’s work represents visionary efforts at spatial definition with the aim of giving meaning to a people through the building materials of freedom, inclusivity and community – efforts, which have and continue to contribute to what the late Caribbean scholar Rex Nettleford has called the “awesome process of [our] becoming.”
The “Public Spaces” exhibition has an array of visual material including photographs, sketches, models and a short video documentary on Laird. It runs until July 16, 2012.
- Frampton, Kenneth. “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance.” The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Washington: Bay Press, 1983. p. 17.
- Lefaivre, Liane and Alexander Tzonis. “The Suppression and Rethinking of Regionalism and Tropicalism after 1945.” Tropical Architecture: Critical Regionalism in the Age of Globalization. Eds. Alexander Tzonis, Liane Lefaivre and Bruno Stagno. West Sussex: Wiley-Academy, 2001. pp.14 & 31.
- Pavlides, Eleftherios. “Four Approaches to Regionalism in Architecture.” Architectural Regionalism: Collected Writings on Place, Identity, Modernity and Tradition. Ed. Vincent Canizaro. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007. p.157.
- Public Spaces: The Architecture of Colin Laird. Carnival Gallery, the National Museum, Port of Spain, Trinidad. 28 June, 2012.
- Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977. pp. 102 & 107.