Disegno No.8

Haiti Revisited


11 May 2015

On 12 January 2010, Haiti was devastated by an earthquake. The earthquake measured 7.0 on the Richter scale and its epicentre hit 25km from Port-au-Prince, the country's capital. Around 300,000 structures were destroyed or damaged; at least 230,000 people were killed.

Five years on, Haiti's recovery is ongoing. Eighty per cent of its urban population still live in slums and 55 per cent of the country subsists on less than $1.25 a day. Some of these issues were looked at in Disegno No.8, in which we published Haiti Revisited: a photoessay of life in Port-au-Prince by the celebrated architecture photographer Iwan Baan.

Baan's photography of Haiti is also featured in Haiti Now, a recently published book about Haiti that has been complied by The Now Institute, an urban research center at UCLA Architecture and Urban Design in Los Angeles. The Now Institute was founded by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne.

Haiti Now is an almanac of photography, essays, statistics and analysis, all of which adds up to provide a portrait of the issues that still affect the Caribbean nation and the opportunities that it finds itself with. It examines the nation's history, politics, infrastructure, ecology, culture and society.

To mark the release of the book, Disegno is delighted to share one of its constituent essays, Bringing Down the Walls by Port-au-Prince-based architect and artist Nathalie Jolivert. To accompany this essay, published below, we are also republishing a selection of Baan's photographs, visible in the gallery at the top of the page. Baan's full photoessay may be seen in Disegno No.8.

“Port-au-Prince à l’époque, c’était la belle promenade!”

“Back then, Port-au-Prince was a beautiful promenade!”

Senior Haitian architect during a government meeting for the redevelopment of Downtown Port-au-Prince

In the aftermath of the earthquake of 2010, which struck Haiti and created widespread destruction, the Haitian government saw in this tragedy an opportunity to revitalize the Downtown area. Their redevelopment plan centers on using Downtown Port-au-Prince as precedent, using the guidelines set up by the Haitian government in a document they published in March 2010 titled “Haiti Tomorrow, Objectives and Strategies for Reconstructing the Country.” This essay traces the history of how the city of Port-au-Prince has gone from a place that fostered free interaction to the phenomenon of the tall-fenced properties that today characterizes its landscape. This essay sheds light on the consequences of the construction of fence walls and addresses ways that architectural practices could help revamp and promote the social dynamic needed for the redevelopment of the metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince.

Founded in 1749, the historic center of Port-au-Prince showcases an urban grid of tightly-knit mixed-use buildings, which until the 1950s, allowed for a fluid and vibrant exchange among people. In the historic center, remnants of the city’s golden days still exist, with tall arcades lining large covered sidewalks and forming multiple portals between the commercial buildings and the street life. However, decades of political instabilities and ensuing episodes of violence have severely affected the center, with business owners closing up shops and relocating. Nowadays, Downtown Port-au-Prince, which was severely damaged by the earthquake of 2010, has lost most of its businesses and its vibrant life. The few business owners who were brave enough to continue operating in that area have today moved to the neighboring cities of Delmas and Petion-Ville. Simultaneously, they have adopted the practice of building tall fence walls to protect themselves from mounting insecurities and robberies. Those walls, typically made of concrete modular units topped with barb-wire or glass shards, have transformed the properties they surround into fortresses. This phenomenon has effectively put a physical and virtual separation between the individuals it seemingly protects and the public realm.

This public realm includes a population that in the last 60 years has grown exponentially from 144,000 to 2.5 million. Over these six decades, the city has witnessed a huge influx of people from poor rural areas who have moved to Port-au-Prince in search of employment opportunities. Most of these individuals have settled in the slum villages sprawling outside of the city. The historic center of Downtown Port-au-Prince has been overwhelmed with informal merchants who have taken over the covered sidewalks. The overcrowding of these sidewalks has severely impacted the profits of the business locales by blocking easy access and by leaving them vulnerable to robberies. While most of the business owners have relocated, others have transformed their buildings into rental units for storage. The few businesses that still operate today in Downtown Port-au-Prince have limited their work time to daylight hours. At night, the downtown area thus becomes a ghost-town with very little street-life and only a few city lights to illuminate the area.

Business and property owners, who have deserted downtown Port-au-Prince, have moved their families to the suburbs of Port-au-Prince in the neighborhoods of Turgeau, Bas-Peu-de-Chose, Bois-Verna and Pacot. Those neighborhoods are well known for their concentration of Gingerbread houses: timber- frame colorful residential houses with generous gardens and architectural characteristics that respond well to the tropical climate. Their pitched roofs allow for quick drainage of rain water, and their multiple porches and large windows for proper ventilation. As the safety issues multiplied in Port-au-Prince, residents have built tall fence walls for protection. Post-earthquake, Gingerbread houses received much attention because they withstood the seismic forces better than the anarchical CMU constructions that followed their era. Prior to the earthquake, these very houses were kept invisible because of the walls that surround them. Haitian people have lost their ability to understand their architectural heritage. It quickly became a trend, for security practices, to build properties behind walls. This trend has expanded to the cities of Delmas and Petion-Ville and even further up to the hills of Kenscoff, with residents building their properties only after they have demarcated their land with tall fence walls.

With the construction of CMU fence walls, fear and doubts have also increased in the capital. The more people hid behind walls, the more they developed a fear to frequent the streets. With little respect for pedestrians, property owners have been building their walls beyond their property lines and taking over the sidewalks. Similarly, informal merchants have been setting up their goods on sidewalks, forcing pedestrians to squeeze between their stalls and vehicles. Sadly, during the earthquake those free-standing CMU walls built with little steel reinforcement were the very cause of many casualties as they collapsed on merchants and pedestrians. While property owners have been hiding away from the public realm, many crimes have occurred behind the walls because of lack of visibility on either side. Burglars could operate comfortably within, invisible to the police. All of the issues attached to the construction of CMU fence walls have drastically deviated from the original urban landscape of Port-au-Prince, which allowed for a better sense of community.

In its reconstruction report “Haiti Tomorrow,” the Haitian government aims to restore the city centers of Haiti by using the original Port-au-Prince grid as its model. The grid of streets of 15 m wide and urban blocks of up to 100 m x 100 m, offers a plan that allows for proper allocation of land. By reviving the construction of continuous arcades, this plan also promotes the idea of a fluid interaction between properties and their urban context. If successfully implemented, this initiative could help redefine how property owners perceive safety by recreating a sense of community. Port-au-Prince’s current period of political stability, and public security, offers a unique opportunity to promote the architectural characteristics that underlie these objectives.