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Our architecture is more than just self-build and colorful buildings

Architect in Residence at Architecture Centre Amsterdam (ARCAM), Lyongo Juliana, states that self-build is something Caribbean and part of our culture. Self-build is something he encourages. “However, instead of ‘build-your-own-home’ floor plans and other bad concepts, we should provide people with floor plans and tools to build better houses. Our culture and architecture are much more than just self-build homes and abundant use of color.”


Krea asked Lyongo to share his insights on contemporary Caribbean architecture, our self-build culture, the importance of integrating architecture and urban design with other disciplines, and the role of (young) professionals in contributing to a better built environment.


Is there such a thing as contemporary Caribbean architecture?


“Yes, but we need to be careful when forcibly trying to design in a Caribbean style, for instance, by merely making a colorful building and call it Caribbean architecture. Our culture is more than just colors. You see it also on the British Caribbean islands with their ‘gingerbread’ style. Just adding gingerbread elements to a building does not suddenly make it Caribbean.”


So what should we be looking for when integrating culture in Caribbean architecture?


“When I was designing the Curaçao Medical Center (CMC), we made a big central hall so people can meet each other and have a chat there. That is an example of the informal culture of Curaçao. You don’t make plans to meet, but instead, you just talk with someone wherever you run into them, whether in the hospital, streets, or traffic. These are the things you need to notice and take into account when designing a place.”


“Another example is the Port City project in Aruba, with a scenic road, where you can take a ‘stroll’ by car. That is unheard of in the Netherlands: to enter your car, go for a drive so that people can see you pass by. We can discuss whether we find it desirable for people to drive around aimlessly, but it is a given. “


Our culture is more than just colors.

“What I am researching in the Netherlands is now possible because I have been focusing on end-users all those years. When you design a house in the Netherlands, the floor plan is pretty much set in stone. No one is thinking: ‘what does someone do when they enter the house, how is privacy structured in the building?’. These are things that I have observed and analyzed in Curaçao. For example, some people you greet at the fence, others on the front porch, other guests enter the house, and your good friends and family walk straight to the back porch.”


How does this differ from your experience in the Netherlands?


“Because of these observations, I started noticing certain things in the Netherlands. Like, why can’t you have a BBQ with a group in the park? Since I lacked good examples in Curaçao, I had to develop a certain sensitivity in observations. This is what I hope to bring across with my Architect in Residence; to make architects and urban planners more sensitive for the end-user. Who is my end-user? For whom am I building this?”


“When you look to cities like Rotterdam, Amsterdam, The Hague, and Utrecht, everyone is a minority. But if you look at the architectural and real estate fairs and network events, you only see white people. Not that being white is a problem, but the problem lies in that these people don’t know how their fellow citizens of color live and what they want. One thing is certain if we look at the Netherlands in 2069: most residents living in The Randstad (Amsterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, and Rotterdam) will be of color. And if we don’t include these people now in shaping the cities, we will create cities where the majority doesn’t feel at home.”


It is interesting. We look at other cities and want Curaçao to learn from them, but you are doing the opposite. You see what is happening in Curaçao and show what we can learn from Curaçao.


“This not only happens in Curaçao but in the entire Caribbean and Latin-America. We look too much to other countries. It would be best if you looked at your qualities and shortcomings. We copy a lot, but little is created from within.”


Based on your vast experience, can you give some examples of how a typical Antillian house looks and how we can make that part of our architecture?


“To build a good Curaçaon house, you need to start by ensuring the house is cool. When you come home from work around 6 or 7 pm, most houses in Curraçao are warmer inside than outside. In principle, this means that the house is not adequate. We started building houses to protect us from climatic influences. That is why we left our caves and started building structures. The first thing I sketch when making a design is the north arrow, and perpendicular to that the wind direction. In Curaçao, the wind comes from the east, even though it is called the north-east trade wind. These are the first steps. Afterward, you can start with the design. You will have to consider how you design for privacy and other personal requirements. You are continuously trying to facilitate activities, how people enter their homes, what a logical sequence of rooms is, and what views they want. You do the same for social housing and villas.”


Actually, we should design a house in a way that it feels like a porch.

“We are building social houses in Montaña. Stacked and connected, which is not common in Curaçao. For this project, I looked at the distances and sizes of alleys in the city center. How far apart do houses need to be to still function? That is why we applied the distance of 4,80 meters between the building blocks and the open staircase. The open staircase allows for better ventilation, and the houses can have windows on three sides, which makes cross-ventilation possible. So it is about the processes. Understanding the activities that take place in people’s homes and what the requirements are from the climate.”


It sounds obvious; we need to understand the needs of people better. What do people actually want?


“Basically, what people need is a roof and a floor. A covered area because it feels cool there. Actually, we should design a house in a way that it feels like a porch. Often we build bad houses, but on the porches, we achieve the quality we truly want. So design the house like a giant porch.”


We talked about elements that need to be integrated into designs, so it functions for the end-user. At the same time, we see a lot of self-built houses in Curaçao. In general, people don’t go to an architect to design a home for them. Is this also then part of our culture?


“Absolutely! Almost all around the world, people build their own houses. The Netherlands is an expectation. Even in Belgium and Germany, more people build their own houses. Self-build is something I encourage. There is a shortage of houses in the Netherlands, but everyone is looking at the municipality to solve it. I still don’t see houses popping up along the roadside. Thus clearly, the urgency is not so high. Not that this is something I want, but we have had a Woningwet (Housing Act) for 100 years, and maybe it needs to be revised. We should start looking into how we can stimulate people to solve their own problems.”


“Self-build homes are something Caribbean. It can also take on a blended form. For example, in the neighborhood of Zapateer, we have designed expendable homes. These are about 55 square meters with one bedroom, but a foundation built for two additional bedrooms and a second bathroom. People could buy such a house for 100.000 Antillian guilders. Curaçao has many single households, which itself is a topic to discuss another time. These people can also get a mortgage for a 100.000 guilder house. People are creative and will find a way to build the additional rooms, sometimes from unregistered extra income. We see that as surviving, and when it goes well, you make it formal."


“Another example is in Medellín, where the number of migrants coming to the city is so high that the city cannot build a house for everyone, and instead focuses on teaching people how to build their own house. This is something we should also invest time and energy into and adopt in Curaçao. Instead of ‘build-your-own-home’ floor plans and other bad concepts [from the USA], where you have one side for sleeping and one side for living, resulting in one side of the house always being too warm, we should provide people with floor plans and tools to build better homes.”


What are the effects of the self-build culture on our spatial planning and other disciplines like mobility?


“When we build our own houses, we immediately think of villas. But look at slums, they are dense, but still self-build. I am not saying that we should make slums, but you also see developments there. You have gradations from cardboard houses to really good houses. Thus higher density with self-build houses is achievable. The architect who won the Pritzker prize in 2016, Alejandro Aravena from Chile, decided that if there is a budget for half a house, he will make half a house instead of a very cheap house. And people can fill in the last part themselves.”


“I agree that Curaçao should create more density. The problem is that Curaçao doesn’t know barios (neighborhoods) anymore. Greater Willemstad is the neighborhood, and that is why you have so much car movement. If, for example, we are allowed to build on the Isla terrain, we could have a unique opportunity for growth on Curacao with a high density, with a lot of people at a close distance from each other so that you can finally create a decent public transport. Then kids do not have to go to school by car anymore.”


Are there other things we should improve?


“Yes! Sustainability. But then not just solar panels on the roofs, but ensuring wind passes through streets and dwellings—so passive sustainable design. We should incorporate green and water early on in the design phases. For example, take an aerial photo in the dry season and see where there is still green. These can become the neighborhood’s green areas because you know there is underground water there.”


Do you encounter any technical limitations when designing for sustainability?


“When I asked for insulation material at a local hardware store in 2005, they said ‘kiko?’. Now it is part of their regular stock. So you do see developments.”


But Curaçao does not suffer from brain drain; it suffers from brain rejection.

One of the values of Krea is ‘community engagement.’ How do we ensure that society is involved to ensure that our solutions have an added value? And in this context, what should the role of the professionals be?


“You have to listen to the people, go into the neighborhoods, walk there, see how the neighborhoods work, how people live, and what their needs are. But at the end of the day, you are the professional. So it’s not one or the other, it’s both. If I have acute appendicitis, there is one person I go to, and that is the surgeon. And he is the one that can cut me open and takes my appendix out. Anyone can provide insights and think something about my appendix, but the only person allowed to touch me is the surgeon, even if recently graduated. Not even the nurse who has been an operating assistant for 40 years is allowed to do the operation. That is what is sometimes forgotten in an exaggerated bottom-up approach; that we as professionals are the ones who can make the choices and have to defend those choices. The regular man often cannot foresee the consequences of the choice he makes.”


Are you saying that we should let professionals make choices? And let society have a say until a particular moment and then hand it over to the professionals?


“Yes, that is what I am saying. We come from a time when scientists made the decisions. And now it has flipped to the other side. Now society determines how certain technical decisions are made. And that is irresponsible because those people cannot oversee it. An example from architecture: some people say: ‘I would like to apply this tile.’ Then I say: ‘yes, but we have chosen a concept together, and that tile does not fit that concept,’ because I can see what that space will look like with that tile in the end. The person only considers if the tile is beautiful or not. If you have more knowledge in a field, you can look ahead and see what the consequences will be. This does not only apply in Architecture but any field.”


We as professionals are the ones who can make the choices and have to defend those choices.

What is our biggest challenge in trying to create a better built environment in Curaçao?


“The biggest challenge for Krea and other intellectuals is finding a way to contribute to Curaçao. We often hear Curaçao has brain drain problems. But Curaçao does not suffer from brain drain; it suffers from brain rejection. When the brains want to contribute to problem-solving, there are these mechanisms that reject them. And this is Curaçao’s biggest challenge.”


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