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View from George Town, Cayman Islands

The architecture of the Caymans reflects its curious history and secretive offshore economy, asserts Maria Smith

On a island off the coast of Jamaica live 70 architects and 56,662 civilians. Astonishingly, the tiny Caribbean island of Grand Caymen - only eight miles across at its widest point - commands the 14th highest GDP per capita in the world.

Imagine a piece of fabric where every thread is sheathed by a tiny force-field along its entire length, preventing it from touching any other thread. The Cayman Islands are such a fabric - the warp and weft formed from yarns that weave under and over each other, but never touch. It is largely woven from two distinct yarns: indigenous people descended from escaped slaves, and expat financiers who since the 1970s have darned themselves into the fabric of the island to run its several hundred banks.

‘Islanders would mimic a ship’s lights by tying two lanterns to a donkey and walking it along the coast, luring lost captains too close to land’

Grand Cayman (the largest of the three islands) was known at first for turtle fishing and ship-wreckers. Islanders would mimic a ship’s lights by tying two lanterns to a donkey and walking it along the coast, luring lost captains too close to land. The island did not have sugar plantations or slavery on the same scale as its neighbours, but the Caymans’ current striated society was foreshadowed by tensions between the local fishermen-wreckers and the visiting merchants who grandly passed through on voyages exporting prize goods, such as turtle-meat and fine mahogany. In 1962, when Jamaica became independent of the UK, the Caymans opted to stick with the Crown and a cohort of lawyers set about turning them from a place everyone forgot to the world’s fifth-largest banking centre.

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Offices for Walkers law firm by Studio Cullinan and Buck Architects: one of the many big commercial buildings that house the Caymans’ financial industry, among the island’s more modest vernacular structures

The architecture of the island coarsely manifests this binary social system. Big boxy buildings with starkly gridded facades stomp about between the decorative Caribbean edifices. A single Jamaican firm, Rutkowski, Bradford & Partners, built the three most significant buildings to be erected after the Caymans’ transformation: the Legislative Assembly, Law Courts and the Government Administration Building (fondly known as the Glass House), completed in 1972, ‘73 and ‘75, respectively. These buildings had many failings (fire safety issues eventually made the Glass House uninhabitable); however they sat happily and honestly as squat little aliens in the pastel landscape. But these early imports were followed by a wave of buildings-that-need-to-look-like-important-banks, which led to a romping neo-Georgian gargantuanism: massively overscaled faux-Georgian terraces in baby blue, and Palladian(ish) buildings a little like the White House but in pale pink, which assert themselves like blustering work-shy planning officers who can’t quite be bothered to abuse their power. A recent addition, by Studio Cullinan and Buck Architects, is a building for the law firm Walkers. This indulgence in intersecting grids, planted beside a precarious little house next door, starkly illustrates the Caymans’ inherent duality.

Of the 70 architects that live on the island, around 35 per cent are registered with ARB/RIBA/AIA etc. The remainder practise with a relative lack of regulatory oversight. The bank boom has left a rather vulgar mark and, predictably, plans are now afoot to tighten regulations with the aim of developing a more mature expression of the Caymans’ extraordinary social weave.

However, the Caymans have proven they can over time achieve workable compromises in extraordinary economic circumstances. A subtle purr that reverberates through everything from education to fishing licences reflects this balance. Architecture is a slow, frumpy animal that takes a while to catch up. In this land beyond financial regulation, will planning guidelines actually prevent the built environment from organically achieving the same harmony of coexistence that defines the Caymans’ social fabric?

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