Suriname and Guyana


Walls of Green and Red


What can you say about the civic buildings of a deeply complicated and diverse culture? One with a history of colonialism, slavery, immigration, shifting power balances, incredible economic potential, and deep patriotic pride. A place where independence is held so dear and elections can be a battle of wills,


Ahh, America. South America to be precise.


Lately, I had the benefit of being able to travel to Guyana and Suriname, two countries which, if you had asked me a few months ago to point on a map, I probably would have indicated somewhere in West Africa. Aside from being about 3500 miles off, the cultures are way, way, different.


Presently, I know that these are two countries north of Brazil and have cultural ties to the Caribbean. Further, they have linked, but very different histories. This is particularly noticeable in their architecture. So let’s start from the very beginning - word on the street is that’s a very good place to start.


Pre-Colombian Guyana and Suriname


Before a Portuguese Sub-contractor named Columbus showed up and established what is maybe one of the most difficult legacies in history, Guyana and Suriname were predominantly populated by two Amerindian peoples. The Arawak (along the coastal regions) and the Kalina (in the Interior, which I mistakenly called ‘The Amazon Jungle’ and was immediately corrected). For reference, the Kalina are sometimes also referred to as the Carib, which is derived from the language, and may or may not have a connection to the “Island Carib” peoples, from which we get the name “Caribbean”.


According to academic research in Cuba (  civic architecture for the Pre-Columbian Arawak boiled down to one major element, with many geographic variations, the Flat Court. Flat Courts were used for ball games, festivals as well as religious and secular events. This was also where the Caciques would hold events, though there was typically only one per village, others would hold honor positions and were responsible for various services.


As for the Kalina, their pre-Colombian civic architecture is less well documented, however, there are some remnants that it was similar to the Arawak, from reports coming from their 1892 exhibition at the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris. And yes, it’s a huge bummer that the native peoples of South America were treated like a carnival sideshow rather than a complex culture, but let’s give the exhibitors a benefit of the doubt they don’t deserve and say it was to improve global understanding.


The Kalina and Arawak had a long history of back-and-forth territory struggles (some argue hundreds of years, as archaeological evidence places the Kalina potentially as far back as 50 CE) , though both were brought new challenges when the settlers after Columbus moved into town. Changing their society, and, of course, their architecture.


Gringos and Other Beasts of Burden


Establishing cultural models during times of transition is a quicksand. Anything that comes across as “Typical” is more specified than we like to realize and can be dangerously inaccurate. Long story short: This stuff is complicated.


However, if one is going to wade into the territory of this very difficult debate, we can look at “Shotgun” Houses.


For a great read on this, I would recommend the following:


After the arrival of Europeans to this area, we can see colonialism coming into the swing and civic buildings, along with everything else, become real “western”, real quick. For this, we’re going to look at two examples, both named “Fort Zeelandia”


Guyana’s ‘Fort Zeelandia’ is a fortress built in the 17th century within the Essequibo River. Guyana, from a Colonist perspective, was a nightmare. Not quite farmable, not quite mine-able, with jungle as far as the eye could see. However, it did have something that did become incredibly valuable: sugar cane. However, unlike other places in the Caribbean where you’ll find grand plantations, Guyana was just too difficult to build in. So instead it was a place of proxy-wealth, where you would make and store your money, but live elsewhere. Mostly England and Holland.


To reflect this, Guyana’s Fort Zeelandia is essentially a lockbox on an island which is hard to get to from everywhere. Even now in 2016, I had to take a taxi, to a ferry, to another taxi to a powerboat, up river for 45 minutes and then walk through some underbrush.


People still live near the island in small houses and they were genuinely kind and welcoming to a tourist who could not look more out of place. The fort was eventually discontinued in the late 18th century, when there had just been too many pirates for the place to remain profitable.


In contrast, Suriname’s ‘Fort Zeelandia’ is not a lockbox for finance, it’s a much more traditional fort. Built in the capital city of Paramaribo, this fort was intended as a trading post and would change hands several times in the mid-to-late 1600s (in a hard Dutch/English back and forth which is complicated and long-standing). Around the Paramaribo’s fort, is the grander civic buildings, including the Presidential Palace, which are somewhat par-for-the-course of white paint and wood slats in a steamy climate. Paramaribo became a company town. What made this Fort Zeelandia different was that it was meant to make a community. And it worked, kind of. Paramaribo built up around the fort, and indeed the site would remain politically relevant throughout its history and into the 1980s. Where it was the scene of the “December Murders” where young people, critical of the government, were killed. Accounts vary as to who pulled the trigger and the ramifications of those deaths still haunt the politics of the region.


In the architecture you’ll find around the  respective forts, you’ll find a curious architecture, particularly in Guyana’s capital of Georgetown. As we were driving around I asked my guide “what’s up with the wooden slats outside of the windows - the answer? In the 1800s, the selling of ice became popular in the area, and the fancier homes would put slabs of them outside the window, allowing the breeze to cool the upper-floors.


As someone’s who’s air-conditioning cut out earlier this week, putting a block of ice next to my bed sounds like the best idea anyone has ever had.


Revolution and Reputation


Over the next hundred years (which is a terrible way to look at history), a trend of immigration came through, including people from India, China, Africa and Europe. I’m sorry to say that most of that list were either enslaved people or people who were paid incredibly poorly. Eventually, this erupted into revolution and a claim for independence.


Guyana declared independence in 1966 and established a formal government in 1970. 8 years later, the country would become the focus of international shock and scandal through the “Jonestown Massacre” which was not only the largest mass-murder/suicide in US history but also led to the death of the only sitting member of the House of Representatives to be assassinated while in office, Leo Ryan.


As a result, tourism tanked and Guyana had a hard time finding it’s mark. Going through 2016 Georgetown, it feels like a place in transition. What I assumed to be the first place to go as a tourist: The Marketplace, I was told repeatedly was deeply unsafe. However, most of the people I spoke with had visited the US and/or had relatives there, typically in New York. As a recent ex-New Yorker, this gave us a lot to talk about.


In Suriname, the connection of independence is a little more complicated. While Suriname declared autonomy in 1975, they still remain, economically and culturally tied to the Netherlands. In the time leading up to the revolution, about a third of the population moved to Europe, fearing what Independence would mean to such a new place. Suriname now, though, over 40 years later, is an interesting mix of tourism and not. Development from Chinese investors and groups of back-packing EU citizens makes a vibe that feels almost akin to New Orleans. There are the tourist spots and there are the local spots. Moreover, one does to equate the other.

To the architecture being built now, both in Guyana and in Suriname, is one of Neo-capitalism, with large windows and crisp displays. I wasn’t there long enough to find out if these were designed by local firms but they seem to be trying to find their style independent, in all means, from what has defined them in the past. What that looks like? Only time will tell.