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Two Years After Cataclysmic Quake, New Community Designs Take Shape in Haiti

AIA members and nonprofits help move Port-au-Prince from emergency disaster recovery to civic redevelopment

By Mike Singer

“The city is a legacy of architecture without architects, engineering without engineers, and buildings without builders,” says Patrick Delatour, Haiti’s former minister of tourism, and now chair of the Haitian Presidential Commission for Reconstruction.

He is referring to Port-au-Prince, a city built for 250,000 with a population now nearing 3 million. It grew without master planning, strong building codes, or the seismic-tested materials needed to withstand the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that leveled much of the Haitian capital on Jan. 12, 2010. Now, nearing the two-year anniversary of the quake, Delatour, a preservation architect, is working with other architects to re-envision and rebuild Port-au-Prince and other nearby Haitian cities close to the quake epicenter.

The challenges are daunting in this country of nearly 10 million: More than 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, with adult literacy at about 60 percent. The worldwide economic debt crisis has reduced the amount of foreign aid flowing in. There’s a shortage of building materials able to withstand hurricanes and earthquakes, and a great need for training and building codes that can produce sustainable results.

Yet even as 500,000 people continue to live in nearly 1,000 tent cities scattered around Port-au-Prince (down from an estimated 1.5 million following the quake), the country is slowly moving from an aid-and-rescue approach towards comprehensive redevelopment. More than 50 percent of the earthquake debris (about 5 million cubic meters) has been cleared, and significant new cultural institutions, schools, and housing projects have reached their final design phases—with AIA members playing key roles as architects, planners, and builders.

Filling a spiritual void

Consider, for example, the neoclassical design of Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, one of Haiti’s leading cultural and religious institutions. The quake destroyed 70 percent of the buildings in the church’s Port-au-Prince complex (which dates back to 1861), leaving a large vacuum in the spiritual and cultural life of the world’s most populous Episcopalian diocese.

Peter Grina, AIA, of Grina Architects in Washington, D.C., is working with Delatour and Haitian architect Harold Gaspard on a four-block campus that will include a new cathedral with a dome inspired by Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The complex also will include an elementary school, professional and trade school, small convent, music school, concert hall, theatre, and museum. The U.S. Episcopal Church has pledged millions to build the complex through its Rebuild Our Church in Haiti initiative.

The project will include several world-renowned Bible scene murals that were painted in the early 1950s by Haitian artists and were salvaged from the cathedral’s falling walls. During the past two years, the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project, a partnership of the Smithsonian Institution and Haiti’s government, has restored them, along with more than 30,000 other works of art. “The murals are now in temporary storage, with plans still in discussion on where to incorporate them in the new design,” says Grina, whose design also includes a memorial park on the site of the original now-razed cathedral.

The Episcopal campus is the first major design project within the new master plan for downtown Port-au-Prince developed by Andrés Duany, FAIA, founding principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk. Duany’s Plan Centerville, an area of 25 blocks, took shape following design charettes with government officials, developers, residents, and other stakeholders in 2011. The master plan includes rebuilt government offices and the iconic Presidential Palace destroyed by the quake. The plan also provides a yet-to-be-adopted building code, as well as a proposed headquarters for a downtown redevelopment authority.

Duany and Grina’s recent work comes upon the heels of hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours over the past two years by design and building professionals who have helped clear rubble, assess building conditions for safety, and completed small-scale rebuilding projects. Nearly 400,000 structures in Port-au-Prince alone were tagged as red (uninhabitable), yellow (needs repairs), or green (safe). Nonprofits such as Architecture for Humanity, All Hands Volunteers, Habitat for Humanity, and the Pan American Development Foundation have hosted dozens of architect volunteers, with the AIA’s Disaster Response Task Force helping to coordinate two volunteer missions in early 2010. Janine Glaeser, AIA, volunteered in July 2010 with the Seattle chapter of Architects Without Borders. In a video, she recounts the painstaking work of telling residents whether or not it was safe to return to their homes.

A measure of progress

As more Haitians move out of tents and into safer permanent housing, there is a drive to ensure that the next generation of Haitian buildings stand up to future calamities by training locals to use better construction techniques. Noushin Ehsan, AIA, founding chair of the AIA New York Global Dialogues Committee, formed the Haiti Housing Collaborative with the goal of incorporating design ideas from an international community of architects and teaching Haitians how to build for themselves. Last year, over 150 designs for low-cost single-family homes were submitted by architects from dozens of countries and vetted by an international jury. AIA New York is raising funds to construct the homes, and guidelines have been established to determine who gets to live in the first homes that will be built, starting this month. “We want to build sustainable homes, pass on construction skills, and bring hope for the future,” Ehsan says.

In Leogane, 26 miles from Port-au-Prince, where one nonprofit just finished building its 20th school, Nathaniel Harrold, building projects director for All Hands Volunteers, underscores how his architect volunteers both constructed quality buildings and changed lives. “Volunteering here changes perspectives on what architects can do in service to themselves and to the greater world,” Harrold says. “Two years on, our streets are blocked by construction supplies instead of by rubble, and that is a wonderful thing.”


Model of Haiti’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral complex. Image courtesy of Grina Architects.

Comprising a study area of 200 hectares, Duany Plater-Zyberk’s Plan Centreville plan addresses infrastructure, parks, and transportation; provides prototypical plans for governmental, cultural, religious, and educational institutions; and provides a design code. Image courtesy of DPZ & Co. and The Prince's Foundation.

Ti Kwen Paradi is one of the four final Haiti Housing Collaborative home designs. Image courtesy of Li Wang.


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Visit the AIA’s Disaster Resources website.

Do you know the Architect’s Knowledge Resource?

The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to the audio presentation “Shelter after the Disaster—The Alternative Housing Pilot Program.”

See what else the Architect’s Knowledge Resource has to offer for your practice.


Back to AIArchitect January 6, 2011

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