Written by Philip Briggs
The distinctive wooden architecture associated with Paramaribo is largely a product of the city’s location. Paramaribo has been prone to rapid expansion since its foundation in the mid 17th century, and while stone has always been in short supply, and the waterlogged soil is less than ideal for rapid brick production, Suriname possesses an almost unparalleled natural supply of timber. Therefore in the early days of the small settlement most construction was undertaken in wood, using techniques learned from ships’ carpenters and Moravian migrants. As is also the case in some parts of Asia as well, the finest traditional builders did not use nails or glue to hold the wood together but cut the pieces so perfectly that none was necessary.
Most of the city’s wooden houses are built along similar lines. They have a rectangular base, with the street façade usually being the longer side, though on narrow lots they may be orientated with a street-facing gable. The foundations are almost invariably made of bricks, which support the fl oor beams, aided by at least one brick or stone base block in the centre, and the outside steps are also usually made of bricks. Perimeter beams are then set in place to support a timber skeleton on which 30cm-wide boards, usually painted white, are fi xed to create a symmetrical façade of horizontal boards. Windows, doors, shutters, frames and louvres are usually painted dark green or black. Most houses feature detailed embellishments on the meticulously hand-carved balconies, balustrades, joints and banisters.
A typical feature of Paramaribo’s wooden houses is the high sloping roofs inset with one or more gabled dormers. These dormers usually have two rectangular windows each, sometimes set below a third semicircular window. The reason for the use of dormers to create additional headroom and let in more light was because early roofi ng materials – mostly pina leaves, wooden shingles, slates and fl at tiles – enforced the use of steep slopes to combat Suriname’s rainy climate. That changed with the introduction of galvanised zinc roofing in the 1870s, but by then the steep sloping style was well established. Houses constructed prior to 1850 usually had small balconies or none at all. By contrast, many buildings constructed or extended in the latter half of the 19th century possess wide balconies supported by arches or pillars, and some also have grandiose colonnaded porticos, the latter influenced by the southeast USA. These large balconies and porticos were probably built as a sign of prosperity.