"Wow, we're really up there," Kate Evarts allowed. "This is incredible." The increasingly dramatic view out over the basin of Port-au-Prince below us certainly made up for the painfully rugged road. Nevertheless, John Engle's SUV powered over the yellowish rocks. "I bet you really go through some tires down here," Jeremy Butler-Pinkham, of BAR Architects, added. John replies unflappably that, while they're wearing down, he's had this set of high-end Michelin tires for about 18 months. It's worth the investment.
We're riding up to Marianman, a mountainside community a few miles beyond town. The community has needed a new school for its growing population–one that can reduce children's walks by a couple miles and establish an economic foundation for Marianman. The design is being headed by a rotating team of architects from the BAR office in San Francisco, working closely with Architecture for Humanity's Haiti office. Jeremy had just arrived a few days prior, his first task being a design update for the Marianman community. BAR has since January extensively studied the (quite picturesque) site, developed the school's program and site plan, as well as some building typologies. A lot of development went into structural concepts and some adjustments were made to the plan since the last meeting late in March.
So Jeremy powered through the end of the week on presentation slides and sketchup model adjustments, through meals and movie nights (he promises us he's not usually so anti-social). He needed to reposition and resize an open-air auditorium building that would make more space for a central play field. "Only the middle of the site is flat," he showed me, "we need to take as much advantage of it as possible." From this central area the site slopes away dramatically on three sides. The designs call for several different terraces for the classroom buildings and agriculture program.
Terraced sites mean a lot of stairs, but for a school that's not such a bad thing. Kate, our education design expert, will be the first to tell you that this "spatial variety" is simply delightful for kids and create opportunities for learning to happen between classrooms. Of course, landscaping, gardens, material variety and art all also play to our inspirations, and these elements find a place in BAR's design as well.
The SUV turns through a little valley, passing an enormous gabion retaining wall. It's an amazing feat of civil engineering, considering the project was excavated and installed by hand by maybe a dozen men, and simply unexpected out here in the woods. "Somebody realized Tabarre was downstream," John tells us, "and no one likes the possibility of an inundated American Embassy." Gabions, huge cages of rocks, are synonymous with erosion control here, even if a creek only sees water once every few years like this one does. John's lived in the area long enough to know this river's habits. Otherwise the bed's a wide, furrowed chute of chalky stone, not unlike our road.
The church that is hosting the community meeting rests on a good hilltop perch at the end of a steep driveway. We stop there briefly for John to talk with the priest and verify times. Apparently there was another meeting in the main hall that needed to wrap up, so John decided to show us the site first, a bit farther up the road. This trip was quick as Jeremy, despite his never seeing it, was quite familiar with the land. I myself had been in January with one of his colleagues and noticed now how a large vegetable garden emerged where the auditorium was going to be.
Gabions had been considered by BAR as an inexpensive alternative for what the community considered, with increasing insistence, a priority of walling the site. The need for security is no surprise to John, who recognizes that Haitians feel much more comfortable if a property is walled and windows are barred, as opposed to how we might associate those things as oppressive. Perimeter walls are pretty standard in Haitian construction, and there's no easy way to get around the cost of the impenetrable materials going into them. Gabions, for their bulk and matter-of-fact association with water turn out not to be a serious option–and neither are vegetative walls, like the cactus ones you tend to see surrounding rural houses. Through our discussion today though the team might have settled the point of walling the side facing the street in block or rock, and finding a lighter-weight solution to follow around the less-developed sides of the property.
These security needs also present interesting contradictions for a school expressing individuality and openness. BAR envisions classrooms that can open up completely to natural light, views, breezes and the wider world. And they see these rooms alternately closing again with collapsing metal gates fabricated by a local craftsperson.
The second thing John lists that Haitians tend to put on a new site: an underground cistern for rain water. Sure enough questions came up following the presentation–where will the cisterns be? Will they catch rain water? And for that matter, what about wind power? Somewhat delighted by the enthusiasm, Jeremy and John (who was interpreting English/Creole) assured that rainwater would be collected, though they may have underestimated the volume the campus could collect. In Haiti, literally, when it rains it pours. Captured rain water, supplemented in the driest months by water trucks and composting latrines, can reduce plumbing needs to zero.
The community also talked energetically about economic sustainability and agriculture. There was much interest raised in terracing vegetable plots down the slope and the connections John's been making with a local hydroponics group (hydroponics is the latest rage in Haiti, especially in urban rooftop applications). But several community members took the discussion into the bigger picture–taking crops like peanuts and mangoes and processing them into durable butters and chutneys. These ideas may not be directly related to school design, but the economic future of Marianman is certainly a long-term objective the project presented.
More information, including project slides and development progress reports, are available on the Childrens Academy project page on the Open Architecture Network.
The BAR architects are also keeping a blog of their cascading tenures in Haiti. John Engle also writes for his organization, Haiti Partners, blogging about the community side of the school.
Good ol' meeting notes (pdf)