Trinidad Express
Wednesday, December 18, 1996
 

Low-cost housing mixes traditional with modern

WHEN MEMORY IS A MATERIAL 

Architect Gary Turton explains the finer points
of his award-winning design. Photo: KEN CHEE HING

By KIM JOHNSON

MEMORY, explained architect Gary Turton, is a material too.
The clean-shaven Turton, 30, was describing his design which last month won the NHA competition "Looking Toward the Future: Low-Cost Housing in Trinidad and Tobago".

"Architecture is about using what's available," he said softly in a New York accent. "Not just the materials but the environment, the culture, even memory is a valid building material too."

The memory he was referring to is manifest in the demerara windows of his prototype house, which are cheap because they contain no glass but which also possess a traditional beauty-like the other materials he has used: pitch pine, concrete, ceramic tiles, wrought iron and galvanise.

Turton's winning design was of a 700-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bathroom house sitting on 5,000 square feet of land, and he estimated its building cost at $110,000. An additional $20,000 would expand it by two bedrooms and one bathroom. It was not merely the low-cost that won him the $10,000 first prize, but how his design combined practical considerations with aesthetic ones.
Take, for example, the demerara windows. "They recall a sense of Trinidad, not America or Europe; and I also like the way the light travels through it, the way it captures breezes and gives privacy, and how it extends a room by projecting outwards."

Despite the traditional motifs of the windows, physically the house's lines are modern, rectangular and spare. Here monotony is avoided simply by their irregularity and a variety of materials.

Windows, for instance, are not square in the centre of a wall. The clay tiles of the patio cover only part of the courtyard, the rest being covered with gravel. Even the perimeter wall is irregular too, as is its wooden gate. "Order," Turton mused, "doesn't have to be regular-it can be irregular but still have rhythm like a song: rather than a continuous note, it's the fluctuating tones of a melody."
And here again, in the steel doors which open from the living room into the patio, the modern aesthetic is fused with the real world.

"The wrought iron bars on the doors are secure and they allow light-you could have a screen for privacy-but the horizontal bars give less of a jail feeling," he said, arguing that security need not be claustrophobic.

Turton's practical considerations in his window design (as with the triangular wooden latticework gable below the roof and the steel doors) are to allow light and breeze to enter the house. His low eaves direct sunlight and exclude the rain-and burglars.

Culturally too, Turton has sought to relate his design to the Trini lifestyle. "I drove around studying what low-cost housing meant here," he related. "In the US it's a giant ghetto, closed boxes, no trees. But that doesn't make sense here, where we could use the breeze, the bush, the sun and rain."
He pointed out that our lifestyle is close to our climate.

"We like to be outside when it's cool and dry; when it's raining people don't carry umbrellas-we stop and shelter: rain on galvanise is a very special sound," he observed. "We like to lime and have guests over."

Thus he explained how his living/dining room, floored with terracotta ceramic tiles, flows onto the covered patio, bringing the outside into the house and giving the latter a sense of openness and space.

This is vital because everything relies on a tall perimeter wall for privacy in the very open house. And integral to this design is the use of greenery. A tree on the right balances the weight of the house on the left. The tall perimeter wall fronting the patio is lined with plants so the feeling is one of being in a forest. In this Turton is perhaps most nostalgic, for his is the vision of the exiled Trini who has longed for the lush vegetation of home.

Born in 1966, he migrated from Trinidad to the United States with his parents when he was seven, and lived there until 1989 when he completed studies at State University of New York. The year before, in 1988, he had returned for Carnival, and then again for Christmas, and once he completed his M.Arc he returned to work with his cousin, the late Roger Turton, in his architectural firm.

"I used to go hiking when I lived in the US and once out in the forest I'd try to believe the city, its walls and pollution, didn't exist," recalled Turton. And his design reaches even further back to the childhood pleasure of baths under a standpipe or in the outside bathroom of an aunt's house. So the bathroom is walled with latticework and, for privacy, broad-leaf heliconia plants-a whimsy of design which he admitted can be foregone.

"What people remember about a building is not mainly how it was designed and built," argued his design statement. "Rather, they remember their embodied experience of that building through its textures, colours, the way light or sound travels, its bright or dark areas, its shaded, breezy areas, its cosy niches or open places ... We feel their senses must be activated through variations of bright and dim, rough and smooth, warm and cool, hard and soft."