To meet John Doak, a soft-spoken Scotsman with a dry sense of humour and somewhat laidback nature, you would perhaps not imagine that he is a foremost authority on Cayman’s historical buildings.
He is also a champion of preserving Caribbean edifices, and one heck of an award-winning architect.
One only has to look at his body of work, both here and abroad, to understand why he is sought after by clients looking to build a dream home or iconic office building.
In fact, his name in the industry is so recognised and respected, that those who reside in the manifestation of his designs proudly reveal “It’s a Doak”, at cocktail parties.
A newly graduated student from the Mackintosh School of Architecture in Glasgow, the fresh-faced young man arrived on the shores of the Cayman Islands in 1979.
Expressive eyebrows and a mop of curly hair perhaps hinted at the artist within, but it was when he joined OBM International (Onions Bouchard & McCulloch) that his creativity quickly became evident.
He remained with OBM as its international director of design and managing director until December 2000, opening his own firm – Cayman Style – in January 2001, later rebranded as John Doak Architecture.
The design process
There are many phases between concept and construction of a new home, but Doak says his favourite part of the process (and the most critical one) is the initial concept design stage.
“Most important for me is to discover the nuances and lifestyle of the family and create the solution that provides the owner with a design that they might never have dreamt of,” he says.
This also applies to renovations, which fall within his remit. They bring their own challenges and rewards.
When Doak is asked if he has a preference between creation from scratch or upgrading a property, he calls upon a comparison to which most can relate.
“It’s like asking whether I would prefer to create a baby or look after my ailing grandmother… both are quite different, but nonetheless gratifying experiences,” he says.
“I’ve done a number of complete restorations or rejuvenations of some very old buildings in Cayman. The joy that the preservation process brings is immeasurable but can best be expressed through the faces of its owners or users and from organisations that recognise excellence.”
In his first 20 years here, the architect’s main focus was designing office buildings and hospitality structures, but it later shifted to single family dwellings across the islands.
“Clearly, the private client has much more personal investment and financial involvement in all decisions and this, for me, is the more gratifying part of designing a home,” he says, appreciating that bricks and mortar become an integral part of a family’s life, over time.
Always respectful of “this place Cayman”, Doak strives to harness the islands’ natural gifts in order to enhance his creations.
“In 1988, I designed a perfectly square house on Queens Highway (that has actually become my most favourite house ever),” he says. “(It) was set at 45 degrees to the shoreline to capture the breeze and to provide its owner with 270-degree views of the reef-protected ocean.”
A hammock set up in the corner of the L-shaped veranda completed the Caribbean paradise.
“Thirty years later, I had the pleasure of completely rejuvenating the house,” Doak reveals. “Its owner insisted that the simplicity and charm of the house be preserved for all time, both for himself and those who would follow.”
When it comes to giving advice to those dipping their toes in the home-building world here, Doak is all about ‘hiring local’.
“Choose an architect who understands and cares for (the island),” he says. “Timeless and sustainable design is essential.”
If hiring someone from overseas is unavoidable, he adds, you should make sure they work in association with a Cayman-based architect who can provide local knowledge and expertise.
Doak’s love of Caribbean architecture is no secret, and he definitely plays favourites. In Cayman, Pedro St. James is second only to the building that now hosts the Cayman Islands National Museum on Harbour Drive.
“For me, this building is our Eiffel Tower, our Sydney Opera House or Empire State building, as it is the most iconic representation of our Cayman Islands,” he says.
In neighbouring Jamaica, the Great House at Good Hope really butters his rum. “Its setting, plantation history and stunning architecture combine to become the most iconic Georgian residence that I have ever had the good fortune to visit,” he says.
Artist and architect
Doak has always been very artistic, beyond the realms of architecture.
In the same early days that he was making a name for himself as a formidable talent in the industry, he became known for paper sculptures, depicting classic Cayman cottages with picket fences, palm trees and exotic plants.
“Back in the ‘90s, it appears I had the time and patience to craft Cayman scenes in white paper,” he says, adding that many encouraged him to create these now highly-collected works of art. Several feature in his new book, ‘Cayman Style’.
“From an early age, with my mum, who was an artist, and my dad, who was an architect, I’ve been able to convey ideas in three dimensions with a pencil, paint brush or using paper models,” he reveals. “Lego comes into play as well.”
He admits that he’ll probably never retire from handmade architecture, despite the advances in technology.
“Using your hands and crafting with models helps give an understanding of how things work or are crafted,” Doak explains. “I still can’t draw in AutoCAD or use three-dimensional computer modelling, but my team is hugely talented and intuitive when they translate all my hand-drawn sketches.”
Clearly, he is not looking to sit on his laurels anytime soon, but will there be future Doaks to carry on the family name in arts and architecture?
“I’m delighted to share and experience my love of architecture with my children and now grandchildren, who are themselves showing incredibly creative talents,” Doak says, proudly. “So, perhaps they will be the ones to perpetuate the family traditions.”
Originally published in InsideOut magazine issue Spring/Summer 2021.