Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Architecture of Solomon Islands

To continue the focus on the South Pacific ...

I wrote this in order to give Australians an idea of one of their nearest neighbours. Solomon Islands is a country in which we have a strong military/police presence.


Australians know very little about one of their nearest neighbours despite the fact that since 2000, when the country descended into disorder and armed conflict, they have been contributing substantially to the financial and personnel deployment rallied to stabilise the country under the auspices of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI). A look at the building of Solomon Islands tells us much about its history and current plight, the forms of which will be only too familiar to students of postcolonialism.

Missionaries, eager to establish their own concept of family life, encouraged Solomon Island women and men to live together under the one roof with their children. Traditionally Solomons women and men had lived in separate communal dwellings. Children lived with the women. In some areas (Solomon Islands has huge language variation and differing cultural practices) uninitiated males lived in an isolated lodge while they progressed towards acceptance as adults. It would be interesting to assess how this shift in living arrangements affected the status of Solomon Islands women whose oppression was and is heavy.

Women’s houses were often smaller, less decorated ‘leaf’ houses. These are now the type of indigenous family home, often modified with windows, more formal entrances and verandas. 

Contemporary leaf house – Western Province.

The men’s communal houses were intended to be more impressive, securing sacred artefacts which maintained the physical and metaphysical welfare of the clan. In general such men’s houses are open plan, of various plain shapes - rectangular to circular, up to two hundred square metres, with a high-pitched roof for coolness and storage. This feature has been maintained in contemporary Solomons building of all types, sometimes elaborated by mansarding.

Paramount Chief’s House – Malaita Province

A fire was lit in a crude central hearth for cooking and to provide smoke to deter insects (malaria is a big problem in the Solomons). Many examples have small openings to act as windows for observation and ventilation as in this ovoid house from Choiseul Province.

 As can be seen in the photographs, the walls and roof were made of panels and thatching of woven rattan and other long fibres lashed together. The building frame was sago palm or other light wood, also joined by fibre lashing. The structure sat on beaten earth into which supports had been driven to some degree. On the Polynesian islands of Rennell and Bellona (most of Solomon Islands is Melanesian) the floor was shallowly excavated and covered with rocks which were then raised to ground level at the sides to form a kind of bastioning in the place of walls.

Interior of Chief’s House - Rennell and Bellona Province

Matting provided some relief from the stones.

The first European buildings were the several forts erected by the early Spanish explorers sailing across the Pacific from the Spanish colony in Peru. These were Mendana in 1567 and again in 1595. Mendana’s Chief Pilot of the 1595 expedition, the Portuguese Quiros, led his own expedition in 1606 with Torres after whom the Strait is named (Torres fled Quiros’ leadership). Torres made the difficult passage between Australian and New Guinea – the strait named after him - on his retreat to the Philippines.  The animosity of the locals and disease thwarted the colonising and evangelising ambitions of these settlements. These earliest European building efforts were manifest failures.

More missionaries and traders followed three hundred years later when Europeans rediscovered the Solomons. They assembled mission buildings and stores from local and imported timber. Locals helped with thatching and fibre cladding. In 1896 the first British Resident Commissioner’s house was built on Tulagi Island which had been bought from a local chief. Tulagi is in what is now the Central Island Province of Solomon Islands. The Residency was a leaf house situated to advantage on a hill with wonderful views of the harbour and surrounding small islands. It and its successors were known as Haus Numba Wan. On a clear day the Honiara region of the large island of Guadalcanal could be glimpsed in the distance. After the Second World War the capital was moved from Tulagi to Honiara to take advantage of the infrastructure abandoned by the American forces.

A glimpse of a Nissen hut in Honiara – remnant of the American occupation

Haus Numba Wan was rebuilt in 1932 after it collapsed. A version of this house with the neighbouring Treasurer’s House still stand in their commanding positions on Tulagi. They look like unprepossessing Australian bungalows of the immediate post war period. They are concrete with corrugated iron roofs and are occupied by public servants. Their one distinction beside their location is the concrete stepped pathway up to the Haus Numba Wan. Many official guests must have dreaded the climb as sir and his lady stood at the top to greet them. This steep climb is flanked by rusted iron lampposts which must have cast a magic glow into the topical gloom. Tulagi, as the capital, did have electricity. The steps are now overgrown.

Chinese trade stores were the other striking non-indigenous building in the colonial period. Their design was basic, like Australian settler wattle and daub. Their corrugated iron roofs descended to form a veranda overhang which was sometimes ornamented with a small portico surmounted by a carved finial – a cock, a temple dog or dragon.

Chinese Trade Store in Auki, capital of Malaita Province – portico but no carved finial

They have been replaced by bigger aluminium versions of which more later. The one pictured below is the remaining example in Honiara’s Chinatown which was reduced to ashes by rioting in 2006.

The remaining wooden trade store in Honiara’s Chinatown. It is in the once popular Sky Blue now supplanted by Pacific Blue

Prefabrication was and is the fundamental principle of non-indigenous Solomons architecture. It lends the notably generic quality to building in the country. It also suggests the lack of care, commitment, responsiveness and imagination which are distressingly evident in Solomons building. Imported steel frames clad in aluminium are a sensible solution to the lack of local industry and the very strong demands of local conditions (constant high humidity, cyclones and earthquakes) but are deadening and soulless. This kind of architecture is a symptom of postcolonial malaise: local impulses to build are thwarted by meagre and expensive resources; the country, desperate for economic development dependent on foreign investment, is not in a good position to make aesthetic demands.

New mall under construction, central Honiara

The construction of a new shopping mall next to Honiara’s important Central Markets is likely to be an example. It will be in competition with those markets and may supersede them (this is perhaps the local planning goal). The Central Markets as they are seem like a remnant: they are a traditional market grown far too big in the middle of a nation’s capital. To an outsider they are dirty (blood red betel nut slaver everywhere, refuse) and dangerous (youth gangs up to no good, child pickpockets). It will be difficult for the new mall not to take on these qualities, especially as its raison d’être is overwhelmingly commercial whereas the building will no doubt also function as an important community and national site (many Solomon Islanders from other provinces gather in the market). The building itself is not likely to inspire community harmony and pleasure, nor national pride. The response to its limitations is likely to be a very heavy security presence.

The blue canopy lower right is a tunnel entrance. The ones outside the Central Markets are supposed to allow safe pedestrian crossing of the nation’s most important road Mendana Avenue, with its endless flow of traffic. Pictured below is one of a pair of dummy ones deposited further along Mendana Avenue supposedly to desensitise locals to their unencouraging presence. The dumped quality of these structures speaks more eloquently against prefabrication than any written case. 

Dummy tunnel portals

This need not be the way things have to go.

Pre and post national independence in 1978 there was a flurry of foreign building activity both to establish commercial presences in the new nation and to encourage relations with it through aid activity. Many of these seventies buildings were adventurous in the manner of the period which was economically buoyant. A few were fairly bizarre responses to the local environment.

 Japanese-built Anti Malaria Institute

This Japanese building from this period appears to be recoiling before the possibility of tsunami onslaught. Its present condition unfortunately suggests a style inspired by the Second World War shipping wreckage which was such a feature of particularly Guadalcanal coastlines. Rapid decay and wreckage are a tenet of Solomons architecture. The old Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac) building at a salubrious distance along Mendana Avenue from the Central Markets had a sandstone feature wall which became perilous after an earthquake. Bank building in Honiara has been low slung and devoid of features since. A multi storey student residence standing in isolation and at a distance from traffic passing from the airport along Mendana Avenue was a testament to the generosity and optimism of its donors but unfortunately had the aura of a Polanski set. It appears to have been demolished to enable a local magnate to make his presence obvious in an ordinary but extremely large mansion.

Parliament House is a slightly bizarre mini version of Wellington’s Beehive. The most remarkable things about it are: it is hidden away on the hill which backs the narrow strip of coast which Honiara occupies; it is virtually unapproachable by foot (few Solomon Islanders have cars), so steep is the road giving direct access to it. This though did not stop drunken rioters from physically expressing their discontent with their representatives outside it while their mates burnt Chinatown.

The faith and hope in the new nation by well-wishers dissipated as the corruption, venality and incompetence which characterise public life in Solomon Islands rose. They were replaced by interested interventions designed to garner Solomons support (for whaling, for example), or international recognition for countries which had trouble gaining it through normal channels (Taiwan), or in an attempt to secure the region by calming this trouble spot (RAMSI).

Domestic architecture on the Honiara hill is uninspired which is a pity as it is prime real estate with views over town and on to Iron Bottom Sound. Some feature alarming (given the tendency of the earth to slip away) slim concrete very high skillions. Most nestle into the treacherous incline.

High cyclone wire fencing encloses many holdings – security is an increasing problem as Honiara moves ever closer to a Port Morseby style fortress mentality.

Cyclone wire security

Public space interiors are either gracious tropical imports scattered with oversized representations of Solomons artefacts (the three or four large hotels occupied mainly by foreigners) or utilitarian with a token gesture such as artificial flowers. There is a local tradition of furniture making and carving which the Seventh Day Adventist Betikama boys training institution played a large part in developing. The furniture style is naked function in heavy wood strongly joined and yellowly high varnished. It is all angles and edges.

The curvaceous found its place in carving run riot in mottled Kerosene wood (more uncommonly and expensively in breath-taking ebony) sharks and other fishes, turtles, eagles, canoes, warriors with beehive hairdos and Melanesian Maries with pendulous breasts. This was largely for the tourist trade and might be decorated with the inlaid mother-of-pearl chevrons which were a striking feature of traditional carving. Individual expression did not seem to have been much encouraged by the Seventh Day Adventists but those who escaped them sometimes found their opportunities.

Caryatids welcoming customers into a bar in the Western Province

There has been some responsive building in Honiara. The influence of indigenous architecture with its economical and lightweight materials (advisable in an earthquake zone) can be seen in this ever-expanding hotel in Honiara.

King Solomon Hotel Honiara

Many of the traditional buildings we first examined had the advantage of expansion in mind. This is a feature of residential Solomons architecture, driven by the demands of wantoks (one talk – those who speak your language and can claim kinship with you) who invade the lives of particularly those living in Honiara and the provincial capitals, often for very lengthy periods. It would be scandalous to deny them hospitality (we might note this is also one of the challenges of Aboriginal housing). Also six children are considered a suitable number (even though the demands of raising them are a constant source of financial worry). Expandable residences, if possible, might answer this demand.

Expandable construction on the Honiara hill, far beyond the means of the ordinary citizen

Another possibility for expansion is to create compounds of freestanding buildings scattered over a holding. Characteristically these are now enclosed in cyclone wire with a main gate manned by security. This possibility seems to have been part of the attraction of a site previously occupied by the extraordinarily spacious national art gallery and cultural centre. It was sold off and converted and expanded into a luxury hotel complex. The other great attractions besides sheer area of the site were its incomparable seclusion, centrality and harbour side location. This national holding should probably not have been sold off however it was under-utilised. Cultural inanition seems to be a symptom of the postcolonial malaise which has infected the nation.

It will be interesting to see how developments such as the one advertised below proceed. They seem to be intended for expats only.

A sense of a national style informed the designs of the Bank South Pacific branches and Telekom offices around the country. Their design is inflected with that of traditional housing.

Bank South Pacific branch

Solomons Telekom – old colour

Solomons Telkom has now opted for a new colour which unfortunately recalls the betel nut slaver which is splattered everywhere on Solomons concrete and soil.

New Colour for Solomons Telekom offices

The country’s preferred colour is now a light Royal Blue – Pacific Blue. It succeeded the Sky Blue (now faded) of this prefabricated and extended post office. The Chinese trade stores also once favoured this shade.

Pacific Blue alone gives this Chinese trade store a Solomons character.

These buildings have no charm beyond their endearingly kitsch names – Big Flower Trading, Welcome Trading, Pretty Store, Lili Store ...

More Pacific Blue. In this case being applied directly to the timber of an eco lodge on remote Rennell Island

The country’s best architecture has been reserved for its churches which speaks for the power of Christianity in the Hapi Islands and the huge part it plays in its culture. Unfortunately (in many ways) the influence of religion is waning with youth and not notable in the lives of politicians and powerful business people who glory in gambling, drunkenness and promiscuity. Muslim evangelists, unmistakable in their robes, caps, beards and that air of militant self-righteousness they share with many of their Christian counterparts are becoming very familiar figures on the streets. It will probably not be long before the gold dome of a mosque glows through the torrid air of Honiara.

The country is in desperate need of an authentic architecture responsive to local physical and economic conditions. Most of all it needs inspired architecture which will allow Solomon Islanders to recognise themselves with respect. Some good building will go a long way towards this. I suggest a cultural centre to replace the one sold off – perhaps designed by Renzo Piano who did such an enchanting job on Le Centre Tjibaou in New Caledonia, or better still a team of locals. And they need a football stadium to give appropriate expression to their adoration of the game.

© Ian MacNeill


from my Back Door - Choiseul Bay

Rubbish, not all burnt,
scraped and tossed
with slashed back bush, long grass
in a heap,
littoral trees (with coconut palms of course),
pale jade plate of lagoon
on which we sit
looking at the thin white border then
a margin of blue.

         *         *         *

Children throwing stones for mangoes
dislodge green fruit

which crashes through branches

and yellow cicadas
fly croaking away.

         *         *         *
The air of the Pacific
billows and falls
into your lungs
laden with sea and a sweetness
that smokes.

         *         *         *

Yandina*, the end of April 1942

I can wander nearly alone for hours,
directed everywhere
by the ranks of palms to infinitudes of ranks amongst
almost verticals and perpendiculars implying a resolution
curved at some remove.

It is hot
though the still palms waver shade
and dry
though there is a dazzle of water
trapped in some endless few of upturned husks.
Abandoned Native labour, lost in this order languish,
I suppose somewhere.

The reef, distant, whispers through the trunks
if you keep walking
you will step
suddenly over fallen fronds and nuts,
off little tripping weeds
onto excoriating sand,
the Trades will sigh over you,
you will also be relieved
by distances

but safe
lost in these evanescent depths,
is that the ghostly chug
of a Japanese barge
progressing the bay?

*Lever Brothers Yandina Plantation was the biggest coconut plantation in the Solomon Islands. It still is.

         *         *         *

Abandoned Coconut Grove

Its cathedral aisles
lead inwardly.
The productive now hosts
ferns and creepers.

The entering light is led too
along a multitude of naves radiating
into distances;
an apse, curving.

Where once there was nothing but rows and weeds
detritus softens fatal falls
from which some seed
not yet ancient

         *         *         *


sixteenth century Spanish after slaves, spices, gold,
Russians after tuna.
A new hotel or two every year.

An amoebic digesto-artery
pumping mini buses, the descendants of jeeps
metabolised by dust.

Honiara is a place for making something of -
satellite dish tv and video cinemas,
a job which pays.

Scandalous immersion quickly leads
to penances far away and knowing
down trodden paths.

It is so shallow, Honiara,
touched by every tide,
pushed occasionally against low ridges
which themselves tremble and slide.
         *         *         *

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