Rebuilding from below the bottom: Haiti


The devastation of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on 12 January 2010 makes this issue of especially pertinent, and the subsequent earthquake in Chile shows that strategies to rebuild after each crisis must be very different. Jayne Merkel and Craig Whitaker argue that, although there is much to be learned from previous disasters, no single response pertains. In Haiti, international architectural talent and expertise are irrelevant – even undesirable – until the social, cultural and political factors that helped devastate this once verdant and prosperous land are better understood. It is important to move slowly at first in order to go faster later.

We Americans are not good at summoning the patience for intelligent planning. Nine years after September 11th, Ground Zero remains an open construction site, and the nearest subway station is still closed. Meanwhile, hundreds of buildings – apartment towers, offi ces, schools and art galleries – have been built privately nearby and around New York.

The Twin Towers were an attempt to revitalise Lower Manhattan, but the World Trade Center never became prime offi ce space. Floors were leased to government agencies. Space was offered to artists free of charge. The towers themselves were neither beloved nor profi table. Only a hotel and underground shopping mall were making much money. Minoru Yamasaki’s lacy, fl at-topped monoliths stood on a barren superblock – a mocking rebuke to small historic lanes and obliterated street life.

So when the towers went down, architects, planners, private citizens, civic groups, various government agencies, developers and grieving relatives rushed forward with proposals for rebuilding. The outpouring was as much to prove that we could do it better as it was to honour the dead. There were some who called for re-erecting the towers – to show the terrorists that we could undo the damage – but most offered suggestions (and there were thousands) to use the tragedy as an opportunity.

Proposals ranged from sensible plans for re-establishing small blocks to turning the whole site into a park. Exotic architectural fantasies abounded. A call for suggestions on how to proceed quickly turned into a competition to select a master plan that became an architectural beauty contest. Most of the entries were unfeasible: nevertheless, a stunning cluster of shard-shaped glass towers by Studio Daniel Libeskind was named the winner. Before the design could be developed, however, other players emerged: the private developer who had leased the publicly owned World Trade Center towers only weeks before they toppled, his architects (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill), victims’ families who wanted to build memorials, and neighbourhood groups who wanted stores and apartments.

The Venice Architectural Biennale, an event usually devoted to the latest word in architectural style, exhibited additional ideas in 2002. But nothing happened. Years passed while the developer sued his insurance company, various interests tried to censor ideas for proposed museums, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the site, began planning offi ce buildings. Ground Zero became a political football, a free-for-all. Today one tower is inching forward, and infrastructure for the memorial is under construction, but the rest of the site is empty.

In New Orleans, fi ve years after Hurricane Katrina created the largest natural disaster in American history, thousands of displaced residents are still living in trailers or in other cities. The levees that had been faultily built by the US Army Corps of Engineers have only been partially repaired. The city, vulnerable before the hurricane, remains so.

Soon after that disaster, architects from around the US began fl ocking to New Orleans to offer their services and ideas. They held competitions for new designs to replace the lost buildings. In 2006, the American Pavilion at the Venice Architectural Biennale showcased ideas for rebuilding New Orleans.

This display described the history and topography of the city, noted every hurricane, and when the levees were built and repaired. It even discussed the racial make-up of the city, showing how disasters had changed the demographics. It also, of course, contained interesting, innovative ideas for rebuilding New Orleans. The exhibit was intriguing, but unable to facilitate much reconstruction.

The following year, actor Brad Pitt, an architectural enthusiast frustrated by the slow pace of rebuilding, created the Make It Right Foundation and commissioned 21 distinguished architects from all over the world to design 150 innovative, affordable, ‘green’ houses. So far just 15 have been completed. Although they were inspired by the indigenous ‘shot-gun’ houses, few resemble their neighbours. Habitat for Humanity, the volunteer house-building charity promoted by former president Jimmy Carter, has built more houses (77 at last count) and fi ve duplexes for the elderly, but progress is slow. And the problem that caused the disaster in the fi rst place – inadequate fl ood control – has still not been solved.

In Haiti, at least 200,000 people died (the estimated number varies widely) and millions were displaced by an earthquake of 7.0 on the Richter scale although 20 years earlier one of a similar magnitude in San Francisco killed only 68 people, and a quake of 8.8 (500 times greater than Haiti’s) killed some 700 people in Chile in February this year. But in these places, modern building codes were the norm. The few structures that did crumble in Chile (and were featured on the TV news) were the result of a ‘development frenzy of the last decades that allowed a degree of relaxation of the proud building standards of this country’, as Chilean architect Sebastian Gray pointed out in The New York Times in March.

Clearly, rebuilding in Haiti should conform to modern building codes (the existing ‘code’ is only two pages long), but it must be done largely by Haitians. It is not as if this expertise doesn’t exist in Haiti. Even though 60 per cent of educated Haitians emigrated in the 1960s, 40 per cent are still there. As Haitian-American New York architect Nicole Hollant-Denis has pointed out: ‘These are people like Cornell-trained architects.’2 Hollant-Denis and Rodney Leon, both of AARIS Architects, won the competition to design the African Burial Ground National Monument in Lower Manhattan in 2004 (dedicated in 2007). Hollant-Denis is a member of a committee of the National Organization of Minority Architects working on appropriate responses to the Haitian crisis.

Nigerian-born, Brooklyn-based architectural designer and publisher Atim Oton, another member of the committee, says ‘everything is on the table, including rebuilding much of what was Port-au-Prince in another location’.3 She anticipates an academic conference to explore the course of Haiti’s future. Thinking and talking fi rst is clearly essential. Before rebuilding can occur, rubble must be cleared, property rights understood, streets and roads laid, utilities, if not provided, at least planned for. It is much more than a job for foreign architects with bright ideas sent from afar.

Yet, while Haitians were still clearing the rubble, mourning their dead, and frantically trying to restart little businesses, former president Bill Clinton was announcing that his foundation was hiring John McAslan + Partners to oversee rebuilding, and American architects were coming up with schemes and planning competitions to develop new ideas.

McAslan had been working in Haiti for years as part of the Clinton Global Initiative, and he recognises the complexity of the task. Also, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledges: ‘We cannot be making decisions for people and their futures without … giving them the opportunity to be as involved and make as many decisions as possible.

Also within weeks of the tragedy, Miami architect Andrés Duany had designed an ‘inexpensive and nearly indestructible 6 metre (8 x 20 foot) little blue-and-aqua hut made of space-age materials to be produced by a Miami company offering to donate a thousand such huts to homeless Haitian families. Duany said they had lined up $15 million in investment capital to build a factory in Haiti that could produce 10,000 houses a year and employ up to 400 Haitians. But no one knows where homes would be built, the size of the lots they would occupy, and within what kind of town plan. Each house, intended for the very poorest Haitians, is to cost between $3,000 and $4,000, though the vast majority of Haitians earn $660 a year (according to UNICEF research).

In February, Gavin Browning, believing ‘response to human suffering is a mandate’, set up an architectural competition with some colleagues in his Columbia University studio to ‘brainstorm for quick responses to current events’ in Haiti. He hoped to create ‘a democratic and participatory forum for designers to engage with the issue that architects are trained to address’.5 But Cameron Sinclair, the co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, who has substantial experience with disaster relief, believes ‘unproven concepts can be a distraction to the task at hand. During the recovery and reconstruction phase it is better to focus on implementing pragmatic solutions that support the local community to rebuild their lives, than to air-drop solutions on them.

Fundamental questions need answers. As the 59.6 million cubic metres (78 million cubic yards) of rubble are cleared, can any be put to economic use? Could it make underwater reefs for fi shing or the tourist industry? Are there toxic materials to be sorted? Is the steel worth retrieving? Where will all the front-end loaders, trucks and barges come from? Can aid givers train heavy equipment users? Who chooses where to start rebuilding?

Might a new plan with different street patterns be superimposed on Port-au- Prince? Much of the city is a crazy quilt of irregular lots and small lanes like central London was in 1666. After the Great Fire of

For the immediate future, masonry buildings will be the norm as they are throughout the Caribbean. But most Haitian masonry is shoddy, made with too much sand and too little cement. Must the concrete used in public projects be tested, as it is in most cities? Will that require another training programme?

that year, King Charles II rejected plans for a more modern city, moving quickly to rebuild the streets as they were. Architectural historians have long faulted him for doing so – especially since one of the plans was by Christopher Wren. But the king recognised a more pressing need. The site of the fi re was the centre of the English munitions industry. To him the choice – between waiting to redefi ne the street patterns with grand allées, and quickly resupplying the British military – was clear.

If present Haitian property boundaries remain, those advocating ‘innovative’ housing, as so many did after Hurricane Katrina, cannot expect that one or two ‘model’ homes will become the norm. There may be hundreds, even thousands of new buildings, all different. Are there water, sewer, gas, telephone and electrical lines beneath the rubble? Where should future utilities go? Are new easements needed? Most Haitians harvest rainwater, but it doesn’t rain every day. Is there a common source of drinking water? A wise old bureaucrat once told us: ‘Let me control the pipes and wires and I control the city.

With these questions under study, we may be ready to build, but Haiti doesn’t have an adequate building code. How can aid recipients be required to build to an earthquake-resistant standard that doesn’t yet exist? How long will it take to write and test regulations? Who will inspect? Do we need to train new offi cials? To wait for a code that will often be ignored may seem like benumbing delay, but the benefi ts of assigning responsibility for potential future loss of the many rebuilt buildings – hotels, resorts, UN headquarters – is considerable.

Would an insurance company pay if buildings do not meet current earthquake standards? Finally the day arrives when trucks are unloading concrete and reinforcing bars. (Some might also be unloading wooden joists and lightweight panels, but that is less likely since most Haitian forests have long been denuded. Perhaps lumber from the US and Canada could help? But then Haiti would need a new generation of builders adept at pounding nails rather than mixing cement.) For the immediate future, masonry buildings will be the norm as they are throughout the Caribbean. But most Haitian masonry is shoddy, made with too much sand and too little cement. Must the concrete used in public projects be tested, as it is in most cities? Will that require another training programme?

Inadequate reinforcement is also common, as jagged stands of concrete block walls show. Can Haiti produce steel reinforcement? If not, can steel become a major form of relief from abroad? Much of the aid supplied to war-torn Europe through the Marshall Plan came from American sources and manufacturers. Perhaps Haiti, in a most ironic way, can become another job stimulus programme for the US. And, someone should decide soon if arriving supplies will be specifi ed in metres or in feet and inches – not an idle question.

Another early issue to be addressed is the weight of the buildings themselves. Photographs of the rubble show some building slabs up to 40 centimetres (16 inches) thick. An American fl oor slab might be six inches. Clearly the death toll was exacerbated by extra tons of falling concrete, as well as poor foundations and substandard columns. Some good buildings could come from this, but urban Haiti is not the place for experiments. No architectural competitions, no gallery shows. Exhibits of innovative ideas, like those that sprung up after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, are asking Haitians to eat cake. No ‘zoots’ and ‘whiz-bangs’. Just a simple home Haitians can build themselves, one for which they can choose the colours and the decoration. If ever Robert Venturi’s dictum of a ‘decorated shed’ had resonance, it is in Haiti now.

Some historic precedents come to mind. The Campground in Oak Bluffs, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, started in the 19th century as a Methodist summer tent city. As its popularity grew, people started building little houses. All are similarly sized with similar roof pitches, but the invention of the scroll saw allowed builders to fashion exotically shaped rake boards and window trim. Different paint colours and different decoration created hundreds of unique houses from a single model.

The three suburban American Levittowns begun in 1947 were once reviled for their identical ‘ticky-tacky’ boxes. Sixty years later, the houses have dormers, different shutters, screened porches, brick fronts and shrubbery. Now one of the towns is about to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some Haitian-Americans believe Portau- Prince should not be rebuilt. Designed to house 25,000, the city had grown to 2 million people. The centre of the historic capital will probably be reconstructed, but smaller settlements with central squares,

like those in other Haitian cities, might house former residents more comfortably in less earthquake-prone areas. Pierre Fouche, a Haitian earthquake engineer studying in the US, explained that people move to Port-au-Prince from smaller towns for jobs and education.8 Surely some colleges and businesses could be relocated to accessible new towns nearby.

Hollant-Denis suggests that squares in new towns might even be memorials to the Haitians who died in the earthquake, many of whom were not given proper burials: ‘What professionals need to consider is some kind of “green” response. In Haiti, the memorialization of death is very important. Cemeteries are like little cities. Maybe something like that could be done in the new town squares.

She also wonders whether rebuilding could offer opportunities to explore African heritage, since 90 per cent of Haiti’s citizens trace their roots to the Ibo tribe. Haiti was the fi rst country in the Caribbean to achieve independence, yet its architecture still refl ects European sources.

In many rubble-free open areas, there is an opportunity for change. Tent cities are already sprouting in parks and fi elds. What if you built one model area: not a town, not a city, but a prototype, a hundred hectares, maybe less, something small to study and learn from? We would start with tents because everything else would take time. Many questions have yet to be answered. Someone must have site control, decide how large the lots will be and how to award title – a process fraught with politics. Perhaps initially a single aid agency can make these decisions without a non-functioning government partner. The Rockefeller Foundation did this in the Philippines in the 1960s when it created the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Filipino agronomists had been fi ercely defensive of a local variety that, when fertilised, grew taller and fell over, so after many fruitless discussions, IRRI, on its own land, created its own new strain of rice with fi ve times the yield. The dispute disappeared.

Since governance has long been a problem, Haiti might be a good place for one of the ‘charter cities’, similar to Hong Kong, that economist Paul Romer envisions, created by partnership with a fi rst world country that establishes fi rst world rules for people who agree to move there and abide by them.10 With sticks and string we can mark off boundaries. How big should a lot be? Many Haitian families have eight or nine children who sleep on straw mats in shifts. Can we plan for less crowded conditions later by creating a stair to a yet-to-be built second fl oor? The Caribbean is littered with onestorey houses sprouting reinforcing rods from the roof, suggesting that a second storey often comes later.

Trucks will deliver concrete and reinforcing bars as tents become houses. Buildings must face lanes wide enough to allow delivery, and eventually fi re trucks and ambulances. Families lucky enough to own a car will park it there too. Today, traffi c is not organised; any vehicle can go on any street. Can these problems be alleviated in rebuilding? Are alleys a good idea? They were in many American cities. Alleys could accommodate utilities. Manhattan’s planners decided against alleys and to this day garbage goes out the same front door through which the groceries arrive.

Many Haitian houses have front porches, so they may need to be set back from the lane. This means longer lots. Should the houses be freestanding? Since security is a serious problem, should a pilot project have a wall around it like a typical Haitian house, or share a party wall? Where will parks, playgrounds, markets and schools be located, even if they come much later?

When all these things have been decided, we might be ready to invite in the architects.

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