Six months after the Haitian earthquake, the issue of emergency and transitional housing and the longer-term reconstruction of Haiti’s built environment is now at the fore.
In a powerful article by Gamaliel Eaton Frederick - ‘Is Haiti’s Vernacular Architecture Worth Investigating ?’ – he answers his own question with a resounding ‘Yes’. Gamaliel is the CEO and President of The American Institute for Educational Exchange and Global Integration Inc. which has a Haiti-Nouvelle: Planning and Development Consortium. (See his page on Haiti Rewired)
Frederick is concerned that many of the proposed plans for rebuilding Haiti being proposed by either architectural & building companies around the world or non-profit architectural organisation will provide ‘sub-standard alternative housing for Haitians’. He believes only vetted professional firms from Haiti and abroad should be invited to participate in this process. This should happen, he believes, in conjunction with a thorough investigation of Haiti’s existing vernacular buildings.
‘This is important because Haitian vernacular architecture has evolved over 200 years, it is sustainable and resilient. It utilizes local materials, mostly organic and biodegradable. We should apply modern technology and scientific expertise to design and improve the architectural technology native to Haiti which utilizes local materials before we implant new unsustainable design practices (if a practice is so alien to the population that they will not be able to implement it without extensive help from foreign professionals then it is not sustainable) and imported materials, which the developed world should be phasing out of in the first place.
‘Haitian Vernacular architecture can resist both earthquakes and hurricanes and it can be made to withstand high wind velocity or lateral loads. They are convenient for the country’s hot climate, cheaper to build, and they draw on the culture and way of life of Haitians…
‘In fact, in the Cul-de-Sac region, near Port-au-Prince, Haitians customarily build transitional smaller vernacular homes, while saving money to build a proper family home. The government should have a moratorium on building formal houses (typically concrete), while encouraging people who can afford it (and sponsoring those who cannot) to build 1 and 2 room traditional straw houses (kay clisse and kay vetive) on their respective plots. This would give us time to properly investigate and document Haitian vernacular architecture and devise the right way to improve it. Most importantly, this would be a viable alternative to tents. Such initiative would help employ locals, and sustain the livelihood we need during the massive reconstruction to follow.’
An incredibly valuable document in this regard is ‘Haitian Wisdom for Aid Buildings’ by Landscape Artist Patti Stouter [Pub. March 15th, 2010] Its available for download here: Haitian%20Wisdom.pdf
These are two of the main kinds of Haitian vernacular house styles:
‘The kay (or calle, meaning house) ‘was an
adaptation of West African earth dwellings to
new materials and conditions in Haiti. Although
used for slave shacks, it developed into an
architecture of defiance, coming to symbolize
pride and independence. This house type is most
prevalent in southern Haiti, where many freed
slaves first settled.’ Kays face the road end-on and usually consist of a line of 2-4 rooms but can be up to eight rooms long. The house grows to fit the demand as families expand. Many have porches added on one or both sides and L rooms can also be added on each side towards the rear, with a shed roof.
The Creole house: ‘In colonial Haiti it developed from a predominantly Spanish house style adapted with
some African influences to suit the tropical climate of the Caribbean. Creole houses were the homes of manor owners and
plantation managers. They were traditionally more
common in the northern areas of Haiti. The Creole house’s entrance is on the long side of the building.
The report contains the following wise advice:
USE APPROPRIATE MATERIALS
‘Much of the loss of life in the recent earthquake was related to the misuse of reinforced concrete. A material whose strengths can either be seen or intuitively understood is a better fit for the Haitian culture (as well as the cultures of many other parts of the developing world.) … Most Haitians are more oral than literate. The particular dangers of reinforced concrete arise from the mysterious technical standards it requires. Working with it on a job site either teaches a builder that he knows nothing and cannot build for himself, or it gives him a false sense that a rule-of-thumb understanding is good enough. Since most construction is done by building owners in a gradual, additive process, few professionals ever give advice. Reinforced concrete works for commercial and institutional buildings when carefully supervised. ‘
See Also: Haiti's Buildings Weren't Fit To Withstand Quakes by Christopher Joyce:
‘Haiti’s magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck a country whose buildings were barely built to engineering standards and were hopelessly fragile in the grip of such a strong quake. That's the assessment of Pierre Fouche, an earthquake engineer from Haiti — in fact, the country's only earthquake engineer, to his knowledge. ‘
Created By Kian Goh on May 19th, 2010 http://openarchitecturenetwork.org/projects/7313
The themes and issues discussed here surrounding the reconstruction of Haiti are prefigured by the situation in New Orleans as this article ‘Brad Pitt’s Houses: Good Intentions Gone Astray’ by Clem Labine on his blog ‘The Civitas Chronicles’, makes clear.
ALIEN FORM #1: This angular Modernist house, designed by Graft, a Los Angeles architecture firm, is one of the new homes built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation. The house is raised on piers to protect against the possibility of future flooding. The design, however, intentionally sets it apart from New Orleans’s architectural tradition. Photo: Virginia Miller for Make It Right Foundation
‘The Brad Pitt Houses in New Orleans’s devastated Ninth Ward are a frustrating example of what happens when buildings are considered as individual sculptural objects rather than as part of an urban ensemble. Brad Pitt has been extremely generous with his time and money in attempting to provide new homes for victims of Hurricane Katrina. And the houses resulting from his foundation’s well-intentioned efforts so far have made eye-catching photos for the design magazines.
But viewed in their context, unfortunately, many of the new homes are bad urbanism. The majority of the structures are alien forms plopped down into a city that already has a well-established look and a rich history of vernacular architecture. Many of the Brad Pitt houses built so far detract from the character of the place they are meant to help.’
HISTORIC PRECEDENT: This vernacular Shotgun House is typical of the historic architecture that gives New Orleans its style and flavor. It is puzzling why so many of the prototypes for the Lower Ninth Ward sponsored by the Make It Right Foundation have purposely distanced themselves from the city’s unique architectural character. Photo: Katherine Slingluff
Incidentally and finally, Shotgun houses are a refinement and development of the kay, brought to Lousiana by Haitian immigrants. It all connects.
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