A huge loss
July 21, 2002
With all the wrangling that customarily takes place at ground level in the Parliament chamber, there is probably little time available for MPs to raise their eyes heavenward and revel in the sheer virtuosity of the Castellani ceiling above them. Which is a pity, not only because it really is the best ceiling in the country, but also because if they don't do it soon, it will be too late. The grim news is that the ceiling has to come down, because neglect and the passage of time have taken their toll on the beams above it, and if these are not removed they could - perish the thought - collapse on our parliamentarians meeting in solemn conclave below.
The problem is that Castellani's exuberant canopy is made of plaster, and it is unlikely given the advanced state of deterioration of the beams above, that any local contractor could remove that plaster in its entirety without destroying its decorative features in the process. In addition, it is equally unlikely that any local contractor possesses the skills necessary, having once broken up the ceiling, to reconstruct all its curlicues and flourishes and scrollwork in faithful correspondence to the original. As it is, therefore, since the invitations to tender have already gone out, Castellani's handiwork looks as if it is under a death sentence.
There can be no architect of the late nineteenth century in Guyana (with the arguable exception of Sharples, and he functioned largely in the private field) who has been as unlucky as Cesar Castellani. He worked during the great period of public building in Georgetown and his contribution to the physical transformation of our official institutions was a major one. A native of Malta, he was Italian speaking, which led some writers into the erroneous assumption that he was therefore Italian by nationality.
Castellani worked on the first Roman Catholic cathedral - a magnificent edifice with a tower unlike any other in the world. It was of wood, however, and in 1913 a workman took a coalpot into the tower to solder some leaks. Burning embers from the pot eventually set the steeple on fire, and since water could not reach the blaze that high up, the entire structure was razed.
He was no more fortunate in the case of what his contemporaries regarded as his finest work - the Palms. The wags of the period advocated moving the destitute out of the building since it was much too grand for them, and transferring them to Government House (now State House), which they claimed was an architectural hodge-podge, lacking a coherent style. The Governors, it was said, could then move into the Palms. The demise of the Palms is to be laid at the door of the PNC Government, which allowed it to rot away without attempting any kind of intervention. By the time the present administration came to office, there was no alternative but to dismantle the structure.
And now we have the case of the ceiling. Castellani was not responsible for designing Parliament Building itself; the credit for that goes to Joseph Hadfield after whom Hadfield street is named. The Maltese architect just added the plaster ceiling to what is now the Parliament chamber many decades after the building was opened in 1834.
It is more than likely that enough homework has not been done on whether the ceiling can or cannot be saved. It is conceivable that for technical reasons it can't be, or that the measures required to preserve it would involve costs which are prohibitive. But has anyone - more particularly, the Parliament Office - actually approached an expert to find out what the options are at this late stage? And if there is a possibility it can be taken down under the guidance of experts in such a way that major damage would not be caused - or if serious damage were caused it could be repaired - did anyone approach international agencies, including private heritage organizations, for financial assistance and/or expertise?
It is always problematical leaving things of this kind so late. It seems that it was noticed a long time ago that the wooden beams were rotting, so why was nothing done about it then, especially given the difficulty that the ceiling presented? Architect Mr Orin Hinds (see page 14) told this newspaper that he had been asked to look at the ceiling two years ago, and at that stage his view was that it could have been saved as only portions of it would have had to be removed.
As it is, many months and innumerable parliamentary debates later, another piece of our heritage appears as if it is about to go. It will be no loss to many of the politicians, of course. But it will be a huge loss to the rest of us.