The Bungalow: Symbol of Dominican Sovereignty

By Srivastava, Yashdeep | Contemporary Review, May 2003 | Go to article overview

The Bungalow: Symbol of Dominican Sovereignty


Srivastava, Yashdeep, Contemporary Review


THE Dominican Republic is a tiny island nation in the Caribbean of less consequence to global geopolitics today than several centuries ago. Allegedly, when the Dominican dictator, General Trujillo, declared war on Germany in the 1940s, Hitler did not even blink. It is so low-profile that even its smaller neighbour, Haiti, has had much more attention in recent years. And from all accounts, the Dominicans are very pleased about it, preferring obscurity to notoriety. However, this obscurity has not been the Dominican Republic's permanent condition.

In the 1500s it was the threshold to South America, the last 'civilized' frontier. Columbus landed on this island in 1492 and made it his base. Even as wars raged on the main South American continent over God, gold and glory, the Spanish guarded this little frontier post doggedly. Within the first fifty years of colonizing the island, the native population of Tainos was made extinct along with their 'primitive' architecture and culture. In its place came the cathedrals, sanatoriums, universities and convents; all the trappings of a little Spain on a trans-Atlantic island that its new rulers naively thought was India.

The military engineers who sailed on these expeditions resorted to constructing buildings as they knew best. Contemporaneous building technology imported from Spain was applied directly with scant regard for natural or cultural parameters that usually shape all architecture. This is clearly reflected in the early colonial architecture in the Dominican Republic.

Thick plastered brick walls, also called mamposteria, perforated with a colonnade of arches which in fact were the structural supports for the roof. In the mixed commercial and residential areas the heavy masonry arches mark the openings in the building that also double up for shop-windows. The residential portion of the building is located to the rear or on the upper floor of the house. The front is often ornamented with eclectic cornices or pediments and the doors are now coloured characteristically in the Caribbean Style - strongly contrasting colours juxtaposed with each other. The walls are punctuated with small grilled openings - very unsuitable in a hot tropical maritime climate, I might add. Almost always, the walls are plastered and whitewashed. The roofs were generally flat. The early colonial architecture adheres strictly to the stereotypical images we associate with Spain. The institutional buildings were modelled on similar buildings in the home country. The stylistic input belonged to the high B aroque era with Mannerist or Plateresque ornamentation on the facades - as was the rage in Spain at the time. The fashionable architectural styles in Spain made their way to the island as quickly as a state-of-the-art sailing ship from continental Europe could land on her shores. As a standard, the prevailing Spanish architectural style governed Dominican architecture for at least three centuries affecting building typologies across the board including the living quarters.

Naturally the dwellings for the resident Spaniards were modelled on their counterparts in Spain. Small balcony projections with ornate balustrades and pretty wrought iron lamps flanking monumental doorways on the tall street walls characterized the early homes. Arranged around a lush courtyard and opening directly onto the street they used mamposteria, flat roofs with small windows covered by heavy steel grills. The buildings look robust and solid, in many ways similar to the buildings in old Pondicherry (a former French colony in SE India), minus the French sophistication. Ideally suited to a warm, dry Mediterranean climate these buildings seemed to be an oddity in a land accustomed to a coastal climate akin to Bombay's. The imagery of the streetscape is typical of Spain and it is hardly surprising that today, in the evenings, you can see Flamenco performances to Gipsy Kings in the old streets of Santo Domingo -- the nation's capital. …

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