The building tradition in the Caribbean grew partly from the climatic conditions and partly from locally available materials. Demands on and expectations of the functioning of the buildings led the colonials to import some building materials from Europe and America. Construction thus became ‘the art of the possible’. In the 16th and 17th centuries in the Caribbean, construction technique was based on the experience that the Spanish, the Dutch and the English had brought with them, but also on the experience of the Africans from their own continent.
The architecture is based on European craftsmanship traditions, with a clear difference in character between the Spanish and the northern European colonies. As construction increased more and more, slave craftsmen were taught the European traditions. Enslaved Africans were also imported as craftsmen, but their approach to building only had a limited influence on the Caribbean style of building. The enslaved Africans’ villages, for example, were built of Caribbean materials with traditional methods from Africa.
West Indian building tradition is based on the following ten materials:
- Natural stone
- Pitch pine
- Linseed oil
- Red lead
From the founding of the Danish West Indies colony the architecture was based on brick sailed from Denmark to the islands as ballast, approximately 10,000 bricks per trip. In Denmark the heavy brick from the Middle Ages was common, but from the end of the 16th century and up through the 17th century the smaller Flensburg brick produced at the many brickworks near Flensburg Fjord, but also for example at the Nivå brickworks, took over. Compared with the medieval brick of 7 x 13 x 27 cm, the Flensburg brick is relatively small at only 4 x 10.8 x 22.8 cm. The small size made it easy to handle with just one hand, so the mason’s work was almost halved – and building speed more than doubled. Today’s brick is 5.5 x 10.8 x 22.8 cm.
The masonry of many large buildings consists predominantly of Flensburg brick. But the stone was also used to build the corners, edges and arches over windows and doorways, because it has a precise shape and could easily be adapted to decorative details. It was because of these qualities that Flensburg brick was brought from Europe and used in the colony’s buildings. This way the Europeans got homes they could not only live in, but which were desirable residences.
A recurring stylistic feature – the masonry arch – is seen throughout the colony’s architecture. It is important to note that the builders continued to use the broad ‘basket-handle-arch’ in the Caribbean long after it was considered old-fashioned by the architects in Europe. This indicates that design in the islands was not the work of architects, but was generally based on the craft tradition that had been created in the colony.
Brick protected by a layer of lime plaster was commonly used in the Caribbean because the subtropical climate is hard on buildings with salty air, sun and wind that will break down the brick in the long run.
The bedrock and coastal reef of the islands are composed of limestone formed from coral. The limestone is therefore called coral stone, and was a widely used building material. Coral stone is relatively soft and can be cut into large blocks known as ashlars. On St. Croix there are large quarries both on the island itself and on the beach, where workers have cut large quantities of coral stone. Even though coral stone can withstand the weather better and longer than brick, all structures built from coral stone originally had plastered and whitewashed facades. In many places on the islands today, when you see these exposed coral stone walls deteriorating even though the house is in good condition, this is among other reasons because it later became fashionable to leave the rough masonry visible.
In the Caribbean you can see from many ruins and other buildings that they were built on a coral stone foundation. Coral stone is so porous and open that it absorbs the moisture in the wall, from which it slowly evaporates in the hot sun, thus creating a cooling effect. This principle is known in most of the tropical world as a simple method of cooling buildings. In the Caribbean the technique has worked flawlessly since the founding of the colony, but in modern times many buildings have been renovated or repaired with cement rendering and plastic-based paints. These modern materials trap the moisture inside the masonry, where it accumulates and makes the wall disintegrate. The devastation is aggravated by the widespread use of air conditioning; the condensation on the inside wall will eventually create moulds. The exaggerated use of air conditioning combined with the use of destructive materials comes about because of the need for modern conveniences and has led to the destruction of many of the historic buildings.
Natural stones used mainly on St. Thomas and St. John may for example be lava stone, known as ‘blue bits’. These have a harder structure and can form decorative masonry. However originally these walls were likewise rendered with mortar and lime washed.
The houses of the slave village was often built of wattle and dub. It is thin sticks and branches fixed with a doe of clay, cow manure and random rubble.
Random rubble and crushed rock are often used in combination, especially to build plantation factories and buildings for sugar production. Rubble was however frequently supplemented with bricks at windows and doorways and the corners of buildings.
Lime was an indispensable material in all masonry and was therefore one of the first things that was needed. In the Caribbean lime has been available in the form of conch shells, mussel shells, coral from the sea and coral stone.
For lime production, a masonry kiln was built and the raw lime would be burned at great heat. Afterwards the material was placed in a hole in the ground called a pit, and water was added, making the lime into the strong alkali called slaked lime. After some time in the pit, the material breaks down and a chemical process transforms the material into a light, soft substance that looks like bread dough. Mixing this ‘lime-dough’ with sand and water creates a mortar that can be used between bricks and as plaster.
If further diluted, the hydraulic lime becomes distemper or whitewash, which was used to render the masonry, because whitewash is a disinfectant. It inhibits fungal growth and insect infestation. It was traditional to whitewash at least once a year at the end of the hurricane season.
Adding a little copperas makes the whitewash pale yellow, and if iron oxide is added it turns pink. Leaving it white is both cheaper and quicker.
Slaked lime is also used as a chemical filter in sugar production to clarify the juice from sugar cane. After the juice was cleaned of unwanted waste materials, the lime was removed through a sieve and could then be re-used as a coarser material in building work.
An oral tradition says that the left-over molasses from the cleaning of the sugar was mixed into the mortar, especially the kind used in the construction of sugar mills and sugar factories. Adding the sugary molasses to the mortar makes the lime mortar harden more slowly than a pure lime mortar, thus preventing the sun and heat in the masonry from drying the mortar so quickly that it cracks and splits.
Since Roman times it has been known that if ash is added to mortar it becomes a kind of cement that is harder than pure lime mortar. In the Caribbean, ash from the fires that were used to boil the sugar juices was used as an additive. The resulting cement could withstand the harsh climate for centuries because the ash was very fine.
The Caribbean islands were originally covered by rain forests that were cleared to make way for the plantations. A large proportion of the felled trees were hardwood, which is slow-growing, hard, tropical wood, resistant to moisture. Mahogany in particular was used in construction because this type of wood was also resistant to attacks by termites, a great danger to all other wood in the islands. Mahogany is therefore often used as lintels above doors and windows, in the roof construction and for shutters because it is dimensionally stable. Because this type of wood became quite expensive, most shutters were made from pitch pine. Hardwood from the islands would either be used in construction on the islands or exported to Europe, where it was used in shipbuilding and in due course became a popular wood for furniture production.
Pitch pine was imported from North America and was a widely used building material in the Caribbean. It is a relatively hard wood and as long as the timber is dry, it is also quite termite-resistant. It was particularly used to build the window shutters that are such a characteristic and visible part of the West Indian architecture. Behind the shutters, mostly painted in dark colours, there were often finely crafted louvers to regulate the light.
The roof structures were primarily built from pine from North America. In the hurricane-prone Caribbean, roofs must be light and flexible, so slender rafters and laths of pine, and wood shingles quickly became very common. Terra cotta tiles were also used, but a hurricane frequently left nothing of a tile roof, while the pliant and flexible shingle remained intact. It is however the shape of the roof that above all ensures that hurricanes and storms veer off and pass by without taking hold of the roof. Indoor ceilings were often vaulted so that the hot air could rise.
Iron was mostly used for fittings and hinges on doors, gates and shutters. This was cast iron of high quality which can last for centuries and can be reused from building to building. In West Indian architecture the shutter fittings and hardware are of great importance because they form the decoration on simple, graphic facades. In addition to the use of iron in buildings, iron was also needed for tools and in sugar production. A smithy was absolutely essential to the operation of a plantation. The Moravians and the West India Company both had their own workshops. Later, wrought iron became common and stair railings and balcony railings in Charlotte Amalie are particularly elegant architectural features.
In the West Indies paint was made with a linseed oil base. Linseed oil comes from flax seed and has the special property that it is hardened by exposure to light. Mixing pigments in linseed oil to make paint provides good protection against degradation of the wood by light. For this reason all shutters, doors and gates in the colony are painted with linseed oil paint.
To protect iron from rusting and wood from rotting, linseed oil was mixed with the toxic orange dye called red lead, which bonds with iron and prevents rusting. Painted on wood, red lead impregnates it against fungi and insects. Other colours can be painted on top of the red lead.
The colour palette of the Caribbean was quite simply based on the cheapest pigments. The whitewashed walls contrast with a colour on the woodwork and thus emphasized the strict architectural simplicity. Brown, oxide red and ochre colours were cheap because they were made from minerals and clays. Over time, green and blue synthetic colours were added. The very gaudy colour palette of turquoise, yellow and pink which is now associated with the Caribbean has only been used after 1945, when synthetic colours flooded the western world.