by Meghna MehtaDec 26, 2020
A mountainous Caribbean island, Jamaica is known for its beaches, waterfalls and luxury retreats that rival a Majorca or Phuket. But it is the laidback Ya, mon spirit that gives the island its unique, inimitable character—a rambunctious coupling of splendid and sparse.
Unlike European cities where the contemporary and classic merge with carefully calibrated maneuvers, the urban landscape in Jamaica plays out like an extemporaneous narrative. The capital, Kingston, is a bustling town that thrives amidst the perks and perils of modernisation. Electrical wires hanging from poles in coiled confusion remind me of small-town India while gulmohar and bougainvillea lined avenues flowing between grand homes, and consulate buildings are as generous as the thoroughfares of Lutyen's Delhi.
A former British colony, Jamaica offers charming examples of Caribbean Georgian architecture. In the Devon House, a heritage site in downtown Kingston, I see the elegance of the island's colonial past. With high columns and grand staircases, the mansion is a graceful blend of Georgian aesthetics with the pragmatic constructs necessary to withstand the vagaries of a tropical climate. Around Port Antonio, a once-glamorous port city that attracted the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the romance of the past appears to have washed away, but a wave of avant-garde revival is on the rise.
I spoke with Jamaican-American architect, Kevin Young, who talked about residential neighbourhoods in cities being rapidly transformed from detached houses to townhomes and apartment blocks. The 'boutique' effect, he says, has taken hold in the form of new, smaller hotel and retail spaces that showcase creativity and refined details.
Cocooned in the hustle-bustle of Ocho Rios along the northern seaboard, Hermosa Cove, a modern villa resort, is replete with serendipitous discoveries at every step. I found delightful handcrafted details, little treasures that brought the waterworld ashore. Indigenous motifs inlaid along pathways, shells and such employed as embellishments, light fixtures fashioned from driftwood, trees branches used as handrails, and watering cans mounted on wooden poles to serve as alfresco showers.
The island's major cruise ship port, Montego Bay, has a busy 'hip strip' with thriving clubs, cafes, and herb shops. Adjacent to Usain Bolt's Tracks & Records, the trendy S Hotel feels like a transplant from LA's Sunset Boulevard. A soak in the wicker-wrapped freestanding bathtub a few feet from the bed, and Bob Marley playing on a retro record player, set the perfect rhythm for rest and rejuvenation.
Marley's face, perfectly relaxed, is ubiquitous—on walls, woodcarvings, and etchings on tree trunks. I step in time with the smooth reggae beat that carries in the air along Negril's seven-mile beach dotted with brightly painted waterfront bars. As though to keep up with the constant swirl of the ocean, local Red Stripe beer and Appleton rum flow freely through the night!
Like rum and reggae, recurrent splashes of bright and bold Rastafarian colours are everywhere, as are the canary yellow and parrot green of the Jamaican flag. The shades of pride and patriotism are painted around trees, electric poles, parapet walls, and of course, showcased on souvenirs. As one heads away from the tourist hotspots towards the heart of the island, lush foliage and pristine waterfalls dominate the scenery. Makeshift establishments selling fruit and juices edge narrow, bumpy, often unmarked, roads. I was rather thankful for the smooth sailing down the serene Rio Grande on a handmade bamboo raft. Along the way, my boat captain pulled ashore for an authentic curried goat and jerk chicken meal prepared over an open fire. A meal I shared with several wayfarers from England who return regularly to the island for a refill of rustic charm.
On their recommendation, I ventured south, to Jake's on Treasure Beach. The urban-chic Gaudi-esque hotel and restaurant is a vivid rhapsody that reflects the flamboyant spirit of the people. 'It is always rum-o-clock, or beer-thirty somewhere on the island!' as the merry saying goes. One need only slow down to soak it all in.
STIR speaks with Jamaican-American architect, Kevin Young, Young Architecture + Design (YAR+D)
Reetika Khanna (RK): How would you describe the varied architecture of the island?
Kevin Young (KY): It is a heady mix of stately and rambunctious, elegant and gaudy, sophisticated, ingenious, pragmatic—in short, all modern.
RK: What are some of the current trends in urban planning and design?
KY: There is a definite move toward densification—residential neighbourhoods in the cities are rapidly being transformed from detached houses to townhomes and apartment blocks, sometimes even mixed-use projects. The 'boutique' effect has also taken hold in the form of new, smaller hotel and retail spaces that show a lot of creativity and refined details.
RK: How do the Georgian aesthetics intersect with contemporary design?
KY: The Georgian style gave us logical floor plans, simple pitch-roofed silhouettes, and masonry bearing walls. Jamaican contemporary architecture stretched out its proportions and expressed the volumes in the form of covered pavilions in the case of houses. In tall buildings we see grid patterns along the vertical surfaces with abundant balconies. One element under constant reinterpretation since colonial times is the slatted louver or screen. It can be deployed at several scales and in multiple configurations to enclose space. The verandah is also an enduring feature, for good reason.
RK: From an architect's perspective, what are some of the key design challenges presented by a tropical climate?
KY: The need for buildings to be open to spectacular views, light, and breezes while at the same time having to be shaded and protected when the weather gets extreme. There's a significant need for security and privacy—a contradiction to openness. The mountains forming the spine of the island are majestic, and dominate the topography. As a designer, one is always aware of the mountains.
RK: What are some of the most distinctive Jamaican design motifs found on the island?
KY: Indoor/outdoor patio spaces, the louver windows, the colour white, hand-tooled limestone walls, ornamental iron grillwork.