A Wilted Flower: The Failure of Trinidad’s Academy for Performing Arts
Speaking to Rubadiri Victor over Zoom, I could sense that, even after eleven years, his emotions were raw and his disappointment deep. Victor is an activist and artist in various media, including film, music, painting, theatre, photography, writing, publishing, curating, and design. He is the founder of the Artists’ Coalition of Trinidad and Tobago, or ACTT, and he was explaining to me the debacle formally known as Trinidad’s National Academy for Performing Arts, or NAPA. Completed in 2010 at a cost of $500 million, NAPA was built in Port of Spain as the island’s first all-purpose center for the arts; the center would also house a multidisciplinary school of the arts.1Reshma Ragoonath, “Serious Structural Flaws Keep Napa Closed,” Trinidad and Tobago Guardian (May 9, 2015). The announcement of a budget and site for the project in Trinidad’s capital city was made in 2006 by Prime Minister Patrick Manning, and had been greeted with great optimism, Victor told me.2Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, “Budget Statement” (October 4, 2006). Many who were worried about the decline of artistic production in Trinidad had waited for decades for a comprehensive arts facility. Not only would performing artists finally gain a dedicated space, but that space would be established at a site of significant historical contention, effectively transforming part of Trinidad’s colonialist past. It didn’t quite turn out that way.
Just across the street from NAPA is Queen’s Park Savannah, the island’s largest park. This greenspace hosts grand costume competitions for Trinidad’s largest annual celebration, Carnival, and borders the infamous “Magnificent Seven” mansions along Maraval Road, a row of houses built in the early 20th century by leading families in Trinidad’s cocoa industry, once the nation’s most profitable export. Before NAPA, the site had been occupied by the Prince’s Building (1861), where elite balls and other governmental functions were held.3The Prince’s Building was built for the expected visit of Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, to Trinidad. The prince never arrived, due to the death of his father, Prince Albert. Although the Prince’s Building was destroyed by fire in 1979, the site remained associated with colonialist regimes. With the promise of an arts facility, this historically bourgeois lot “could become a space that was nationalized,” Victor said.
Anticipating the importance of such a transformation, Victor and the ACTT took the lead in drafting a letter jointly addressed to Patrick Manning and to Calder Hart, executive chairman of UDeCOTT, the state-owned Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago. The artists saluted the government’s decision to build the center. More importantly, they politely expressed their desire to be included in the process of its design.4The letter was signed by Rubadiri Victor along with Leroy Clarke (1938-2021), a Guyanese born Carnival artist, Peter Minshall and the Trinidadian novelist, journalist, playwright, and short story writer Earl Lovelace. Neither Victor nor the ACTT received a response. In fact, NAPA’s designers, the Shanghai Construction Group International (Caribbean) Ltd., had already been chosen. The plans had been finalized, and construction would soon be underway, with zero consultation with the ACTT or any other artists’ group.
To this day, NAPA is presented to the public as a symbol of Trinidad’s artistic culture; its exterior is said to resemble the national flower, the chaconia. Yet the building has also attracted backlash in regard to its appearance and functional failures. The chaconia motif is only apparent from an aerial point of view, and plays no role in the design of the interior. (In fact, NAPA bears greater resemblance to the Sydney Opera House than it does to the chaconia.) Structurally, the building fails to compliment the built environment in Port of Spain or any other architecture in Trinidad, where key design elements include verandas, louvers, and brightly colored facades. NAPA has none of these.
Far from supporting the performing arts, moreover, NAPA neglects seemingly obvious practical details. Trinidad’s national instrument is the steelpan, yet pannists complain that larger steelpan drums cannot fit through the stage doors.5The steelpan originated in Trinidad during Carnival in the 1930s. The doors are also said to be too small for many of the elaborate performance sets and costumes that are closely tied to Trinidadian culture. The main theater and practice rooms were built with ribbed rather than sprung floors. Sprung floors cushion dancers’ movements and prevent injuries; ribbed floors do not absorb shock in the same way. Some of the dancers’ practice-room floors are also made of a particularly unforgiving mixture of concrete and terrazzo, presumably a cost-saving move. “It was the dancers who spoke up first in regard to the floors,” Victor told me. NAPA construction consultants hastily did what he called “undercover rehab work” prior to “the big reveal” when the building opened. Even so, “the floors were still deficient years into the school’s operation and had to be corrected again.”6Victor notes that some of the complaints spread before the official opening of NAPA, hence why he describes the fixes made as “undercover rehab work.” Artists remain disgruntled, too, by the fact that NAPA has no space for outdoor performances. This is particularly controversial because, as Victor puts it, Caribbean people simply want to spend their time outside.7My mother, father, and grandmother, who all grew up in the Caribbean, have attested to this statement. Without affordance for outdoor performance, NAPA’s choice location next to Queen’s Park Savannah is wasted.
Shortly after the center opened, multiple performers filed complaints with UDeCOTT and the ACTT. Victor and the ACTT compiled a document detailing these issues, titled The Tragedy & Hidden History of NAPA (2010). The report highlights the building’s technical problems, but also emphasizes the failure in community engagement. “Nobody was listening,” Victor told me. In the Hidden History, he writes, “This abomination was the sad result.” Despite artists’ attempts to assert their interests from NAPA’s inception, negligence by the government and the designers resulted in a dysfunctional structure that reflects a shared disregard for the arts. “Nowhere is maintained in Trinidad,” Victor laments. “Things are built, they collapse, they spend money to fix it back up, and then it collapses again. Within six months, there’s a tree growing out the side of the building.”
No trees are growing out of NAPA yet. But it stands to this day as an incongruous behemoth, a waste of resources, and an example of architectural myopia. It is an insult to the artists of Trinidad, to the point where Victor told me that he, and others, believe “NAPA should be destroyed.” All this could have been avoided. It is the responsibility of the government and the designers they hire to engage with the community for which they are building, in order to generate functional and fitting designs. This is not to say that contemporary construction needs to fit seamlessly into any context. Rather it is to point to the lack of social and cultural engagement that was desperately needed in NAPA’s development — and never provided.
- Reshma Ragoonath, “Serious Structural Flaws Keep Napa Closed,” Trinidad and Tobago Guardian (May 9, 2015).
- Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, “Budget Statement” (October 4, 2006).
- The Prince’s Building was built for the expected visit of Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, to Trinidad. The prince never arrived, due to the death of his father, Prince Albert.
- The letter was signed by Rubadiri Victor along with Leroy Clarke (1938-2021), a Guyanese born Carnival artist, Peter Minshall and the Trinidadian novelist, journalist, playwright, and short story writer Earl Lovelace.
- The steelpan originated in Trinidad during Carnival in the 1930s.
- Victor notes that some of the complaints spread before the official opening of NAPA, hence why he describes the fixes made as “undercover rehab work.”
- My mother, father, and grandmother, who all grew up in the Caribbean, have attested to this statement.