One cannot fully understand the Architecture of Mauritius without going briefly through its history, climate and population.
Mauritius, which lies about 2,000 kilometres off the south-east coast of Africa is an island nation in the Indian Ocean. Having an area of about 2,040 km2, it has a population of around 1.3 million.
Before becoming a British colony in 1810, it was successively occupied by the Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch and French. The latter administered it for nearly a century from 1715 to 1810 and left a very great impact on the country, which was then called Ile de France. Due to its strategic position, Mauritius was also known as the “Star and Key” of the Indian Ocean. It remained a British colonial possession from 1810 to 1968, the year of its independence.
However, as the British allowed the existing settlers to keep their land and property, the use of the French language as well as the laws of France in criminal and civil matters, the French influence in the everyday life of the country remained and today it is still very palpable and appreciable even after 2 centuries.
Following the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century, workers had to be brought in from India to work in the fields and following the migration of people from other countries as well, the people of Mauritius are today multi-ethnic, multicultural, multilingual and multi-religious.
As in many other things, much of the Mauritian Architecture was influenced by the early French settlers, who used their acquired experience and skills to adapt their designs to suit the humid and sub-tropical climate. Thus elements like vaulted ceilings and large verandahs were used a lot to keep the buildings cool and dry. These can be seen in many of the big and stylish plantation houses on the sugar estates throughout the island.
In the older towns like Port Louis and Curepipe one can also see a lot of highly decorated balconies with quite detailed wrought iron balustrades adorning government buildings and large private houses a bit like in the former colonies elsewhere.
There were also a lot of more simple one storey houses called “ La Case Creole” or “Maison Coloniale” which were mostly the dwellings of the workers and less fortunate settlers. Though most of them have disappeared now, one can still see a few well preserved ones in the older residential part of the capital. Most of them were made with timber and covered with corrugated metal sheets.
As a result of the economic development of Mauritius in the last fifty years, there was also a lot of changes in the architecture of new buildings as this was being influenced by new ways of living as well as climatic conditions.
Following the huge destruction caused by tropical cyclones Alix and Carol in 1960, thousands of families became homeless and the authorities decided to construct cheap and small housing units on an almost industrial scale. These houses which were set up with precast material were known as Longtill Houses in the name of the contractor which built them.
The use of concrete and steel became more and more common among the general population. Less emphasis was thus being laid on the traditional materials such as timber as well as thatched and metal roofs, which offered little resistance to cyclonic winds because of the less sophisticated ways in which they were assembled.
From then on, most new houses would have block-walls and concrete roofs. As artificial air-conditioning becomes more common, less emphasis is also being laid to natural ventilation.
However, little by little one also tried to make these new houses look like the older ones by having sloping roofs, large verandahs and decorative features like cornices etc. Thus, even though some of these houses may have concrete roofs, these roofs would be covered by metals sheets or roof tiles and some of the walls would be cladded with timber.
Another factor influencing the construction of residential buildings in Mauritius is the high cost of land, particularly in the main towns and in the touristic regions along the coast.
More and more people started to live in apartments instead of individual houses and in the towns, these buildings are becoming more and more common as well as higher and higher.
Although there were already a few two or three-storey flats in the sixties, the first modern complex was the Harbour View Flats in Port Louis which were built by the Mauritius Housing Corporation in the seventies. Nearly one hundred units were regrouped together with parking spaces and children’s playground. In contrast to the cheaper Longtill Houses, these units were made principally for the middle class.
It was probably this complex which helped to popularise the idea of living in high rise buildings in Mauritius, because after this more and more of these buildings started to appear throughout the island. Nowadays, a penthouse on top of some of the new condominiums may cost several times more than an individual house.
Almost hidden from the general public another type of housing has also appeared in the last decade. These are the houses in gated communities or those built for IRS, RES and PDS projects. They are very luxurious houses with lots of facilities such as private swimming pools, tennis courts or golf courses, boat houses and large parks.
It was only in the seventies that the tourist industry started to develop in Mauritius. At that time there were almost no beach hotels on the island and compared to modern beach resorts, the hotels which were present at Le Chaland and Le Morne offered very little services besides the basic ones.
However with the development of the national airways company (Air Mauritius) and the need to have a more diversified economy, Mauritius started to promote itself as a high class tourist destination. Hence the construction of more and more beach resorts along the coast. This development is going to have an influence on the architecture in Mauritius.
As one of the aims of these new visitors is to travel into exotic countries with are different from their countries of origin, it became obvious that a lot of attention has to paid to the attractiveness of the buildings as well.
Hence the importance of having buildings in architectural styles typical of tropical islands which can blend harmoniously into their natural settings whilst at the same time combining them with modern elements. Emphasis is also being laid on having low plot coverages and buildings which are not higher than the trees around.
Thus even though many of the new hotel buildings may have a modern and sleek look, visitors are still given the impression of staying in traditional vacation houses surrounded by the sea and a lot of trees and greenery.
COMMERCIAL SHOPPING CENTRES
When Prisunic opened its doors in Curepipe in 1975, it became the first modern supermarket in Mauritius and people travelled from all over the island to visit it. At that time shopping was done in small shops in the villages and towns of the island.
A few supermarkets started to appear throughout the island, but they were just bigger self-service shops and they usually catered only for the local inhabitants. They had surfaces of about 300 to 500 square metres and only a few parkings were available for customers.
The whole thing changed with the coming of the Phoenix Commercial Centre with the Continent Hypermarket as its anchor tenant in 1994. With its huge parking of nearly 1000 slots as well as its Food Court and dozens of satellite shops, it revolutionised shopping in Mauritius.
Following its opening, several large commercial centres followed in Port Louis (Caudan Water Front), Grand Bay (Super U), Trianon (Shoprite) etc.
The whole shopping behaviour changed and this impacted on the architecture of commercial buildings. Developers now favour large complexes with modern amenities and facilities. More and more activities besides shopping are being regrouped together – gyms, cinemas, craft markets, health centres, educational activities and even official facilities such as post offices, banks etc.
This trend is not only changing the lifestyle of the people living around, who are now being offered more leisure and shopping facilities but this is also moving the “centre of gravity” of the localities where they are found. One consequence is that more and more of the small traditional shops are disappearing whilst the suburbs where the shopping centres are situated are attracting more people.
These last years, additional commercial centres have been constructed in places where formerly there were only sugar cane fields such as Bagatelle (Mall of Mauritius), Flacq (Flacq Coeur de Ville), Cascavelle and so on.
More development is expected with the construction of new smart cities in Mauritius, as each one of them is expected to have its own shopping mall.
When the French settlers came to Mauritius, they constructed churches in almost the same style as those in the regions where they originated even though the local climate may be completely different. This was repeated by the migrants who came later, namely those from India and China.
It is thus very common to see different kinds of religious buildings almost one beside the other in the localities of Mauritius: Christian Churches, Indian Temples, Muslim Mosques, Chinese Pagodas. This is the “Mauritian Diversity in Harmony” or “Mauritian Harmony in Diversity”.
UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITES
There are two World Heritage Sites in Mauritius. The first one that was proclaimed was the Aapravasi Ghat in 2006. Two years later, Le Morne Cultural Landscape also became one.
a) AAPRAVASI GHAT
The Aapravasi Ghat is found in the Port Area of Trou Fanfaron in Port Louis. Aapravasi Ghat which literally means Immigration Depot was also sometimes known as Coolie Ghat. It was the place where the Indian labourers who came to work in Mauritius in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries first touched land when they disembarked from the ships which brought them from the Indian subcontinent.
Between 1849 and 1912 more than 350,000 indentured labourers passed through it. Thus more than 70% of the ancestors of the Mauritian population came through this site. Although it played a very important part in the history of Mauritius, less than 50% of the original buildings survived. These are now protected by law as they now form part of the National Monuments in Mauritius.
Among the remaining buildings one can still see some of the important ones standing, including the remains of a hospital block, housing sheds as well as kitchens and toilets. Very important is also a flight of stairs down which every immigrant passed. After they disembarked, each one of them was photographed and registered for the records.
In memory of these indentured labourers, the 2nd of November had been proclaimed as a national public holiday and each year an official commemoration of the arrival of these labourers is held there on that day.
b) LE MORNE CULTURAL LANDSCAPE
The Le Morne Cultural Landscape, which is not actually a building or an architectural site became a World Heritage site in 2008. It is found in the extreme south west of Mauritius and it includes the Le Morne Brabant, a mountain on Le Morne Peninsula
In the 18th. and 19th. centuries, runaway slaves, who were also known as “maroons” used it as a hiding place. Because of the vertical slopes of the mountain, they could stay in nearly invisible caves or form small settlements which would be almost inaccessible on the summit. The mountain thus became a symbol of the slaves’ fight for freedom.
After the 1st. of February was proclaimed a national public holiday in memory of the abolishment of slavery in Mauritius, an official commemoration is held at this site every year on this date.
MAURITIUS NATIONAL MONUMENTS
To have a better idea of Architecture in Mauritius one needs also to have some knowledge of its National Monuments. There are 179 of them in Mauritius. Protected by the National Heritage Fund Act of 2003, nearly half of them are found in the capital, Port Louis. Mostly built by slaves or indentured labourers and their descendants during the French and British colonial rules, they now form part of the cultural heritage of the country and its history.
Below is a list of the more known ones. Unless otherwise noted, they are found in Port Louis:
Canal Dayot Aquaducts
Central Railway Station
Chien de Plomb
Cathedral Square Fountain
Ireland Blyth Stone Building
Line Barracks (Casernes Centrales)
Mauritius Institute Building (Museum)
Old Flour Mill
Old Gas Factory at Pleasure ground (now Badminton Centre)
Old Grand River North West Hospital
Old Military Hospital
Old Grand River North West Bridge
Old Post Office Building
Old Residence of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam
Old Supreme Court Building
Port Louis Municipal Theatre
Post Office Headquarters (ex-Civil Hospital)
Mercantile Bank Building (now HSBC)
Treasury Building (now Prime Minister’s Office)
Trou Fanfaron Police Station
Victoria Station (G.R.N.W.)
Château Mon Plaisir, Pamplemousses
Cimetiere des Esclaves, Pamplemousses
Ile de la Passe, Grand Port
Naval Museum, Mahebourg
Le Batelage Building, Souillac
Maison St. Aubin, St. Aubin
La Tour Koenig , Pointe aux Sables
Martello Tower, Black River
Carnegie Library, Curepipe
Town Hall, Curepipe
Royal College, Curepipe
Governour’s Residence , Reduit
Flacq District Court, Flacq
Rose Hill Post Office, Rose Hill
Plaza Theatre, Rose Hill
One can also find 5 of these historic buildings on the island of Rodrigues:
Cannon, Pointe Canon
Garde Poste, Mont Venus
ex- Administrative Block , Port Mathurin
Ben Gontron House, Port Mathurin
Residency Buildings, Port Mathurin
In addition to those listed above, there are also numerous statues, tombs, light-houses , old factories and other ruins, with some of them dating far back to the Portuguese and Dutch colonial times.
ARCHITECTURAL STUDIES IN MAURITIUS
Up to the nineties, anyone could exercise as architect in Mauritius when one could draw a few architectural drawings. However, this changed after the proclamation of the Professional Arhitects’ Council Act. From then on, only professionals registered by the said council can practice as architects.
At the moment there are a little more than 200 such architects. As one needs to study in a tertiary institution for at least five years before one can be registered by the council and as this was not possible in Mauritius till very recently all of them had to study in foreign universities.
Some years ago the University of Mauritius as well as the Mauritius University of Technology did offer a three-year Diploma Course in Architectural Studies but this has now been discontinued.
One could also obtain a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture from a Malaysian University by following its courses in a private Mauritian school and then continue with post-graduate studies at the Malaysian institution itself.
However, a new development did happen in 2016 when the French Ecole Nationale Superieure d’Architecture de Nantes opened a branch in the Medine Educational village in Mauritius. Known as ENSA Nantes Mauritius, its first courses started in October 2016 and it plans to take about 50 new students each year.