ABOUT GALERIAS. (2014)


ABOUT GALERÍAS. AN EXTINT SPECIE IN THE DOMINICAN SPATIAL FAUNA.

/  Essay for the project TROPICAL GHOST (2014, Santo Domingo), commissioned by the gallery STOREFRONT FOR ART AND ARCHITECTURE (New York).  /

Click here to view the print version of this essay /

I.

At the very beginning of human existence, there were females that gave birth to other females with the moon and the water (the sea) as the only others participants of the act of human reproduction. Since there were only females, the word male or males didn’t exist; there was no need for this (gender) distinction. There were only people.

These people, the Clefts, who are believed to have evolved from creatures of the sea, lived in caves facing the only seashore they knew. They had never left this place that they considered home. The Clefts fished their food, swam a great portion of the day and, every now and then, coordinated by the translation of the moon, gave birth to other Clefts. This way of life went on without significant changes until the first male was born. These first males, considered Monsters, whose bodies were different from those of the Clefts, were left at the top of the cliff to be eaten by the eagles that lived in the mountains. Somehow, these Monsters, which were not eaten by the eagles, survived and built their habitat in the valley across the mountain, by the river.

Even after Clefts and Monsters began to mate, the two people lived separately. The females rested in their caves by the seashore, bathed in the sea and fished their food; the males built shelters from trees in the valley, hunted their food and learned the advantages, in terms of survival, of inhabiting the treetops. Thus, the cliff, the caves and the sea were home to the females in the same way that the valley, the shelters and the river were home to the males. This version of the origins of the human race is the centre of The Cleft (2007), a novel written by Doris Lessing. [1]

I find interesting the logic behind Lessing’s designation of caves and shelters to females and males, respectively, as the first two forms of humans’ dwellings. It wouldn’t be farfetched to conclude that these first typologies were born as products of their surroundings and not simple choices in the nature of aesthetics. I would say that they were choices almost entirely given by their natural surroundings. Almost. Caves and shelters are two different habitats that respond, not only to two contrasting environments, but also to the inner nature of two different personalities, two different individuals.

It is not the purpose of this article to induce that caves are to females what (man-built) shelters are to males, but to understand what is the relationship between these first typologies and the nature of certain spatial configurations that have existed in the Dominican Republic and in the Caribbean until this day, without ignoring what history tells us about the social relationships between males and females. Caves and Shelters, in the Dominican Republic, are related as much to natural environment as to the historical evolution of women in the dominican society.

II.

In the city of Santo Domingo, entire neighbourhoods that once were occupied by single-story houses are being torn down and replaced by high-rise residential buildings. This operation seems inevitable as the entire world rushes into a few already dense urban cities. Santo Domingo, being the capital of the Dominican Republic, is not the exception. This movement has led, in the last 40 years, to a complete transformation of not only the dominican traditional dwelling but also of the dominican socio-political persona. This high-rise eruption has created in the Dominican Republic, as in the rest of the world, a disruption in the continuity of tradition. As a result of this global transformation and the inability of local architects of embracing tradition by the reinterpretation of its primary forms, certain spaces that were attached to single-story housing configurations are disappearing from the dominican architectural manuals. The most singular of these extinct spaces is the Galería (latin Galeria), the Gallery.

Galleries are the most singular spaces in the residential architecture of the Caribbean. Galleries are to the Caribbean what cloisters are to the european architectural tradition – the fundamental pieces that set the topological differences between the european and the caribbean residential architectures. In the early (urban) european architecture, street’s façades were destined to be mere entrances to a sequence of utilitarian spaces that led to the centre of the residential structure, the patio, a relatively controlled atmosphere that was bathed with the most important element that was lacking in the interior rooms – sunlight –, far from the chaotic dense streets of this first cities. Whereas the european dwelling turns inward in search of a passive nature, the early caribbean dwelling turns its inner structure to the public space, less dense than its contemporaries in Europe, to be part of the journal urban flow.

This movement of the residential structure, inwards in Europe and outwards in the Caribbean, is based on the relationship between the public (and semi-public space), the inner house and the Galeria: in Europe the house turns its back to the nuisances of public space in search of the sunlight and a portion of (man-built) nature – the garden –, designing a space of transition between the patio and the private rooms that later would be named the loggia. In the meantime, the Caribbean house looks to keep the freshness of the interior rooms by building a roofed-open space of transition that projects a shade during the day to its external façades – the gallery. Depending of the position of this gallery vis-à-vis the main structure of the house, it would be named porch or veranda, if it was at the front or at the back of the house, respectively.

Thus, the domestic space that is kept private in Europe, in the Caribbean turns itself in the urban reflection of the residential space, the collective interpretation of the inhabitant as an individual.

***

When the spanish colonists settled in the Caribbean, in the year 1492, the architecture that was brought in and that began to establish itself as the first architecture of the American continent was the same (or very similar) that the one that was being built in the main cities of the spanish kingdom. The indigenes that inhabited the island of Quisqueya when the colonists set feet in América were living in caves and primitive man-built shelters called bohíos – males and females living together.

Even when one could agree that the gallery-house is the translation of a natural object – the cave – into a cultural one, the gallery as an archetypical element would not be part of the traditional architecture of the Caribbean until the beginning of the sugar industry and the massive migrations, in the 18th century, of the liberated slaves from the english islands of the Caribbean. (The colonial spanish architecture would, indeed, displace the internal loggias to the external façades of its most representative buildings, creating balconies that were more intended to address the people gathered in a public place than to be inhabited as part of the diary domestic live.)

In the Dominican Republic, the work in the sugar exploitation fields would surround the house of the master, a colonist, from where he would watch a great portion of the land, without sun-burning, thanks to the existence of the gallery. This gallery, that would become the image of the urban house in the Dominican Republic, was heavily influenced by the architecture that was being built at the time by the British empire in all its colonies around the world.

In modern times, until 40 years ago, the function of the gallery, in the Dominican Republic, had been connected with the place of women in the dominican society. Until the second half of the XXth century, women in the Dominican Republic, as in the rest of the world, were systematically considered housewives, people that were in charge of all the domestic necessities of the house – cooking, sewing, cleaning, washing –, all day long until the husband arrived from a day of work. Depending on the wealth of the family, this housewife would be given aides or not to help her accomplish her everyday tasks. Mornings were busy, cleaning the house and cooking. Sewing. Until the husband and children arrived for lunch. The afternoons were less agitated – washing the dishes and preparing the evening supper. The noon and evening arrival of the husband and the children took place in the gallery, in the front of the house, in the porch. The housewife would wait and greet her family from the gallery. In the evenings, once dinner was finished, the gallery would be the place where neighbours would gather to chat and watch their children play in the street. In the rural structure, the husband, after a day of work in the fields, would greet her wife without walking into the gallery and would go round to the veranda – the portion of the gallery that connects the house to the garden – and take off his working shoes in order to not bring mud into the clean interior of the house.

During the day, housewives would acknowledge each other, from time to time, from their respective galleries. The gallery was also the space to stop the fruit and vegetable vendor or to relate with the flow of passing neighbours. This, all, executed under the shade drawn by the house-surrounding gallery.

This notion would seem a cartoonish description of almost every woman living before the arrival of the XXIst century and its global revolution. It is. But it’s also a very complex point in the history of the gallery in the Dominican Republic. It would seem that the same moment in history when women began to emancipate – by obtaining the right to vote, to have a career and work, to decide if they were to stay the whole day in the house to attend to the domestic matters – is the same historical moment where galleries began to evolve into obsolete structures of an ancient tradition.

III.

The most obvious reason of the no longer need of the gallery in the Dominican Republic would seem to be an architectural one. Nonetheless, the country’s political context of the last 50 years would play a great part on the transformation of the dominican traditional habitat. The wealth of the Dominican Republic is mainly distributed between, on one hand, a few rich families that obtained the greatest part of their fortunes by working very close to each of the dominican governments from the last hundred years, including, in some cases more than others, the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo from 1930 to 1961; and, on the other hand, an everyday increasing number of corrupt politicians that have bankrupted the national economy on behalf of their personal wealth.

With the death of the Dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1961, his closest aid, Joaquín Balaguer, is left rightly positioned to inherit the political power of the country. Balaguer stays in power, almost without interruption, until 1996 when Leonel Fernández, the new head of the PLD (Partido de la Liberación Dominicana) wins that year’s presidential election. The arrival of Leonel Fernández to the national political stage opens a period where the primary goal of the Dominican Republic’s two main political parties – the PLD and the PRD (Partido Revolucionario Dominicano) – was to stay in power as long as possible in order to maximize their personal profits and wealth before the end of the present 4 years government period. This policy has engraved a culture of corruption in the country’s popular thinking that has surpassed every mean of moral apprehension. What started as mere political corruption has eroded society to the point where easy-earning-money activities are no longer subjected to collective social scrutiny or to any notion of popular (ethical) correctness.

IV.

In Dominican Republic’s modern architecture balconies are becoming the natural replacement of galleries. The differences between these two exterior domestic spaces are slight but significant. Balconies are exterior open spaces supported by the building’s façade or comprehended in the extension of the interior’s floor. Galleries, on the other hand, are roofed balconies, whose perimeter is structured by a series of elements that could constitute a notion of opened façade. But the main difference between these two forms of exterior space is their connection with the outside. Whereas the balcony acts as an external appendix of the building, galleries define the transition between the interior and exterior spaces. Galleries are often built as an extension of the interior space, an ethereal mattress that gathers the necessary elements that build coherently the passing from an architectural space to a natural – or urban – one. Topologically speaking, whereas galleries are considered an extension of the interior comfort, balconies are thought to maximize the natural conditions of the exterior. Following this definition, one could understand why there is no logic in replacing one of these elements with the other. While people in northern countries cherish the possibility of sun-bathing in their balconies, in the Dominican Republic, the shade that is drawn by the gallery is the abstract space where the continuity between urban and private spaces takes place, and where the domestic space builds its reflection into the popular culture.

But what is at stake with the loss of the gallery? And shouldn’t tradition take care of its own continuity?

Galleries are one of the symbols that structure the language of the architectural tradition in the Dominican Republic. Viewed merely as symbols, the loss of the galleries or any other symbol impoverishes the local language and, thus, universal culture. As we speak, there are around the globe numerous cultures that are fighting to keep certain important elements of their cultures – in some cases it is against the loss of language; in others is food or a certain ancestral dance that is being replaced by a group of global trends. In the case of the Dominican Republic, it is the nuclear element of the dominican domestic space that is at stake.

The bulk of apartment-buildings that are being constructed in the Dominican Republic are objects of a very poor architectural thinking, where comfort is found in the collection of plug-in gadgets instead of the inner quality of the domestic space. These new constructions are inheriting the vices of the weakest examples of the eclectic architecture that the richest dominicans collect in their vacations in Miami Beach and Europe. These individuals fall into an oblivion of intellectual void when presented to the growing generation of young architects that are mass consumers (or followers) of today’s ever less-critical publications that revere the infinite compression of architectural tradition by the most recent digital means, over a more profound analysis of the logical evolution of architecture over the natural courses of time.

Cultures are defined by this language, by these symbols that enable tradition with its own cultural value. One could argue that not every traditional element is meant to survive in history. Tradition is formed by the ensemble of circumstantial elements that were able to find their logical place in human culture. There are a great number of traditional figures whose function has become obsolete before the eyes of global culture. Tradition should be able to reinterpret and transform its main elements in every phase of the human specie. Language evolves. Words are adapted to modern speaking. Symbols that are no longer needed, because their signification has lost all meaning in the modern world, are suppressed and left behind as traces of different paths of human history.

Today, the dominican people that do not identify itself with this culture of corruption that has inhabited the country in the last 20 years, are being left with a language that is continually impoverished with each day’s passing. The only ones that benefit from this impoverishment are corrupt politicians that see a critical wall in the richness of language. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell speaks of the reduction of language as the most efficient weapon of dictators against the people. [2]

If it was to be considered that the cultural space that inhabits the gallery is obsolete in this global world of digital-social networks, there is still a natural space that we find only in galleries and that cannot be replaced by media.

It should be remembered that caves were the first natural habitat of the human specie; caves were the place where nature and human conditions merged into the evolution of the human being. In Doris Lessing’s version of human history, people were attached to this caves that they inhabited by an abstract feeling that remitted the human flesh to its very first origins in the sea from where they had evolved. Humans left these caves to discover further territories with new possibilities of living – i.e. lands with friendlier climates, more food to hunt or fish, grounds that could enable agriculture. Where there were no caves to be found, shelters were built. But these shelters weren’t figurative imitations of the caves; they were a new form of domestic space, a cultural one, a space that had to built within the possibilities (and the limitations) of the site. Caves to these people were more than mere refuges; these caves were the places where the continuum of the intangible roots of life and the historical evolution of the human beings were assured.

The dominican people, in order to recapture the inner logic of the domestic space of the caribbean and, thus, to reinsert galleries to its contemporary architecture, should remember the times before the colonisations, the times where the language spoken was a natural one given by the elements encountered in their territory instead of the cultural language that was imposed by the spanish colonist. It is necessary to recapture the essence of inhabiting the island of Quisqueya. What was the meaning of border and politics 600 hundred years ago?

Singer Antony Hegarty, in a concert recorded in 2011, discussing Future Feminism, rejoins a similar concept of the one proposed by Lessing in The Cleft, the possibility of living in a world where women (and not men) are the spine of society. [3] There is a natural logic behind the idea of connecting the origins of the human being to the womb (of women), an inner logic that escapes any notion of religion or politics. In this venue, I have been nurturing and idea of a what if, an utopian notion that today could only find its place in fiction: what if instead of been discovered by three ships filled with thieves and rapists, people of the island of Quisqueya would have encountered at the coast, in 1492, the same spanish ships but this time inhabited by women, mothers and their children. Maybe it would have been the same. Maybe not. In order to reinterpret the place of galleries in our modern times maybe we should think beyond caves and shelters, maybe we should embrace the logic of the times before there were males and females, embrace the times when there were only people.

(2014)

[1] The Cleft. Doris Lessing. Harper Perennial 2008.

[2] Nineteen Eighty-Four. George Orwell. First published in England 1949 by Martin Secker and Warburg Limited.

[3] Cut the World. Antony and the Johnsons. Rough Trade 2012.


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