Posted by Karl Johnson on Jul 13, 2010
Related program: Haiti Rebuilding Center
Alex Duquelia looked aroud the classroom we were all sitting in and said "you see this construction is no good." He pointed at the walls that were built just three months ago "these are three feet too low" (they were 8' high) and up at the exposed roof truss "this does not support the ventilation we need to FEEL" and at the wide window opening he was facing, behind the rest of us "and this, the most senseless mistake: I stand here, see that and cannot see the faces of my students." Haiti may have started rebuilding, but a poorly designed school is almost reduced to impotence. Thankfully this was only a "transitional" school, in the sense of being a placeholder for a more ambitious campus plan–more specifically the campus of the Université Quisqueya ("UniQ"), where members of Architecture for Humanity were visiting architecture department students and staff. Alex headed the architecture department and was kind enough to receive us. The word on his lips: "patrimoine."
The problems in Haiti come from a lot of things. But fewer contractors would be venturing into architectural design if Haiti were able to retain more of her talented architects. The reality is, for graduated Haitian architects at least, there are more tantalizing places to be successful. Alex attributes some of this exodus of talent to a lack of awareness of the richness of Haitian culture. "Patrimoine" translates to respect and stewardship of cultural heritage. Perhaps a university stressing aspects of Haitian patrimoine and regional architecture could create a strong enough connection to bring more Haitian professionals back home.
Here Alex stresses the regional differneces between Cap Haitien and Jacmel, and even the way parts of Port-au-Prince had developed, before the concrete revolution of the mid-20th Century. He brings out his digital SLR and cycles through some photos: rural houses, some built entirely of 1" x 8" planks (exactly how was lost in translation), others employing thatch roofs (dramatically superior to tin roofs, Alex points out) and mentions a wide valley that's been building with bamboo. Unfortunately he says, the resources that make the rural buildings so rich and connected to the land cannot be scaled or made widely accessible to a city like Port-au-Prince. Especially considering the prevalence of the need to be connected, visually, to the modern world (cf. the neighbors blasting Lady Gaga last night), rural construction is not an urban option. Alex shakes his head. Port-au-Prince ought to build with more steel, like the Digicell tower (the 11-story goliath sitting at the foot of the hill beneath the University) but Haiti would have to import the steel. "No one's buliding a steel plant," he noted. "No one has even offered to build a cement plant." Perhaps another lapse in the reconstruction effort.
At any rate, solutions need to be "creative." And realistic. Alex sees the role of UniQ in promoting climate-sensitive, regionally responsive buildings to Haiti's recovery. He's been working on some ideas for schools. Here he pulls out some sketches. There are school blocks 7 meters deep and 20 meters wide. The interor walls are dashed. He describes how it responds the the Ministry of Educations recently released school construction standards. "Sometimes, for smaller classes, 50 sqare meters is too big. Why not have adjustable partitions then–you can have a 7.5 meter or 10 meter wide classroom [statisfying the 50 and 70 square meter classroom and laboratory space requirements, respectively], or have a 5 meter wide classroom for studios." His classroom blocks were arranged around a central covered outdoor structure. "There needs to be a place for kids to hang out." At UniQ, since the earthquake, students have been given to wander around and rest in unoccupied tent classrooms. As the University continues to rebuild, perhaps that will not much longer be a problem. But the University must hire architects for the job. "Of course I offered my designs" Alix says. "But they went with a faster solution." We jotted some notes. The air was still, but the sky had become hazy and the metal roof above us that might otherwise have been sizzling paid us no mind.
Alex's solutions aren't ambitious, but sensible. Solutions that Haiti needs. He has all the skills and knowledge necessary to build proper schools, just a lack of empowerment: his disappearing graduates, a country still too ignorant of its home-grown talent, maybe even the fervor itself to rebuild, trying to cut lead time in generating solutions. The schools themselves, and the comfort of its users, would be the victims in these conditions.
A solution presents itself in deliberate, effective design and construction. The kind of subtle trickle-up change that than collectively demonstrate the wherewithal of local resources–human and otherwise. It's a hard but necessary path to follow, and Architecture for Humanity is en route.