Colin Laird

By: Anna Walcott-Hardy  |   January 17th, 2019


“Colin Laird was not a man that can be readily explained away in a few words,” Stephen Mendes, renowned architect, urban planner and close friend of Laird stated at the beginning of his remarks at the book launch of Forged from the Love: Colin Laird, Caribbean Architect at the Normandie Hotel in May.

Mendes emphasised that Laird was an architect’s architect, who had “a greater impact on the urban face of our capital city than any other architect in recent times, with his designs for Queen’s Hall, the Hasely Crawford Stadium and the Jean Pierre Complex, the National Library and the Brian Lara Promenade”.

Even a cursory view of the architectural drawings underscore that Laird was committed to creating a dialogue with those using the space, through innovative, inclusive, meticulous designs. But there was also a broader perspective.

“I’m searching and searching for what one can do to the whole mess of Trinidad, the world, the man,” he wrote to his son, Christopher during the social unrest in 1970. “Architecture per se is wonderful, but to what end”.

For many, Laird created an architectural identity for his adopted country. He brought a language, a decipherable linguistic to the civic buildings and urban spaces in the capital. Mendes explained that these designs typically reinforce what one of his professors, David Crane, called the “Capitol Web” of a city, in this case the Res Publica of Port of Spain, against a backdrop of generally uncontrolled and disorganised physical development, the Res Privata, in the city of a thousand designers.

Born in 1924 in North Shields, England, Laird was as unassuming as he was complex. An aircraft navigator during World War II, a yachtsman sailing the Atlantic single-handedly, an advocate of the West Indian Federation with an incongruous laugh and a wry sense of humour, Laird’s integral architectural contributions were recognised locally and internationally.

His accolades include the Soane Medallion from the UK, Chaconia Gold National Award from Trinidad and Tobago, he was an Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and rated among the top 300 architects in the world by World Architecture Magazine in 2001. He was indeed an innovator whose interest in green and sustainable architecture came well before LEED certification became fashionable.

A devoted husband to wife, Jeanette (Butler) whom he met at a dance at the Soldiers and Sailors Club in Port of Spain while he was enlisted as a Navy Navigator on the HMS Goshawk in 1942; they married two years later to the chagrin of the parents who thought they were too young, she was 17, he was just 20. A family man, he was a loving and dedicated father to son, Christopher and daughters, Nicolette, Naomi and Martina, as well as to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Recently, his grandson, Sebastien, spoke with obvious admiration of the time Laird placed him and his cousins in a small boat before speeding off to protest a ship with nuclear cargo stationed in Trinidad, fearlessly circling the massive tanker in the small craft.

A supporter of the arts, especially of his dear friend the indefatigable dancer and choreographer, Beryl McBurnie, he designed the Little Carib Theatre in 1964, pro bono, and continued to support productions there for decades. He was also a great proponent of Carnival, a lover of sailor mas’, he even placed second in the Carnival King Competition at Dimanche Gras in a Ken Morris costume in 1970.

He had enlisted in the navy when he was just 18 and was sent to the then British colony, Trinidad to train as a navigator. When asked how he felt returning to Britain after 50 years of being abroad, Laird said, “I feel I am a Trinidadian going to England”. He was granted Trinidad and Tobago citizenship in 1964, his wife Jeanette said in 2017, she died later that year, “he was very much more a Trinidadian than I ever have been or will be.” He was often praised for sharing his views on architecture openly with young architects, while at the same time being prepared to listen to their views.

He often loved the sea and often sailed up the islands to Grenada and Dominica to make site visits to the company’s projects under construction. Mendes recalled that he enjoyed meeting him at the Yachting Association “scrubbing away at the barnacles at the bottom of his boat with his snorkel on and periodically surfacing for air with a smile on his face; and this continued until he was well over 80 years old. On other occasions I would arrive at his home studio and there he was drawing away on his drawing board with his headphones on, listening to classical music in order to focus and inspire his creative juices – a man truly enjoying what he did, and often doing it alone”.

Amicable and generous, he also had a steely resolve on unpopular, social issues, often going against the grain protesting capital punishment; as well as alcohol and cigarette advertising at the stadium; and in 1973, he resigned from the Trinidad and Tobago Institute of Architects over ties to the South Africa Institute of Architects, during the days of Apartheid.

Known for major urban projects, he also designed several residential buildings including the elegant Coblentz House Apartments with its cool atrium and lush garden with samaan and cedar trees, housed on the former sugar estate in St Ann’s. Yet there are so many unbuilt ones that would have benefitted the country’s built heritage including an inter-religious centre at The University of the West Indies 
(The UWI) in 1987, where the Amerindian Benab was a central structure, surrounded by a Hindu Temple, Muslim Mosque and Christian Church; as well as a National Festival Centre; and National Cultural and Carnival Entertainment Centre.

It’s worth a visit to the Colin Laird Collection at the Alma Jordan Library, The UWI, St Augustine Campus, to view the scope of the work and the architect’s dedication to ensuring functionality as well as inclusivity of the people and tropical landscape.

“Colin’s wealth was never one of physical possessions – his wealth was one of the spirit, and a free spirit it was… [he] was a visionary and a master architect and together with other local architects who followed, have been responsible for our architectural legacy,” concluded Mendes. Colin Laird died at his home in Westmoorings, Trinidad in 2018, at the age of 93, surrounded by the family he loved.