The Modernist Architecture Nerd’s Guide to Suriname and Guyana

Architecture is always top of mind when planning our travels.  We will often make detours to out of the way locations if we find out a building or monument of particular interest is located there (looking at you, Pleven, Bulgaria).  For die hard modernism and brutalism fans, planning an itinerary based on hopping from modernist relic to relic is easy in places like the Balkans, Baltics, or Central Asia.  When venturing off the beaten path in the Americas, to places like Guyana and Suriname, for instance, the game becomes a little more difficult.  

David and I hadn’t done any pre-planning in terms of architecture tourism for our recent trip to Guyana and Suriname – in that way, it resembled our trip to Southeast Asia last year, where we happened upon beauties of the New Khmer style designed by Vann Molyvann.  But Guyana and Suriname lacked the direct colonial influence of the French that allowed for an easier transfer of modernist styles and forms from Le Corbusier to architects in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.  Suriname and Guyana, on the other hand, are better known for wooden colonial architecture from the British and the Dutch – the likes of which in Paramaribo are listed under UNESCO World Heritage.  That said, while walking among British and Dutch colonial structures in various states of (dis)repair crowding the streets in Georgetown and Paramaribo, we found a great number of modernist examples worth going out of the way for (if you happen to be a concrete fetishist, that is).

Suriname, and Paramaribo in particular, as it turns out, is host to a great number of modernist buildings, most of which are designed by the Dutch architect Peter Jacobus Nagel between 1950 and 1970.  Nagel was born in Holland, but moved to Aruba at the beginning of his career after the end of World War II.  From there, he first journeyed to Suriname (then Dutch Guiana) in the late 1940s before settling there with his wife and three children in 1951.

Biography aside, let’s get to the juicy bits: the buildings themselves:

National Assembly Building; Originally “Het Park” Country Club

This building, sitting on Paramaribo’s main square between the Presidential Palace and Fort Zeelandia, was originally built to accommodate the city’s premier country club in the early 1950s.  It was also Nagel’s first work in Paramaribo, built between 1951-1954.

The building was converted to the National Assembly  in the late 1990s, after the original National Assembly building was destroyed in a fire in 1996.  For war buffs, an interesting memorial to Surinamese troops who served in the Korean War also sits on the premises – I was tickled to find a little bit of hangeul, my favorite alphabet (you don’t have a favorite??), in downtown Paramaribo.

National Post Office

 

Built between 1957 and 1960, the National Post Office is one of the largest buildings in Paramaribo’s downtown core.  Originally housing not only the Post Office, but also the Postal Savings Bank and Tax Collectors’ offices (among others), Nagel designed the building utilizing vertical lines that would become his signature in later structures.  The building was once incredibly ornate on the inside, as well as in its grand staircase, but not much of its original glitz remains, sadly.  The ironwork on the building is still impressive, albeit rusted, and represents the hub and spoke distribution method of mail throughout the former Dutch Empire, including the Surinamese hinterlands.

Side note: We found the Suriname Post (commonly abbreviated to SurPost) to be quite effective, with postcards arriving to the US three weeks to the day after being sent.  It’s quicker to get to Western Europe thanks to vestigial colonial connections.

Hoofdkantoor Curaçaose Handel Maatschappij (CHM Building)

Try saying this one’s name three times fast!  Just kidding, don’t even  say it once, I don’t want to send you to the hospital.  The CHM building in Paramaribo, located about equidistant between the Central Market, Martin Luther Church, and the ReadyTex Art Gallery (also known as souvenir heaven), the CHM building is one of the two buildings that really shows Nagel’s interest in construction around symmetrical vertical lines.  I don’t have much to say about this building, other than I really enjoyed the cut of its jib.

Also, can someone tell me what kind of company CHM is?  I get the feeling that it’s kind of like Surinamese Walmart…

De Surinaamsche Bank

The Bank of Suriname building is the best example of Nagel’s use of (or obsession with) vertical design, with its most prominent design features being the facade of long vertical windows divided by thin concrete frames.  Despite being located directly next to the Peter and Paul Cathedral, one of the wooden architectural landmarks of the city, it does not lack in bravado with its rectangular front and brutal iron font across its facade.  The building also incorporates Maroon artistic elements in its ironwork while not skimping on the mod.

Completed in 1959, it was likely my favorite example of modernist architecture in Paramaribo, but that could just be because it’s the most flashy.

Georgetown, Guyana BONUS: Bank of Guyana Building

This beauty is found right in downtown Georgetown, Guyana – but one needn’t look farther than the back of the $1000 GYD bill to find her likeness.  As I said before, we didn’t go searching for modernist architecture on this, our first foray into South America, but rather it found us.  The Bank of Guyana building, in its cubical splendor, was the first specimen we saw on our trip, and only aroused hopes of finding more.

 The Bank of Guyana building is the newest of all the structures mentioned in this post, and also the flashiest.  Completed in 1966, it looms as one of the largest buildings in downtown Georgetown, especially if you exclude the towering St. George’s Anglican Cathedral.  We didn’t go inside, but I have on good authority that the interior primary spiral staircase, designed by Guyanese architect Rory Westmaas, is a sight to behold.  Key takeaway here being, ALWAYS go inside buildings.


I had a lot of help writing this post, as I returned to the United States with only pictures of buildings and no idea of who designed them, when they were built, or even what their original purposes were.  It’s a testament to the kindness and genuine helpfulness of the people of Guyana and Suriname that I was able to send a few emails, and eventually be connected to people with the answers to my questions.  The black and white pictures throughout the post are from a book, Achteraf bekeken: Architectuur in Suriname 1951 tot 1969: Bouwwerken ontworpen door ir. P.J. Nagel (1921-1997), and I relied heavily on Google Translate to make sense of its text.  Of particular great help with Mr. Nagel’s works was Stephen Fokke of Stadsherstel Paramaribo.  Mr. Fokke also referred me to Albert Rodrigues and Lennox Hernandez, who were able to assist in learning more about the Bank of Guyana building.

For more information on the works of PJ Nagel, refer to the link above, at which you can download a pdf of the book I used as reference, or see the following link:

Online Resource – Peter Jacobus Nagel (Dutch).

2 thoughts on “The Modernist Architecture Nerd’s Guide to Suriname and Guyana

  • April 12, 2017, 12:38 am

    I’m so in love with the modernist architecture. Looking at these photos actually reminded me a lot of Saigon.

    • April 14, 2017, 8:16 am

      Next time I’m in Vietnam (probably when I’m 50), I’m going to go to Saigon. Hanoi was great, but I think Saigon is really the place to be for architecture peeping.

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