Historically, there have been close commercial and cultural ties between the Colombian archipelago of San Andrés and Providencia and the Almirante Bay settlements of Panama some two hundred miles to the southwest including the picturesque island town of Bocas del Toro. Containing largely English-speaking, Protestant populations until recently, they have much in common with Limón, Bluefields, Belize, Kingston, and the Bay, Cayman, and Corn islands.

The vernacular architecture of these western Caribbean communities immediately impresses the casual observer. Frame wooden houses with white or unpainted clapboard sidings predominate among the older buildings. The prevalence of front porches and exterior perimeter balconies is striking. So are the construction on piles or stilts that often provides storage space beneath; the gabled roofs with dormers (“sheds” or “garrets”) that drain into wooden cisterns below; the widespread use of Persian doors and either louvered or solid wood window shutters; and the screened openings in the upper part of rooms for improved ventilation.

These quite often original building styles and their Anglo-Caribbean antecedents are reviewed by the distinguished Panamanian planner and architectural historian Samuel Gutiérrez in La arquitectura en dos archipiélagos caribeños, a welcome addition to the sparse literature on these island communities that appears to have been inspired by the author’s earlier investigation, Arquitectura de la época del canal, 1880-1914. The more recent book is an even more elaborately illustrated study of the buildings of Panama City and Colón, as well as of the institutional structures and housing produced by the U.S. administration along the route of the canal in what came to be known as the Canal Zone (“La Línea”). The Antillean roots of the design of the canal-period buildings are stressed, a reflection of the massive influx of West Indian construction workers during both the two abortive French canal efforts (1880-95) and the successful venture of the North Americans (1904-15).

The author is understandably intrigued by the distinctiveness of the colonnaded streets and plazas of Colón. The porticos or covered passageways, welcome protection for pedestrians from both sun and the frequent rain, are reminiscent of Guayaquil. Both here and in Panama City the earlier French architectural influence is apparent, including New Orleans-like wrought iron balconies and mansard roofs, as well as certain aspects of the urban plans, handed down to U.S. engineers from the DeLesseps period. Some of the most important developments, however, came during the final stages of canal construction when North American concerns for sanitation, parks, and landscaping came into full play. With them also came the social “apartheid” that led to the differentiation of “gold roll” and “silver roll” employees, the latter almost entirely blacks from Jamaica and other West Indian islands. Panama City and Colón, tenement-dominated cities pinched onto crowded physical sites at either end of the canal, developed very differently from the garden communities of the Canal Zone such as Balboa, Cristóbal, and Ancón, locations of the major institutional structures including hospitals, hotels, administrative offices, and dormitory and other housing for a significant number of employees.

While it is the photos that catch the eye in these two volumes, the accompanying texts provide an appropriate background to them. The earlier work makes extensive use of Panamanian newspapers of the period, as well as the Canal Record and the Panama Canal Review. Together, the two books provide an intriguing insight into the evolution of urban forms in this corner of the Caribbean and the amalgam of outside forces that have influenced them. Gutiérrez makes a strong appeal in both monographs for the preservation of what is left of this unique architectural patrimony in the face of the unstoppable onslaught of modernization.