Caribes: Designing a Digital Database for Caribbean Architecture and the Problem of Overlapping Spaces

Paul Niell


The criticism leveled at the United States and European nations for their inadequate responses to the devastation of various Caribbean islands—among them St John, Dominica, Martinique, Puerto Rico—by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017 reminds us of the imperial histories that have shaped the region as well as its ongoing marginalization in the global system.[1] As the Dutch government endeavored to assist the residents of Sint Maarten, the French likewise did so in Saint-Martin, two overseas territories/colonies controlled by European powers that share the same Caribbean island. Some of these islands have changed hands many times over the last five centuries as Europe used the region for profit and geo-strategic advantage in an emerging Atlantic economic system, a process that has left subsequent island nations in the Caribbean disadvantaged on the world stage and heavily dependent upon tourism for their economic life. The hurricanes that struck in September 2017 highlight the vulnerability of the Caribbean’s historic artifacts, as well as its economy and present-day cities and landscapes, in a world of increasingly powerful storms. Studying the history of Caribbean architecture, including private houses, religious and civic buildings, rural estates, public spaces, urban designs, fortifications, tenement buildings, and the housing of enslaved people, frequently means coming to terms with the overlapping spaces of empire and consequent processes of material change. Contending with the degree of cultural complexity presented by the Caribbean proves difficult; also challenging is the effort to recapture built environments in places where heat, insects, hurricanes, earthquakes, and demolitions for modernizing projects often prove fatal for historic architecture and efforts at architectural conservation. My years of studying the architecture and material culture of the region informed my decision to begin the process of acknowledging these obstacles by designing a forum to address the complex subject of Caribbean architecture. To these ends, I have turned to the Digital Humanities as a potential solution among others.

Historical complexity, spatial overlap, the perishability of architecture, and the relatively marginal and fragmented state of the field of Caribbean architectural history in U.S. academia call for the development of a digital resource that I have named Caribes: A Digital Database and Virtual Research Interface for the Study of Caribbean Architecture and Landscape. This endeavor commenced in 2015 in collaboration with University Libraries at Florida State University where I am associate professor in the Department of Art History. Discussions with library staff, including Director of Digital Scholarship, Micah Vandegrift; Digital Archivist, Krystal Thomas; Digital Humanities Specialist, Sarah Stanley; and Visual & Performing Arts Librarian, Leah Sherman, and a successful planning grant from the Council on Research and Creativity at FSU set the project planning phase into motion where it continues to be at present. In spring 2016, on a teaching release from my department, I visited Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica to expand, assess, and promote the project’s goals. These trips allowed for networking, the assessment of Caribbean digital collections, and, while in the field, meetings with architects, architectural historians, librarians, archivists, historians, and museum curators to talk about this project and forge potential partnerships. Many of these professionals, some of them deeply familiar with the state of Caribbean architectural scholarship, were enthusiastic and offered their support. We also discussed the possibilities of library networking, and I inquired about their awareness of the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC), a multi-institutional, international digital library, and its grant program for Caribbean libraries seeking to digitize.[2]

In my discussions with these professionals abroad, I emphasized important concerns about the state of Caribbean architectural history scholarship and hence the need for such a database and research tool. First, I stressed the fragmented and underdeveloped state of the field and therefore the advantage of a resource that allows for the selection and organization of different types of data from across the region in order to foster interest, engagement, and scholarly interpretation. There have been various attempts at comprehensive surveys of the region’s architecture in print, such as those of Edward Crain, David Bussieret, and Roberto Segre.[3] These books approach the Caribbean geographically, consider building types and styles, and organize the region’s architecture by former colonial powers, national identities, and geographic locations. Such efforts, as with those of Crain and Bussieret that introduce a North American audience to a range of buildings not traditionally part of Western academic discussion, spoke little to the overlap of architectural ideas across the region nor could they, as surveys, treat individual contexts with much depth. The book Searching for Sugar Mills (2005) by Suzanne Gordon and Anne Hersh also pursued the typological survey but focused its attention solely on the Lesser Antilles.[4] For the most part, however, cultural nationalism has shaped the scholarship on Caribbean architecture with most studies confined to a single island, as seen in a number of works, including Lilian Llanes, The Old Houses of Cuba (1999); Joaquin Weiss, La arquitectura colonial cubana (1996); Eugenio Pérez Montás, Colonial Houses of Santo Domingo (1980); and Maria de los Angeles Castro Arroyo, Arquitectura en San Juan de Puerto Rico, siglo XIX (1980).[5] In each case, rich comparisons could have been made between, for example, the architecture of old Havana and that of San Juan or Santo Domingo, but instead buildings are largely presented only within the context of their respective island nations. Caribes will offer a platform for facilitating such broader comparisons.

Fig. 1. Alcázar [Palace] of Diego Columbus, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, 1509-1510. Photo: Paul Niell.

Perspectives from cultural geography can add greater dimension to our understanding of the region’s architecture. Geographer Jay Edwards has examined typological connections in architecture between the Caribbean islands, the Gulf Coast of the United States, and the globe. He has examined what he described as “Creole architecture,” a topic also taken up by Louis Nelson in his recent book, Architecture and Empire in Jamaica (2016), which explores the style’s beginnings in domestic buildings in the Atlantic world that have no discernable prototypes in Europe.[6] On the premise that such forms may be linked to ethno-national identities (Franco, Anglo, and Italo-Hispano), Edwards traced their origins to the first Spanish colonial city in the Western Hemisphere, Santo Domingo (now capital of the Dominican Republic) and the Palace of Christopher Columbus’ son, Don Diego, 1509-1510 (Fig. 1). The external features of square rooms flanking a central gallery serve as a prototype for Edwards, who argues that these elements can be found in various places throughout the colonial Caribbean and eventually the global domain under European colonialism.

Fig. 2. Ballcourt, Ceremonial Center of Tibes, Ponce, Puerto Rico, c. 400-1000 AD. Photo: Paul Niell.

The Puerto Rican architect and historian, Jorge Rigau, has likewise emphasized imperial and cultural networks in the development of the region’s architectural forms, particularly in his book Puerto Rico 1900: Turn-of-the-Century Architecture in the Hispanic Caribbean (1992), which briefly considers interconnections between the islands formerly under the imperial rule of Spain.[7] Rigau thereby acknowledges that limiting architectural inquiry to modern and contemporary political boundaries obscures the connections that actually constituted the region’s material culture from pre-Contact Amerindian times to the early modern Atlantic world and beyond. Evidence of indigenous habitation prior to 1492 also reveals networks that linked the human occupants of the islands to the mainland. For example, ceremonial ball courts at the indigenous sites of Tibes and Caguana in Puerto Rico connect to architectural patterns found at the ancient Mayan city of Copán in modern-day Honduras as well as many other sites (Figs. 2, 3 and 4). Upon the European conquest of these indigenous people, colonial settlements and cities were configured within an emerging early modern world system for wealth extraction and trade and thus the human cultural linkages between the Caribbean islands were reworked. The English, French, and eventually the Spanish developed a system of plantation agriculture that involved the introduction of massive numbers of enslaved Africans over time. The slave trade also established systematic connections between the Caribbean and the African continent thereby introducing new architectural and spatial ideas. Nelson’s Architecture and Empire in Jamaica has demonstrated the importance of considering networks of form, space, and experience in the study of Caribbean architectural history, as he elucidates how Jamaican architecture (from the British conquest of the island in 1655 to the emancipation of slaves in 1838) functioned in the making of the British Empire in a triangulation between Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe.[8]

Fig. 3. Plaza, Ceremonial Indigenous Park of Caguana, Utuado, Puerto Rico, site begun c. 1270. Photo: Paul Niell.

The “overlapping spaces” that form a dominant theme of Caribes were forged through these processes of joining the islands as human networks from the indigenous polities pre-1492 to the successive and changing Western empires thereafter. The eighteenth century was a particularly transformative period in the region, an era of intense reliance on the African slave trade to supply labor and to fuel a revolution in agricultural production, particularly of sugar. This boom in production contributed to immense prosperity for France and England in the colonies of Saint-Domingue (until the onset of what would be called the Haitian Revolution, 1791-1804) and Jamaica respectively. The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) resulted in the capture and occupation of Cuba by the British, which set off reforms in the Spanish Caribbean after the 1763 return of the island. These reforms paved the way for the agricultural upsurge of Cuba and, to a lesser extent, Puerto Rico in the nineteenth century. European, Amerindian, African, and even Asian cultural contributions under conditions of socio-political hierarchy and coercive labor systems shaped the region’s early modern human configuration. Consequently, the Caribbean’s material culture becomes too complex to disentangle and return to its parent forms, a problem eloquently elucidated by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz in his notion of “transculturation.”[9] Ortiz likened Caribbean cultural production to ajiaco, a Cuban stew from indigenous times, in that once cultures have been cooked together through the intense historical processes such as those of the Atlantic world experience, there is no going back to the raw ingredients. Thus, Caribes, while noting historical patterns, does not propose to reduce Caribbean architecture to its antecedents in Europe, pre-Contact America, or Africa. Rather, the resource will be much more effective as a tool to navigate space, time, and artifacts in order to identify and analyze processes of cultural development and transformation as well as particular sites of cultural appropriation and spatial negotiation.

Fig. 4. Petroglyphs along the plaza, Ceremonial Indigenous Park of Caguana, Utuado, Puerto Rico, site begun c. 1270. Photo: Paul Niell.

The project Caribes will function as a database, virtual research interface, and information (archival, library, and web) networking center. As a database, it will house many of the digital photographs I have accumulated as a historian along with other digital files shared or linked from archival and library collections, such as, the Mapoteca of the Archivo General de Puerto Rico in San Juan, which increasingly provides scanned architectural plans, maps, and documents online. Other digitized image collections pertaining to Caribbean architecture include, but are not limited to, the John Carter Brown Library of Brown University; the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain; dLOC (Digital Library of the Caribbean); the Cuban Heritage Collection of the University of Miami Libraries; and the Biblioteca Digital Puertorriqueña at the Universidad de Puerto Rico. For the purposes of in-house storage of digital files at FSU, greater capacity is needed in the way of larger servers, which will be part of our roughly budgeted costs for the future.

Attached to the storage function of Caribes is the need for a metadata scheme, and several of our graduate students in the art history department’s Museum and Cultural Heritage Studies program at FSU have begun working through the task of assigning metadata to a range of image files. The process of metadata creation is at once technical and scholarly, as it has stirred debate about how best to categorize something as complex as Caribbean architecture, requiring critical reflection upon and negotiation of this multifaceted, multi-lingual field. The Getty vocabularies have been somewhat useful, in particular their Art & Architecture Thesaurus Online. The Spanish term barracones (barracks), for example, used historically to refer to nineteenth-century slave barracks in Cuba and Puerto Rico, is given by the Getty in English, Dutch, German, and Spanish. Working across languages is one of the challenges of metadata entry, and Caribes will include a multi-lingual glossary of architectural terms.[10] However, our discussion of metadata goes beyond multi-lingualism. As researchers, we must negotiate multiple legacies from European empires that have attempted to inscribe the Caribbean landscape for purposes of control. As such, the terms that they use to refer to architecture must be deployed carefully. Furthermore, metadata schema must grapple with the problem of assigning identities to Caribbean architecture, whether by island, nation, former imperial master, cultural group, or ethnicity. As an indication, what is meant by the much-used term “Creole” is an open-ended discussion. My aim is to make Caribes a forum for such research and debate, where users can send critiques of our framing of the objects and our metadata schema for public posting. It is now and will always be a work in progress in continuous critical conversation with the field.

Secondly, the project, which is still in the planning phase and is not yet operational or open to the public, is intended to serve as a virtual research interface. In this sense, it will function as a research tool that scholars can use to make connections in their work beyond its capacity as a site for storage and recall. Upon securing planning and development funds, we then aim to apply for implementation grants to hire the necessary computer personnel to build what we envision as an interface that might be compared to Stephen Murray and Andrew Tallon’s Mapping Gothic France. This resource for the study of late medieval European architecture employs laser scanning to render Gothic architectural environments three-dimensional and makes maps, texts, and images available to researchers as it presents the information through the categories of “space, time, and narrative.” Such digital functions allow the viewer to negotiate the material—accumulated by Murray, Tallon, and a team of graduate students on site through many periods of field work in France—via spatial and temporal interfaces accompanied by textual narratives and by “stories and essays” that address issues in studying the Gothic, such as the city, pilgrimage, nature, and modernism. A schematic “comparisons” section allows for the study of relations between a wide range of architectural features like height, width, floor plan, and nave. This project was a great inspiration to me in conceptualizing Caribes, and eventually, we will experiment with laser scanning and perhaps photogrammetry to render architectural artifacts and/or environments three-dimensional in digital format. Furthermore, the virtual research interface that is part of Caribes will incorporate, in some ways similar to Murray’s database, an interactive map of the Caribbean region that allows users to make cross-cultural, imperial, regional, and temporal connections. As with Mapping Gothic France, the database/interface of Caribes employs a landscape approach, the notion that the entirety of the human-made world consists of a dialectic between people, things, and environments.[11] We plan to geolocate all of our visual images and sites and to include a “viewshed” that will, in some cases, account for how human settlement has evolved with topographical features. The map then will serve as a selection tool and make vital links between types of settlement, topography (including water elements), architectural typology, and co-constituted social spaces.

As an information networking center, Caribes will perform the vital function of helping to foster connections by not only linking users to library and archival collections in the Caribbean region, but also by drawing Caribbean collections into conversation with one another. Such collections may include maps or cartographic views of the Caribbean, as is one of the strengths of dLOC, as well as printed images or chorographic views, and will demonstrate how these representations relate to actual spaces. Mapping and image making became, for Europeans, a fundamental means of gaining control of the Caribbean, by entering the physical area into European knowledge and framing what travelers, potential settlers, investors, scientists, and the public consumer might expect to see there. These forms of representation helped to create the very idea of the “New World” as well as the people who should labor in this arena, principally those who would come to be called “Indians” and “blacks.” Argentinian semiologist Walter D. Mignolo has argued that the European conquest and colonization of the hemisphere involved a process of “putting the Americas on the map,” that is, integrating relatively unknown areas into the lexicon of an evolving European knowledge of the world.[12] Maps not only certified the existence of places and aided in navigation, but also assisted in the production of ideologies about places, framed through dominant discourses, in the largest accumulation of land in European history. Such scholarly understandings of the functions of maps and images would suggest the image and the map as fictional, as belonging to a rhetoric of persuasion or a propagandistic function that valorized conquest and colonialism.

When we examine architectural artifacts as landscapes, one must contend with a social history of space that can be challenging to excavate. Caribes will, therefore, host primary source material in the way of texts and artifacts and/or links to those digitized sources. These sources might be travel accounts, such as Abiel Abott’s Letters Written in the Interior of Cuba (1828), in which the Protestant priest documents his travels and observations through the island including detailed references to architectural form, the use of buildings, and the experience of spaces.[13] Primary accounts of social life are complemented by design/instructional manuals with impact in the region, including Pierre J. Laborie’s The Coffee Planter of Saint Domingo (1798), in which the French Creole planter advises on the operation of coffee plantations, including descriptions of architecture as they relate to the efficiency of production and the control of the labor force.[14] Such sources help us to flesh out the interaction between efforts to improve the productivity of the region and their social consequences in conceived, perceived, and lived spaces. Drawing inspiration from Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space, this database attempts to make possible the consideration of architecture from the overlapping perspectives (indeed spaces) of the mental (maps, plans, designs, and discourses about architecture), the physical (the buildings and landscapes themselves as actual spaces; the problem of craft, materials, and making, etc.), and the social (the realm of social performances and experiences co-constituted with architecture and accessible through written accounts and phenomenological analyses of architecture and space).[15]

As of early 2018, the island of Puerto Rico, parts of Cuba, and a number of islands in the Lesser Antilles are now facing months if not years of recovery after the devastation brought by hurricanes Irma and Maria. While there is no clear estimate as of yet, it is likely that much historic architecture has been either severely damaged or lost. In an era when such storms are growing larger and more severe, new strategies of online archiving, information sharing, display, and analysis may have an increasingly urgent role to play. As such, Caribes will be a particularly important tool for documenting such damage, in coordination with architects, architectural historians, and conservationists on the islands. The platform could provide a space for making available reports of damage, conservation needs, and the status of buildings in danger of demolition by neglect. Overall, we hope that this project makes the subject of Caribbean architecture more accessible and engaging to the international academic community, preservationists, and the general public. 

Paul Niell is Associate Professor of Colonial Latin American and Caribbean Architectural History and Material Culture at Florida State University


[1] “Hurricane Irma: Damage mapped,” BBC News, 12 September 2017:

[2] The Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) is an open access digital resource that allows researchers access to maps, histories, newspapers, official documents, poetry, musical expressions, travel accounts, and economic and ecological data. Officially established 17 July 2004, dLOC’s founding partners include University of Florida; University of Central Florida; Florida International University; University of the Virgin Islands; Universidad of Oriente, Venezuela; Archives Nationales d’Haïti; National Library of Jamaica; Caribbean Community Secretariat (CARICOM); La Fundación Global Democracia y Desarrollo (FUNGLODE). Grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education with cost sharing from partner institutions allowed for the development of dLOC’s technical infrastructure, and the database has sustained itself through grants, donations, and institutional support. While dLOC connects users to materials housed in partnering institutions, a keyword search for “architecture” turns up historic photographs of buildings scattered across the region. These collections are rather limited in that they do not provide all the tools necessary to understand the buildings that do appear, including plans, elevations, sections, and information pages. Furthermore, there is no geographically organized interface that allows one to navigate the region in a search for architecture.

[3] Surveys texts of Caribbean architecture include David Buisseret, Historic Architecture of the Caribbean (London: Heineman, 1980); Edward E. Crain, Historic Architecture in the Caribbean Islands (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994); and Roberto Segre, Arquitectura antillana del siglo XX (Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2003). For the architecture of the indigenous Caribbean, see Ricardo E. Alegría, Ball Courts and Ceremonial Plazas in the West Indies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983); Irving Rouse, The Tainos: Rise & Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992); and José R. Oliver, El centro ceremonial de Caguana, Puerto Rico: Simbolismo iconográfico, cosmovision y el poderio caciquil Taíno de Borinquen (Oxford: Archaeopress, 1998). For colonial architecture of the Caribbean, see Eugenio Pérez Montás, Casas coloniales de Santo Domingo = Colonial Houses of Santo Domingo (Santo Domingo: Voluntariado del Museo de las Casas Reales, 1980); Joaquín E. Weiss, La arquitectura colonial cubana (Havana: Instituto Cubano del Libro; Madrid: Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional; Sevilla: Consejería de Obras Públicas y Transportes, Junta de Andalucía, [1972] 1996); Louis P. Nelson, Architecture and Empire in Jamaica (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016). For modern architecture in the Caribbean, see Joaquín E. Weiss, Arquitectura cubana contemporánea: colección de fotografias de los más recientes y característicos edificios erigidos en Cuba (La Habana: Cultural, 1947); Jorge Rigau, Puerto Rico 1900: Turn-of-the-Century Architecture in the Hispanic Caribbean, 1890-1930 (New York: Rizzoli, 1992); and Robert Segre, Mario Coyula, and Joseph L. Scarpaci, Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis (Chichester: Wiley, 1997).

[4] Suzanne Gordon and Anne Hersh, Searching for Sugar Mills: An Architecture Guide to the Eastern Caribbean (Oxford, UK: Macmillan, 2005).

[5] Llilian Llanes, The Old Houses of Cuba (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999); Weiss, La arquitectura colonial cubana; Pérez Montás, Casas coloniales de Santo Domingo; and Maria de los Angeles Castro Arroyo, Arquitectura en San Juan de Puerto Rico, siglo XIX (San Juan, Puerto Rico: Editorial Universitaria, Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1980). For a comprehensive bibliography of Caribbean architecture sources, see Gustavo Luis Moré, Casas Reales: Manuel Bibliográfico sobre la Arquitectura y el Urbanismo en la Historia del Gran Caribe, 1492-2000 (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: Editora Búho, 2008).

[6] Jay D. Edwards, “The Origins of Creole Architecture,” Winterthur Portfolio 29: 2/3 (Summer – Autumn, 1994), 155-189.

[7] Jorge Rigau, “No Longer Islands: Dissemination of Architectural Ideas in the Hispanic Caribbean, 1890-1930,” The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 20 (1994), 236-251; and Rigau, Puerto Rico 1900.

[8] Nelson, Architecture and Empire in Jamaica.

[9] Fernando Ortiz, “The Social Phenomenon of ‘Transculturation’ and Its Importance,” in Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, translated by Harriet De Onís (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1947), 97-103.

[10] Various survey texts of the region’s architecture, such as that of Crain and Gosner, include glossaries that account for a range of terms.

[11] For landscape studies, see Dell Upton, “Architectural History or Landscape History?,” Journal of Architectural Education, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Aug. 1991): 195-199; Barbara Bender, ed. Landscape: Politics and Perspectives (Providence/Oxford: Berg, 1993); Christopher Tilley, A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths, and Monuments (Oxford/Providence: Berg, 1994).

[12] Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995).

[13] Abiel Abott, Letters Written in the Interior of Cuba, between the Mountains of Arcana, to the East, and of Cusco, to the West, in the Months of February, March, April, and May 1828 (Reprint, Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries, 1971).

[14] Pierre J. Laborie, The Coffee Planter of Saint Domingo: with an appendix, containing a view of the constitution, government, laws, and state of that colony, previous to the year 1789: to which are added, some hints on the present state of the island, under the British government (London: Cadell and W. Davies, 1798).

[15] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, [1974] 1991).


Cite this note as: Paul Niell, “Caribes: Designing a Digital Database for Caribbean Architecture and the Problem of Overlapping Spaces,” Journal18, Issue 5 Coordinates (Spring 2018), DOI: 10.30610/5.2018.7

Licence: CC BY-NC

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