Architects are making slow but steady progress in this troubled Caribbean nation, over two years after a deadly earthquake leveled countless buildings and left more than a million homeless.
Herv' Sabin, now 35 years old, fondly recalls his childhood in Port-au-Prince, where he spent his days studying, playing soccer, and watching films at the neighborhood movie theater. The streets were clean; the city felt safe. “I had everything a kid could want,” he says, noting that he was oblivious to the rising political tension that spurred countless Haitians to flee the country. “I didn’t really see it.” As conditions worsened under a military regime, Sabin migrated to the United States in 1989, at age 13. But he always vowed to return to his homeland.
In March 2010, shortly after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake ravaged the island country, Sabin made good on his promise. Armed with an M.Arch. from Pratt Institute and several years of professional experience at a New York City firm, Sabin moved back to Port-au-Prince—a city much different from the one he grew up in. Today, destitution is ubiquitous. “I was out last night, at midnight, and there were so many kids on the street asking me for money. It’s a shock,” he recently told RECORD. “Where are their parents? Why aren’t they in school? I broke down in tears in the car.”
Sabin, who comanages a design firm called Studio Drum Collaborative, is one of many architects determined to improve life in Haiti. There are no simple solutions. For decades, the country has grappled with widespread corruption, governmental instability, and the obliteration of key industries such as agriculture and tourism. The abundance of aid groups working here is both a curse and a blessing, as they deliver vital services while stifling local economies. For a nation already struggling to stand on its own feet, the massive earthquake delivered a devastating blow.
Not surprisingly, the rebuilding effort has been sluggish. International donors pledged $4.6 billion for 2010'11, but only $2.4 billion has been disbursed. Part of the delay is due to the chaotic 2010 presidential election, which wasn’t resolved until last April when Michel Martelly was finally declared the winner. Other reconstruction challenges include questions about land ownership, a dearth of skilled laborers, and a lack of building materials and equipment.
There are some signs of progress. In downtown Port-au-Prince, the big success story is the restoration of the historic Iron Market, overseen by John McAslan + Partners [RECORD, February 2012, page 76]. Most work, however, has occurred beyond the dense metropolis. Rural areas are dotted with transitional plywood housing built by charitable groups. Other nonprofits, such as Architecture for Humanity (AFH), are focusing on long-term redevelopment and creating buildings with structural and aesthetic integrity (page 92). Education is also central to AFH’s mission. Its Port-au-Prince office is dubbed the Haiti Rebuilding Center, and every Friday its doors are open to anyone who wants design and construction advice. AFH also hires local architects, contractors, and construction crews, often providing training on site.
Creating job opportunities is key to the country’s revival. Yves François, a Haitian-American architect who was educated in New York and spent years working for U.S. corporations, returned to Port-au-Prince in 2009 to launch a design and construction company. Recently, he also established a manufacturing facility, where he employs Haitians to fabricate sheets of corrugated metal. “Hopefully, in 10 years, you’ll really see a difference,” he says of the overall outlook for Haiti.
Sabin is upbeat about the future, but urges patience. “You can’t bring out the magic stick and make everything better,” he says. “It’s going to take time.” With architects like him committed for the long haul, Haiti might just have a shot at a stable, tranquil future.