A new book, Still Standing, looks at the Caribbean island's vernacular timber structures, which have survived hurricanes but are now being demolished in favour of modern homes
My first assumption about Still Standing was admittedly naive. Based on the photographic cover and a quick browse through the brightly coloured contents, I assumed this study of Dominica’s vernacular wooden ti kai houses was a typical coffee table book, offering a flash of the exotic but little insight into the island’s post-colonial builds or society.
But you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Reading Still Standing as a born and bred islander, I felt a deep affinity and appreciation for the work of the project collective – including anthropologist Adom Philogene Heron, photographer Marcia Honeychurch and local architecture students – in highlighting a largely invisible architecture that is nonetheless an important part of Dominican heritage and wider Caribbean vernacular culture.
Originally constructed more than a century ago, ti kais were simple dwellings with two rooms commonly serving as sleeping quarters and storage while other daily activities took place outside in the ‘lakous’ or yard. And yet they have a complex relationship to history, climate and place.
Through a detailed overview and the testimony of residents, the ti kais are presented as important symbols of resistance and survival. The book’s introduction unpicks their unique identity as a product of the country’s development after emancipation.
The book’s main body comprises 26 narratives by residents, divided into eight chapters grouped by village or town, following a brief description of the area. This deliberate layering of information consistently adds to the character of each ti kai.
The book’s first half focuses on city dwellers and their experiences during Category 5 Hurricanes such as David in 1979 and Maria in 2017. It presents the ti kai as a ‘boat house’, ready for anything that nature throws at it. Though the houses are over a century old, the majority survived these natural disasters with consequences no worse than a missing galvanised roofing sheet or a wooden shingle.
Laurice Cuffy’s home in the island's capital, Roseau, survived these natural disasters with little more damage than a heavily dampened floor. It had been passed down from her great aunt and previously accommodated both public and private functions. This flexibility is possible due to the versatile floor plan, and is common to many traditional dwellings. The convenient adaptability is illustrative of post-emancipation conditions when possessing individual spaces for two different functions would be considered an unthinkable luxury.
The book illustrates how a ti kai was traditionally moved from one foundation to another – a feat executed manually by placing the building on rollers
Aside from the physical characteristics of the architecture, many narratives interpret the social life surrounding the dwellings and the generous accommodation they provided to extended families. This density was, again, the result of the life provided for the now-free Dominicans, which by necessity encouraged communal effort and experience.
The sense of Dominican community is more intimately discussed in the latter part of the book, from memories of carnival to the process of construction. The account of Carol Ann Watson’s guesthouse in Calibishie, relocated in 2015, illustrates how a ti kai was traditionally moved from one foundation to another – a feat executed manually by placing the building on rollers, and choreographed to a work song. After the ti kai was sitting on its new legs, the neighbourly team hosted a celebration.
This act of preservation had community written all over it, but it also portrayed an intimate knowledge of the local forest wood. Numerous residents spoke of an ‘old man science’ while describing the assembly of a ti kai and the selection of different types of wood for different parts of the structure. This in-depth ‘common’ knowledge of tree species is expressed throughout the book in discussions of structure and construction ‘Devil’s wood’, says one resident. ‘That is a really hard one, it bends the nails’.
Though well built enough to survive storms, the ti kai are gradually disappearing, demolished to make way for modern development. Those that survive are also losing their character to alterations. Some have been extended to accommodate modern conveniences such as toilets and kitchens. The majority of the featured residents have humble occupations and most want to ‘do up’ their houses – not least to avoid the higher maintenance cost of traditional structures. The threat to the ti kai makes this book even more valuable as a record, and as a call to preserve buildings of high architectural and historic value.
I would like to have learned more about the lakous – after all, the book’s introduction did state that the ‘life’ took place outside while the ti kai was merely for rest – but reading the book was an illuminating and humbling experience. These simple, mobile, durable ‘house ships’ might point to one response to the ongoing climate crisis, offering a formula that provides us a little more time. While the apparent certainties of modern development are crumbling all around, the humble ti kais are still standing.
Thanshu Vithanage is a London-based writer on architecture
Still Standing: The Ti Kais of Dominica by Adam Philogene Heron, Papilotte Press, paperback, £21.50