I have, over the years, become an avid fan of architecture. If I had it to do all over again, I would study architecture. Not because of the natural reason why people choose a profession, which is to earn a living, but because of the act of creating art that changes the way people live and see the world. The poet, Goethe once called architecture “frozen music”.
Belize City is in the throes of a renaissance. A renewal of its core, which is changing people’s movements, and the way they live, work, and recreate. I recall growing up in Belize City in the 1970s and 80s when most of our houses were built of clapboard, and everyone I knew lived within walking distance. There were no bad neighborhoods, though King’s Park was considered to be where the elites lived. Places like Hone Park were only just being reclaimed from the sea, and we all shared our space with crocodiles, john crows and a host of snakes and other critters, now banished; their habitats; mangroves filled in and replaced by quarry waste from Rockville.
As the city grew, stretching its arms northwards, southward and westward, and even to the east as developers recognized the value of seafront lands, new areas were created like Buttonwood Bay, Bella Vista, and West Landivar. With this expansion, came the advent of construction using ferroconcrete. Slowly, as a young teen, I watched as wooden houses on stilts gave way to concrete houses in newly opened areas of the old capital and I recall yearning for the day when my family could afford to live in a concrete house, because in those days; that was a sure sign of success. It was not until my father built our first family home in Buttonwood Bay, after I returned from college in 1988, that I felt what it was like to live in a structure void of the creaks and sounds of nailed clapboard siding, noisy zinc roofing, and creaky floors. Those living sounds of my youth still bring me nostalgia of a time lost, never to return.
In the early age of rebuilding, prompted by a constant battering of hurricanes and fires, there was very little in the way of art in the replacements that appeared. Stark concrete boxes, all painted in dull cream or white; cheap louver windows, welded burglar bars, no insulation or air conditioning, and the ubiquitous front step and back steps seemed to have been the only design that anyone knew. Perhaps the few architects that were trained in new construction all attended the same design school. Commercial buildings were all the same; square boxes with zinc or flat roofs, usually with a store downstairs and a family living upstairs, or perhaps bank buildings that were nothing more than boxes with a single glass entry and no windows. As our colonial architecture proceeded to die a slow death, manifested in the murderous demolition of majestic buildings in the old capital, in its place came a lifeless, soulless landscape of concrete crypts, standing in defiance against the double threat of tropical cyclones and the economic doldrums that brought in its wake, an unstoppable crime wave.,
Along with new construction came the explosion of land-filling. As government expanded road networks and the mass granting of house lots in previously inaccessible areas so expanded the number of dump trucks and loaders traversing the 16-mile trek to Rockville to fetch loads of clay-based quarry waste to fill lots for construction. The pile driving industry also boomed. Dilapidated cranes, imported from North America for a new life in the tropics hammered wooden piles to create a sturdy footing for these new, heavier structures built on a crust of clay atop rotting mangrove roots.
For many years, these little boxes multiplied. Few venturing higher than two stories or out of the design comfort zone, mostly for fear that the ground would hold no more, and perhaps through a subconscious acknowledgement scarred by the memories of devastating city fires. Taller buildings were impractical, as elevators were few and far between and fire engines were incapable of managing a blaze higher than 30 feet, and god forbid using a color palette other than cream with brown trim, or plain white, and who the heck needed design anyways?
The renaissance I speak about, however; fresh on our landscape over the past 8 to 10 years or so; tells a different story. Young architects and engineers have chosen to push the envelope and to dare to design structures with aesthetic appeal, and that defy that height limit that previously daunted their predecessors. Perhaps it is the new blood of immigrant business owners, or perhaps it is through an exposure by the general populace, in the spirit of astronauts that dared venture beyond our atmosphere to reach for higher places. With this bold new approach, areas like Coney Drive and the Northern Highway has become a display of glass, concrete, and paved parking lots. Buildings are being built to purpose and the fear of having a ground floor, or floors above three, is fast diminishing. Single family structures are giving way to apartment buildings and louvers have all but disappeared, replaced by impact glass and décor elements never before used. Hardboard casings are no more, with sheetrock becoming the material of choice, and the colors are bold. This revolution in structure and style in commercial and residential construction has spawned an unprecedented growth in the supply of building materials, landscaping, home décor, services in the skilled trades, and in the real estate industry.
Missing in all this, though, seems to be a true sense of standards and norms that builders should adhere to. While there is a process for building permitting, even this process is warped in that the Central Building Authority is often either in conflict with, or duplicates the work of the Local Building Authorities. Many of these structures, for example the prominent new Golden Tree nine story structure; apparently destined to service the seemingly growing market for “hourly rented” hotel rooms seem to have missed many of the requirements in structural soundness, aesthetics and amenities such as parking or common areas, yet continues to be constructed unabated. This seems to be true for a number of commercial buildings built by immigrant merchants; leading one to wonder how it is that this demographic is able to thwart the rules with hardly a glance from those that regulate construction or issue trade licenses.
Notwithstanding the violators, however, I have become very enthused by the proliferation of well-designed, aesthetically pleasing new buildings. A friend recently commented that this renewal of the city is bringing with it a new consciousness by Belize residents to demand and expect better quality from vendors and service providers. Restaurants are becoming more attractive in respect to their décor and menus, and retail establishments are spending more on shopper experience; evidenced by recent and ongoing upgrades to Benny’s, Mirab, and those at the Northen Shops mini mall. The Mennonite merchants, not to be outdone, have raised their game with steel and glass structures; the most recent being a massive air-conditioned auto dealership soon to be completed by Caribbean Motors. Along Coney Drive the beautiful and modern Matalon Business Center, the Roe Insurance offices, and the Whitfield Towers all compete in a beauty contest for the city’s best in design.
While many may notice this renaissance only in passing; it is without a doubt that the economic growth suggested by this construction boom is fueled by a demand for better quality and by a consciousness of growing competition for a more discerning customer among the business community. Architecture is an art form that follows prosperity. Unlike other forms of art that have little practical applications or utility, this medium of expression lives far beyond its creator, and presents itself as a usable monument for the lives of future generation. The real estate nature of buildings makes it a store of value, a savings account for the owner, and a collateral that establishes his worth in society.
This form of wealth expansion can only grow upon an infrastructural base that will support the side benefits of its existence. There has to be economic flows for citizens to be able to afford to spend in sufficient quantities to generate a profit to pay for the art. There has to be roadways and arteries to connect people, goods and services. For this infrastructure, it is incumbent on the society, through its government to make this happen.
In light of the budget to be presented, and the consolidation that it will bring in respect to managing the deficit, much has been said about the wisdom of the infrastructural spending of the past 9 years by this administration on roads, bridges, sporting facilities and public utilities. It is without a doubt, however, that without that stimulation, much of the expansion in construction, leisure, public spaces, public sporting facilities that is now fueling the renaissance would not have happened. Often, we react to the present rhetoric of the day, and we fail to see the economic growth right before our very eyes, in plain sight.
The closet architect in me is ecstatic about the new Belize City, and in fact throughout the country, that is unfolding before our eyes. The citizens of Belize deserve to be respected and the best way to do so is to give them the best of the best. I am enthusiastic that the Marion Jones Stadium, the soon to be completed new Civic Center and the countless new sporting facilities countrywide will help to create the next Usain Bolt, or Steph Curry. I am sure that the new state of the art and safe Barry Bowen Municipal Airport will save countless lives while moving an exponential number of locals and tourists throughout our country. I am sure that the designated special development area along the new Lake Independence Boulevard will represent a fundamental shift in upgrading services and quality to Belizeans.
To the daring young architects, urban planners, and the property owners and leaders that believe in them, I give you my kudos. To the poor designers and shoddy builders, and the facilitators that allow them to disrespect us, I condemn you. To the deserving Belizeans, I say congratulations, it’s about time.