Back in 1994, I was an architecture student and we were visiting the Caribbean island of Antigua. What I saw there, and heard, and felt changed my life forever. I’ve kept a journal ever since.
When we arrived in Antigua, we were greeted by our guide. He said to call him Cyrus because we couldn’t get the rest of his name right. One of the funny things I remember about him was that he used to wear a gold chain, a heavy gold chain, but it had a pendant and the pendant was a key, a really old looking shabby key against his gold chain. Anyway, he loved to tell stories and in the coach on the way to the hotel, he told us a story about a place called Livery.
Now Livery was a fishing village on the coast in a small bay and hundreds of years ago, it used to be the place where ships arrived bringing machinery, bringing food, bringing slaves. Over time, it developed into the kind of informal settlement that we call a shanty town. These settlements exist all over the world. They’re called favelas in Brazil, for example, but this one was quite unique to Antigua. The only problem with it though was that it was sitting on a pretty valuable piece of land. Of course, technically everyone there was a squatter, so they had no legal right on paper, anyway, to stay. Of course, the government stepped in and they decided that they were going to evict them.
Cyrus was worried that things would get messy and he wanted to keep us as far as possible from everything that was going on. His idea was that we should go and see one of the most famous sites on the island, which was of course, on the opposite side of the island called Nelson’s Dockyard. It used to be a naval base for Lord Nelson in the 18th century and eventually became a UNESCO World Heritage site. In a way, it was the exact opposite of everything that Livery stood for. It was very formal, very recognized and from his point of view, of course, it was very safe.
The day we arrived was May 9, 1994, and the other big thing that was going to happen on the following day was an annular solar eclipse, the kind of eclipse where the moon is a little bit smaller than the sun when it moves in front of it, so it doesn’t block out the sun completely, but it’s spectacular nevertheless. Cyrus’s brilliant idea was that we should watch this eclipse from Nelson’s Dockyard. I have to admit that I didn’t pay much attention to what Cyrus was saying about the Eclipse because I was still thinking about Livery.
In architecture school I had obsessions with craft and with housing. For me, places like Livery were exactly what I wanted to know more about. Somehow, I managed to steer the conversation back to Livery and we got into a real debate about what was going to happen there. I was arguing that the place was special and it would not be demolished, the government would lose somehow, they would win through and essentially everyone else said I was wrong. I said, “Okay, let’s bet.” That’s how the bet happened between me and my good friend Kenny, and why I ended up sleeping outside that night because I lost the bet. The government confirmed that it was going to go and that was the penalty.
Yes, that night they pulled a cot bed out onto the terrace and I slept outside, but that night I also came up with a plan. I thought, “They can go to the dockyard and I’ll got to Livery.” I wasn’t really concerned about missing seeing the eclipse. I just wanted to see the shanty town. The next morning I made an excuse. I said I was not well, I caught a chill in the night and they agreed to let me stay behind. After they all got into the coach and it drove off, I got my things together and went in the opposite direction towards Livery.
When I got there, the scene was mayhem. There were bulldozers, essentially lots of big pieces of machinery ready to demolish these houses. In front of these big pieces of machinery, there were people with placards shouting, screaming, singing. Apparently, a handful of people in the village were refusing to leave in protest. On top of that, the crowds had formed a cordon to stop anything moving forward, whether that was machinery or policemen, but literally within minutes of my arrival everything changed.
The first thing that I saw was a black car racing down the street towards us. It came to a stop and a man in a suit got out. I later heard that he was the mayor of the town. Oddly enough, two priests then got out of the car. I could tell because they were wearing the little white collar. No one said anything. They didn’t have to say anything because a few seconds later, four large trucks full of soldiers on the back came racing down the street. They pulled to a stop, the soldiers jumped out and they did the talking. In fact, they were screaming, they were shoving people around and essentially they were trying to bring the whole thing under control with force.
The only things I had with me were a sketchbook and a thick pencil that I used to use for drawing streetscapes, plans, people, the things around me. I didn’t have a camera intentionally. I wanted to see and look intently and deliberately, and record it myself. I always found that, that way you see details that you would never pick-up just snapping a photo and I do it to this day. But any case, I had nothing with me except these two simple tools to record the space that I was just about to walk into.
The reason that I ended up walking into Livery is that a man in a red broad rimmed hat came up to me in all of the chaos and he motioned to me to come towards him. Me being curious and a bit naïve, I did. He said, “Just come with me. I’ll show you what you want to see.” By this time, the soldiers had pushed most of the crows away from the village. We walked away and we weren’t even noticed. We walked quite deep into the village.
The first thing that struck me was how dark it was. We were walking amongst trees and the crowns of those trees had blocked out most of the sunlight. In that darkness and perhaps it’s some sort of human instinct, but I became very aware. I became very sensitive to sound, to the little bit of light that we had to what I was walking on, to the leaves that were brushing against my arm. Everything became more acute. We were walking along a meandering stream and for whatever reason, this memory came back to me. Some advice I’d been given that, “If you’re ever lost in a forest, you should follow a source of water like a river or a stream, and it would lead you to people, it would lead you to habitation.” Of course, that’s exactly what happened.
There was nothing extraordinary about the first houses that I saw, at least not on their own. In fact, the individual houses were quite similar to what you so all over Antigua, timber sided with sloping metal roofs, quite charming overall with a sense of proportion. It was not so much that the individual houses were built well. It was something else. It was more about the spaces in between the houses as though the houses had been placed where they were with a particular focus on creating something special in between that you would live in.
In other words, the individual houses were not the home. It was the collection that made the home and that air in between was as architectural as any wood, metal or concrete. That was the first thing. My new guide, the man who had called me and brought me into the village was a Rastafarian by the name of Enoch. He introduced me to a small group of people who were sitting, chatting, in what I would call a courtyard of these houses.
When I stood in that courtyard, I felt a sense of peace. That’s the only way I can describe it as though all of the chaos outside didn’t exist. It was a sense of complete well-being. In that moment, I forgot why I had come there in the first place. I wasn’t thinking about architecture. I wasn’t being analytical. I was just standing there in amazement. As I took it in, I gradually began to think and I wondered, “What is the secret sauce, how do they do this?”
I said to myself I always had a fascination and thought places like this could be special, but from my point view, it’s always something that I looked at on paper, in books, in some sort of abstracted way, second-hand. But I knew in that moment that I was experiencing something that couldn’t necessarily be drawn on paper, it couldn’t necessarily be written in books, it just had to be experienced.
Enoch, then, motioned to me to follow him again. As we walked, it got darker and it felt deeper than ever before. I had to remind myself that it was daytime. Despite the darkness, I could see white chalk symbols out on the sides of the path that we were walking on. Enoch turned around to me and smiled. He must have noticed that I was staring down at these symbols because he pointed at them as we walked along, giving them names, human names, like people’s names, plants names, food, stars. I thought, “Well, is he making this up?”
We rounded the corner and there was a house in front of us. This time it was all by itself. I thought that was a bit strange, but what was even more strange was what was in front of the house. On the ground about 20 feet by 20 feet, there was a square full of the same symbols that we had seen along the path, a very elaborate, very intricate design but in chalk. I thought, “A little wind, a little rain and it’s gone,” but yet there it was. As I was looking down at it, everything went pitch black. I was spooked, but then I remembered, “Hold on. It’s the eclipse.”
Enoch told me to wait where I was and not to move one inch. He then turned around and walked backwards over all of the symbols towards the front door of the house. When he got to the door, he knocked on it with a strange rhythm and it popped open. “Now you can come,” he said, “backwards,” so I did. When I arrived at the door, he said, “You can go in, but you have to step with your left foot first.” My thought went, “Okay.” I said, “Are you coming?” He said, “No, only you.”
Now these were my adventurous and some might say naïve student days. As intrigued as I was, there was no way that I was walking into that house, so I told him so. He didn’t even respond. He just looked at me and smiled. Then from the darkness inside the house I heard a woman’s voice. She said, “I heard you’ve been looking for me.” I thought, “What?” Yeah, my intrigue took over and in I went. As I stepped in, the door closed behind me and very quickly my intrigue turned to fear. Not surprisingly, my first instinct was to turn and leave. But just as I was about to, I heard the striking of a match and she lit a candle. It was just enough light for me to see that she was there, but not much more than that. I couldn’t tell how old she was, what she looked like. I could vaguely see that she had some sort of head wrap on, but not much beyond that. She said, “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” but of course, I was terrified.
Then considering all that was going on, she asked me the most bizarre question. She said, “What star sign are you?” Somehow, I answered calmly as though we were just chatting in a bar. I said, “Gemini.” She goes, “No, you’re Aquarius.” I said, “No, I’m Gemini.” She said, “When were you born.” I said, “June.” “What year?” I said, “1974.” “Well, then you’re Aquarius,” was her response.
By this point my fear had turned to irritation and my instinct was the same, just to leave. She went on. She said, “Your mother was Aquarius, your father was Aquarius, and when they named you it was decided that you were going to build a house.” “You’re John, aren’t you,” she said. I froze. I didn’t even have time to think. She then reached forward, picked up the candle and pulled it slowly to her face. She said, “I am Oracabessa and I am the last angel on earth.”