Art & Culture

Heritage: Discover the Mauritian architecture with Thomas Meur

Standing in Thomas Meur’s home – with its sweeping verandah, quaint courtyard in full bloom and large façade that lend the abode a timeless elegance – one can feel the pull of ancient history. Perched in a 1820s antique chair and surrounded by collectibles steeped in history, Thomas muses on the revitalization of cities, the cultural analysis of Mauritian architecture and why we should save our heritage.

Thomas Meur, how would you define “heritage”?

The term “heritage” pertains to a nation’s culture, aesthetics and way of life. For most, it typically conjures up images of ancient historical
edifices. While that holds true, it also encompasses the natural and cultural landscape, historical garden designs and artifacts. It further manifests itself through intangible forms: values, traditions, songs (let us never forget “La Rivière Tanier”) and skills that are handed down from one generation to the next. Together, they constitute our heritage and are vital expressions of our culture. The heritage is to country what the soul is to a human being; it exemplifies our belonging to a community, emanating a sense of place and distinctiveness,  reminding us that we form part of a cultural continuum. I was vividly aware, from a tender age, of the beauty and uniqueness of the Mauritian heritage that has, since then, been largely depleted. Today, despite popular assumptions, what remains of our heritage extends beyond Port Louis’ frontiers to other urban areas and the countryside.

There is a common belief that preserving old buildings is costly and futile. What do we gain by preserving our heritage?

Costly? Quite the opposite! While the general trend in Mauritius is to create new cities on agricultural land and demolish the remnants of our heritage, the benefits of keeping them intact are immeasurable culturally, and vastly measurable financially. In France, every €1 invested in the heritage generates €27 in the economy – that’s quite the investment. Futile? Meaningful! Being surrounded by heritage, especially if it is correctly looked after, provides locals a snapshot into what constitutes our aesthetic values. Living amid historic buildings and preserved landscapes revitalizes communities intellectually and strengthens our common identity. Besides, heritage sites serve as a scientific base for researchers and craftsmen, enabling them to understand and perpetuate the uniqueness of a country’s culture, in a time where globalization
makes everything the same everywhere. Tell us about the Marengo Foundation. The Marengo Foundation is a nonprofit local foundation dedicated to the heritage. Unique in Mauritius, its first role is to preserve heritage sites, most of which are to this day in danger. The Marengo
Foundation aims at keeping part of our soul intact by acquiring and managing heritage sites: a historic house can be turned into a school, a museum or simply remain a home. Reviving these sites demands a particular knowledge – sometimes on the brink of extinction. Our second goal is therefore to make sure these skills live on thanks to a handful of craftsmen – stonemasons, gardeners, cabinetmakers – who teach the younger generation. The Marengo Foundation also encourages research and the use of authentic local architecture, decor and landscaping in new projects.

What does a traditional Mauritian home look like? What materials were they made of?

The Mauritian home’s design makes it unique in the world. It is easily distinguished even from the case creole, the traditional dwelling found on Reunion Island merely 200 miles away. Historically, a Mauritian home’s form and materials varies depending on the owner’s social status, its location and evolved slightly over three centuries. Cob houses with straw roofs were found in the countryside, whereas seaside bungalows – dubbed “campements” – were made of ravenala. The quintessential Mauritian home, however, is made of timber upon a stone base, with high-pitched roofs covered with handmade teak shingles. In the high grounds, the larger homes were commonly known as “campagnes”. Practically all of them displayed the same hues of grey-blue, white and black. This distinctive color scheme,
which lent us a collective identity, has virtually disappeared and is unknown to younger Mauritians. In the XXth century, ornate corrugated iron and fancy cement designs started being used. Gardens were a requisite extension of the house and showed very specific Mauritian designs, rarely seen today. Over the past decades, most of this has been destroyed. I would like to emphasize that the heritage does not mandatorily go hand in hand with all things old. Our local architecture remains unbeatable for its sustainability and timeless beauty.
With the right proportions, strategic positioning (in relation to the sun, wind and views) and use of traditional elements, brand new buildings would have a part in keeping our culture and craftsmanship alive. The Mauritian architecture, perfectly adapted to our tropical climate and environment, epitomizes a truly smart design.

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Brinda Venkaya

Brinda Venkaya