As a designer, I often get most of my inspiration from everyday situations; whether it’s a visit to a well designed public washroom or a drive across the countryside of a Caribbean Island. I recently visited Cayman to meet some potential clients and during my brief stay, I quickly found myself exploring the architecture and heritage of this golden sandbar. The Cayman Islands consist of three land masses that cover 260 square Kilometers just off the South West coast of Cuba. My visit was confined to the largest of the three – Grand Cayman. The short flight from Toronto and the booming development there makes it an ideal location for my design and decor services. Now you have to understand, my only knowledge of CI came from sitting in a movie theatre in 1993 with my girlfriend watching a newly released Tom Cruise movie (“The Firm”), hardly enough to be able to understand the beauty and heritage of these islands. Landing was as uneventful as any other trip but the stress and anticipation of driving a rental car on the left hand streets quickly began to consume all my thoughts. Once I hit the first road out, it became second nature in no time. However, I did constantly catch myself mumbling “keep left, keep left”.
My first visit on this trip was to the Cayman Motor Museum. This was to purely satisfy my own interests and not necessarily to get ideas or inspirations. However, sometimes, the best things in life come when you least expect them. When I got into the museum, I was met by the owner, Andreas Ugland, who gave me a personal tour of this magnificent collection that he’s been working on since the age of 16. I found him to be one of the kindest and most gracious people I’ve ever met. Beyond learning about each of the magnificent pieces in his collection, which included many Ferraris, the original Bat Mobile and Elton John’s Rolls Royce, I quickly found myself inquiring about the structure he had engineered to protect his collection; a massive climate controlled garage engineered to withstand a Category 5 hurricane and located high enough above the sea level to escape the potential flooding.
On my way back to the hotel, I had a little time to burn and as always, I took this opportunity to turn off the main road and venture into the native parts of the Island. This is where I began to appreciate some of the reminders of the design heritage. Some of the typical Cayman houses that still stand with their large porches and gable roofs, were made of Wattle and Daub – a lattice of wooden strips covered with a composition of wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung and straw. Most have updated tin roofs but some still fashion a silver thatch palm roof. Traditionally, most homes were white with dark trim, however, this eventually evolved into the use of light pastel colours of pinks, turquoise and greens. There are hundreds of feet of old coral fences that line the property lines, some of which date back centuries. I studied these walls perpetually for each linear foot offered a new dimension and design that I found fascinating. With the growth that began here in the 1980’s, this vintage and classic human dimension must be protected from becoming extinct. It’s bad enough fighting the forces of Mother Nature without having the momentum of urban development eating up the islands heritage.
One morning after breakfast, I travelled the roads to the South end of the Island to see a spectacular structure designed by Jamaican born Architect Kevin Young. This formation of modern architecture stands amongst the serrated coral coast with a view that leaves little to be desired. I had the pleasure of speaking with Kevin to understand his inspiration behind this project; it came from the sea and the land. “The large curvature in the black wall was inspired by the organic shape of a stingray in motion” says Kevin. Other elements were inspired by the Coral Sea shore and designed to withstand the hot tropical environment, the constant harsh salt water sea spray and to capitalize on the breathtaking surroundings. His client is an aeronautical engineer whose input was instrumental in the design of the roof in making it withstand the hurricanes that strike the island. You soon begin to appreciate that building a structure here takes far different considerations than you could imagine.
On my way back up the West coast, I stepped out of reality and dropped into the fantasy development of Camana Bay. This is the vision of one man and an entire team of experts who have designed and begun to build a superbly designed and sustainable community on this Island. It’s a “must see” Disneyland for designers and planners where at every turn you see another element that astonishes you. You definitely need to take your time and observe every detail as you explore. They started in 1998 by building the largest containerized nursery in the western hemisphere to grow native plants for the entire 500 acre site. It’s a multi decade plan that is currently in decade one. They have developed the town and its infrastructure including commercial, residential and retail components, an international school, green spaces, marina and waterways. They have designed breezeway tunnels with intricate mosaic tile details in amongst the structures to facilitate the cooling effects of the ocean winds. Retractable canvas canopies automatically draw across stainless steel cables over the walkways to offer shelter from the mid day sun and numerous water features illicit a relaxing and tranquil feeling in every one of the many courtyards. An extensive and impressive lighting design casts shadows and highlights throughout and makes the night time experience magical. The inspiration in Camana Bay is undoubtedly Cayman and the design is a modern interpretation of the evolution of Cayman Architecture. It is a tropical paradise based on New Urbanism which emphasises walking, socializing, living and exploring.
On my last day I spent one complete afternoon with Denise Bodden, historic programmes manager of the National Trust. She gave me an entirely different appreciation for the history of these Islands from the Island’s discovery in 1503 by Christopher Columbus until today. We visited everything from the earliest settlement sites to the oldest cemeteries. These old burial grounds had the greatest impact on me. Grave sites with remarkable house shaped grave markers have European influences dating back centuries. This is where I realize the impact hurricanes have in deteriorating these national treasures – it’s such a shame, they must be preserved. One of the most interesting restored sites to visit is the Pedro St. James heritage great house. Originally built in 1780, the rooms in this enthralling historic Cayman residence tell their own stories as you walk through. I could have spent hours imagining what transpired on this property over the centuries.
I just realized I’ve said little about the hotel I stayed in, the wonderful restaurants I visited or the developments I saw. That’s because the inspirations you find in hotels and restaurants are a given. My true inspirations come from going off the beaten path and experiencing the people and heritage of a culture. Sometimes I get my ideas from the simplest things I see like the striking coral fences that line the road sides.