Architectural awareness Editorial
Stabroek News
December 7, 2001

Amsterdam in the Netherlands is a delightful city - the centre of it, that is. Canals, old buildings and traditional streets create a world which is uniquely Dutch, and which simply could not be mistaken for any other urban centre anywhere else in the world. But drive to the south-east of the city and you will come upon rows of high-rise housing units of around 1960s vintage, much like those in so many other Western towns. And further on you will encounter the seemingly endless business development area, all sterile glass and steel with only a fluted front here, or a circular tower there to relieve the monotony. Yet this science fiction world is Amsterdam too, although it is not an Amsterdam which is uniquely Dutch. If you didn't know for a fact that you were in the Netherlands' capital, you could almost think yourself in any one of a number of Western cities.

International architectural design is becoming increasingly homogenized and major urban centres are in consequence becoming more and more alike. From Singapore to Amsterdam the endless steel towers with their hooded eyes of darkened glass stare unrelenting at each other across streets which have lost human scale.

And what about Guyana's capital? Well at least it cannot be mistaken for the city in Metropolis, for example, but that still does not mean it is not fast losing its character. Many of the newer business places represent little more than mini-concrete fortresses which perhaps owe more in terms of style to 1950s small-town America, than they do to local tradition. There are exceptions, of course, erected by companies which have attempted greater originality, and which sometimes have incorporated a local architectural feature into their designs.

But the real architectural aberrations come in the residential building department. Old houses are being razed faster than the eye can blink, and in their stead rise the often bizarre creations of imaginations rooted not so much in an alien tradition, as in no tradition at all. Just where, for instance, did these bulbous balustrades that are proliferating all over the city come from? Just who was the originator of all these incongruous facades with their myriad concrete protuberances?

It is not that one doesn't need new buildings and innovative styles. It is that in the first instance, one preserves one's heritage, and in those areas where one builds anew, one attempts to harmonize with the environment and develop the tradition which has been handed down from earlier generations. This does not mean that the building materials have to be the same, or the design identical. It may just mean incorporating key elements of traditional architecture into an entirely new concept.

Whatever is happening on Amsterdam's outskirts, Amsterdam's heart remains what it always was - an example of the immovable material heritage of the Dutch. It is also part of the heritage of the world. And so is Georgetown's remarkable wooden architectural tradition, if only we could appreciate it. Before those with more money than taste continue on their destructive path annihilating the best in our material heritage and replacing it with travesties of varying degrees of eccentricity, the Ministries of Culture and Education - with help from the National Trust - should embark on a public awareness campaign.

If they don't, we will wake up one morning and find that the nation's capital has lost its traditions, lost its pedigree, lost its uniqueness and lost its soul.