Abiding Architecture: 10 days, 26 People, 4 Projects, 11 Languages, 1 site–Titanyen, Haiti–Part III : Us and Them

By: Marie Aquilino

Two days after we arrived the American team pulled in and unloaded dozens of duffle bags full of supplies and power tools from two white Avis 4x4s. Our team had become accustomed to the quiet.

We were working with relatively inexpensive ephemeral materials and improbable shapes in a studious process that required some pounding and sawing but was mainly a series of gestures and short instructions measured by lots of focused alone time sewing, tying, knotting, steadying. Cord was our only high-tech tool.

Hortense tying knots for merengue

Hortense tying knots for merengue

Putting a little muscle into the work at the Montesinos Foundation

Putting a little muscle into the work at the Montesinos Foundation

The Americans had a cement mixer, their own generator, and tools that could slice through and weld steel. They worked on the detailed fittings for a luxurious trellis system that would flare out from in front of the girl’s dormitories, capturing rainwater and providing permanent shade, (but only after they cut out the existing structure, which, if admittedly a poor cousin to their design, had been installed only two weeks earlier).

Welding

Welding

It would be easy to applaud the artisans and criticize the industrialists. But their bit of building is, in fact, smart and well-thought out. Yes, the kids adored our quirky shapes. But: bamboo is still an expensive, finicky material in Haiti; and although our structures can be repaired or duplicated–we left lots of extra materials behind–would anyone bother to patch the seams, retie the knots, replace the bamboo, or experiment with material options for the fun of it? Or would they simply become damaged and avoided like so many carcasses in Titanyen. We have our answer. The sea shells collapsed in 24 hours. No matter where we tried to place them, the wind was a threat. The bamboo poles quickly lost their covers to the gusts so the sun turned them into brittle and dangerous long sticks that succumbed to gymnastics. And the Nid has cracked and split in places. In spite of the children’s love for our aliens, three months later no one has taken on the repairs or investigated alternatives.

Finished roof for the veranda of the girls’ dormitory

Finished roof for the veranda of the girls’ dormitory

Sure, it would seem that by comparison the American team relied on heavy equipment, used lots of energy, built in more expensive materials and with a complicated design. But theirs will last. There is no risk that the wind will rip out the welds or skew the form. The verandas in front of the girls’ dormitories will provide predictable, lasting, dependable shade that will also add a slight advantage to the water budget. We could wish that the Americans had worked with one of the Haitian families that controls the steel or cement business, redoing their molds or simply providing local business; but this is not a seamless process and success is often determined by certain exclusions.

 

Perhaps the question of artisans vs. industrialists is not the one that matters most deeply. The comparison leads us away from what is truly at stake. Perhaps the question is better stated as: what in the world is the role of architecture schools in long-term recovery? After three years of working in Titanyen, which has been a rare and extraordinary privilege that has led to friendships, being blessed and sung to, and to having our hair braided, what can we say of value about our role in a project that has shifted radically over the six semesters.

Caroline having her hair braided

Caroline having her hair braided

 

Girls dancing at our going away party

Girls dancing at our going away party

First we need to acknowledge our limits.

1) We are not operational. Period.

Our academic calendars, schedules, priorities and mandates, along with the ways in which we privilege what students should learn as, say, fourth-year candidates, as opposed to what they need to know in the field, make it nearly impossible to respond to a crisis in a timely, efficient or consistent manner. The University of Minnesota deals with this reality by sending a small group of graduate students down to Port-au-Prince for eight weeks every year to work with Architecture for Humanity’s ongoing projects. They show up and get to work advancing the more urgent commitments, put their design egos aside and help out. This is still a project-based approach with architecture leading many of their interventions, but at least they are working in the context of a group that has been on the ground long enough in Haiti to know what’s going on.

 

I am currently testing an approach that takes ongoing build projects from international disaster recovery agencies with little time to reflect or experiment. I give them to a group of advanced seminar students. If we invest ourselves in long-term solutions rather than urgent maneuvers, our students have the time, tools, materials and energy to ponder and test solutions that the busy, understaffed agencies (whether one of the big guns or a small office) with far too little time to think, no less reflect, would ever consider. We give our proposals back to the “clients” and they develop them in ways they see fit, or not. Though much of this collapses into architecture, we have the license to work with partial solutions, rethink bad endings, and profit from good processes and hindsight.

 

And, of course, Sergio Palleroni (our American partner, who will post his blog spot separately) has been leading design/build studios around the world for more than twenty years.

 

But now more than ever, I personally feel that it is better to put our interns in government offices for a month, where they will have far more exposure to how policy and money work, than to give them isolated projects. This view has been a hard sell to the administrators of an architecture school. Ariel Claudet, now a Masters’ student at ESA, managed to slip in and spend a month with the UCLBP, which will eventually become Haiti’s Ministry of Housing. His blog post is forthcoming.

 

2) Our students benefit in every way.

This is not to say that developing a sound pedagogic program in recovery and disaster mitigation is easy or obvious. It is not. Only that short of getting malaria or being abducted our students benefit: The limited resources and difficult contexts encourage them to think well beyond their studios; the opportunity to design, build and finish structures with the community makes them humble and nervous; and the often trying circumstances force them to confront who they are as human beings. It’s a no-brainer.

 

The benefit, however, is wildly lopsided; as it is far more difficult to benefit, truly benefit, the communities with which we work. At Montesinos, even the lovely verandas with their seats and swings only benefit the girls at the site; the vast, open spaces that remain between the primary classrooms and the refectory are still hot and desolate.

 

A better measure of our impact may be to return to the questions with which I started this series.

 

Have we provided the help that is needed?

 

Yes and no. Yes in that the combined American and French teams have provided master plans, designs, models, prototypes, planting strategies and catalogues full of information–a sort of working vocabulary–that could help the Montesinos Foundation animate the site according to an internal logic that would render it more resilient and independent over the next five years. And, of course, the small shaded area in front of the girls’ dormitories dramatically underscores not only the desperate need for shade at the site but the challenges warming climates pose to relief agencies if we continue to think in terms of short-term fixes.

 

No, in that the ability to interpret and apply our work in Haiti by the people living and working at the Foundation is not at all supported by our process. We come and go, and during our long absences we are largely forgotten. There are, after all, other pressing matters. We presented our work, but we never established routine education in site management.  There is no consistent means with which to understand our proposals, formulate the choices that the work suggests, or organize an approach and stick to a planning process that would benefit from our three years with the Foundation. Instead of addressing what to finish and to what degree, we provided the options without creating the skills to judge them. And even if we had, I would return to my commitment that training is not education. So we retreated to pedagogy and institutional guidelines, ignoring the exigencies of the priorities that can be established. What options and choices exist really, pragmatically speaking? Apart from having made important connections for Father Charles, and these are based in personal friendships and not particularly part of formal strategy, what have we left him with? I will come back to this question in a few months, after our final visit there as fellows in the Spring.

 

Did we add value?

 

Again, yes and no. No, because we continue to argue for architecture; though this is not entirely wrongheaded. There is a desperate need to see what dreams look like when they emerge and take shape in a landscape. What is disquieting is that architecture still leads our process rather than following the clues and emerging from the competing exigencies of the land, agriculture, money and good governance (and here I mean management). In spite of everything we have learned, we still privilege architectural solutions when, in fact, whether in steel or bamboo, they aren’t so much solutions as they are eccentricities.

The sea shells the day after they were installed

The sea shells the day after they were installed

Yes, if we follow through by addressing the true material exigencies of the region and think about things like the supply chain. Our limited budget forced the American team to use a thinner steel that was dramatically less expensive, but they then worked out a design that guarantees a certain resilient, viable solution. The steel is Haitian. Our desire to use cord and textiles was not mistaken, but we didn’t go nearly far enough to ask: what materials are truly needed in Haiti; what materials need to be highly performant and invested in; how can we correct the erroneous supply chain to privilege strategic investments that would favor advances, for example, in textiles and cord and local steel, instead of leaving people with so few options? Where, indeed, should we innovate and with what evidence? How do we help educate local communities, address the government, work with universities and local professional centers to develop new protocols or trade secrets and insights that would change the logic of materials supply, demand and distribution?

Underneath the veranda

Underneath the veranda

And yes too, if we eventually succeed in inserting the program into a larger, regional agenda that will guarantee safe water access while radically diminishing the Foundation’s water costs.

 

Marie Aquilino

Paris, February 2014

 

All photo credits go to Marc-Antoine Galup except the Finished Roof, and  Finished veranda with bench and swing by The Center For Public Interest Design.