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Vernacular Architecture in the Dominican Republic - an interview with Dr. Esteban Prieto Vicioso

On the occasion of the PhD defence of Pauline Kulstad, dr. Esteban Prieto visited Leiden. Dr. Prieto is an architect specialised predominantly in the conservation and restauration of heritage in the Caribbean. His works include a wide range of topics, such as vernacular rural architecture in the Dominican Republic and colonial fortifications, bridges and sugar plantations. Apart from his research he also was the general director of the cultural heritage agency in the Dominican Republic for 10 years, member of the commission of sub-aquatic archaeology in the Dominican Republic and vice president of ICOMOS for 6 years. His visit was a great opportunity to carry out an interview about his current research, and the protection and valorisation of heritage in the Dominican Republic.

The presentation you gave this afternoon was about vernacular architecture in Dominican rural areas, which is an architectural style that entails Indigenous and Spanish influences. In your talk it became clear that various construction techniques for the walls and roofs have their origin in indigenous Bohio’s (rectangular houses) but that the interior of these houses share many similarities with Spanish houses in Andalusia. Do you see any differences in the vernacular architecture across different regions in the Dominican Republic?

Yes, there are local differences. Principally rural vernacular architecture is constructed with palm wood and leaves. Generally, all bohio’s are rectangular in shape with a pitched roof. Regionally there is a great variety in the location of doors and windows, for instances some bohio’s have 4 doors on both sides, while others only have one entrance. However, in the region of Samana, the bohio’s are squarer in shape due to the direct influence of former enslaved people from the United States. Towards the border with Haiti, the southeastern part of the island, you see more cases where people use bahareques (walls constructed from a combination of mud and twigs). This area is dryer and thus poorer in natural resources like palm trees, making it easier to construct bohio’s with bahareques.  The indigenous people used another technique that is called palos parados (parallel poles with a foundation in the ground) that is still widely present nowadays, especially in the south. However, this technique is more used for the construction for kitchens that are separately build from the main house, because it allows the kitchen to ventilate and get rid of the smoke. Circular constructions on the contrary are hardly found nowadays, apart from rancho’s that people use a place to relax in their hamaca’s or to gather.

In 2011, you wrote an article about heritage protection in the Caribbean, focussed on the Dominican Republic. In this overview new legislations were discussed that should enhance protecting heritage in the Dominican Republic, but you also mentioned some shortcomings that needed to be overcome, such as the shortage of professional archaeologists, a diffused political landscape with a broad range of heritage agencies and departments and a great dependency of foreign funding. What has improved in the last 8 years?

You can see some improvement in the organisations that protect heritage, but it is true that there are various agencies and ministries that overlap each other, like the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Culture, in the case of heritage protection. One of the major problems is that the realisation of the projects really depend on which ministry receives the project’s funding, and this doesn’t always line up nicely with the policies of the Ministry of Culture. For instance, in the Ciudad Colonial in Santo Domingo there is a project funded by the BID (Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo or the Interamerican Development Bank) in which the Ministry of Tourism is in charge. Nevertheless, there is some improvement since the Ministry of Culture will be included in the follow-up project.

What do you think needs to be improved in this current situation?

The Ministry of Culture needs to get a more powerful and a stronger position, because they make the heritage protection laws and are currently not always involved in heritage or archaeological projects. Creating more awareness about heritage protection is a second step that needs to be done.

Related to this, the important site of La Isabela, a settlement founded by Columbus in 1493, does not have a UNESCO world heritage status and is thus not protected. Besides, every time I visit the site myself there are hardly any visitors. Given the historical importance of the site, what needs to be done to protect this site better and to make it world heritage?

In the case of La Isabella, there are some interesting developments over the last 4 years. The Ministry of Culture and the director of the La Isabela archaeological park are working with a master plan that we initiated. For the first time in Dominican history, the President wrote a decree that they are officially going to work with this master plan to protect and valorise La Isabela. This plan, together with the published articles and books about La Isabela, will serve as the basis for a proposal to hopefully declare La Isabela a UNESCO World Heritage Site next year in 2020.  

In the research seminars at Leiden University, we talk a lot about community engagement. How do you include the local communities in the master plan of La Isabela so the region could benefit from these developments?  

Our master plan includes everything, ranging from administration to conservation, and from local community engagement to tourism. The idea is that members of the communities can work as guides, caretakers, administrators, site managers, guards and artisans. The present-day community of La Isabela is small so they could perfectly benefit from the available work in the archaeological park. On top of that we like to include the youth as well through a community service system in schools. The students need to spend around 40 hours of community service in their school period. The archaeological park can involve the nearby schools where students spend their community service as park guards. It allows the students to gain interests in heritage and archaeology, making it possible to pursue such a career in the future.

Lastly, in the articles you wrote and as we are talking now we have been predominantly discussing heritage from the colonial period. However, we both know that the Dominican Republic has a very rich indigenous history of which the legacies are still visible nowadays in Dominican culture. What makes the indigenous heritage overshadowed when it comes down to heritage protection? 

Traditionally, more attention has been paid to colonial architecture, especially to the Zona Colonial of Santo Domingo. The other towns and cities with important colonial and historical buildings, like the wooden houses in Montecristi, are also not protected at all. This is due to the fact that there is no strong presence of the ministry of culture in these areas and that the municipalities do not have a department that deals with heritage protection. More influence of the ministry of culture and to include heritage in construction policies so important historical buildings will not be destroyed and proper archaeological research is done before the destruction of potential sites.

To come back to the indigenous heritage, we have a problem that the Dominicans do not very much appreciate the indigenous history. We do not have any indigenous peoples living in the country nowadays, so they do not feel related to this part of history and pay more attention to heritage and history of the Spanish and African enslaved. This is a big problem because indigenous legacies are still visible nowadays in our culture and the indigenous peoples are still present in our genes. We therefore need to begin to valorise and study indigenous sites more, so people can reattach to this part of their history. We also don’t have very big monumental indigenous architecture like for instance in Mexico, making archaeology even more important to reconnect with the indigenous past. Ideally, archaeological sites should be more open to the public by constructing site museums in which the artefacts but also the post holes and other archaeological features are displayed in situ. Public awareness can be more easily gained when sites as for instance El Flaco and El Carril are transformed into museums where people can explore the indigenous archaeology themselves.

Dr. Prieto, thank you for taking the time to speak with me about your research.

Besides his extensive academic career, Dr. Esteban Prieto is Founding Director of the Center for the Inventory of Cultural Elements; National Director of Cultural Heritage from 1986 to 1996; Founding Member and Member of Honor of the Dominican Committee of ICOMOS; Worldwide Vice President of ICOMOS from 1993 to 1999; Founding Member of ICOM-DO and CARIMOS, a Member of the International Association for the Preservation Technology, and the Spanish Society of the History of Construction, among other institutions. He is Director of the Office of the Works and Museums of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, and Director of the Center for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and the Spanish Language, a dependency of the UNPHU.

He has restored numerous properties in the Colonial Zona, and has worked in the Historic Centers of Santo Domingo, Manatí, Puerto Rico, and the Old City of Panamá; he has been an advisor on restoration projects in several countries, and has been consultant to ICOMOS/World Heritage, of the Getty Grant Program and the World Monuments Fund.

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