Architectural response to the Haitian earthquake reveal misplaced motives
There’s nothing like a massive human tragedy to get the creative juices flowing. Or so is the logic behind a recent email in my inbox announcing an architecture competition sited in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, soliciting proposals for ‘emergency institutions’ following the devastating earthquake that hit the country on 12 January. The brief is brief, a few hundred vague words about nothing less than rebuilding society, but there is a site photo of refugee camps with red boxes drawn over it. If that doesn’t entice you, perhaps the possibility of spinning gold out of disaster will: the winner gets half of the competition’s entry fees. The other half will go to relief funds, but why not put all the cash directly into the hands of the aid agencies?
Even sadder, the email emanated from a research arm of Columbia University’s architecture school, arguably one of the world’s most important incubators of design talent of the past two decades. Yet somehow their imprimatur ended up a shambolic milepost in the saga of designers trying and failing to get to grips with the earthquake. I only wonder what value the organisers see in getting people in comfortable first-world cities, most of whom will have no experience of Haiti, to summon up civil society in a country that had precious little of it before the earthquake. I wonder if they truly believe an ad-hoc competition is the right response three weeks after a fragile society was shaken to the ground and at least 230,000 people died.
The question of how - or even if - designers should respond to humanitarian catastrophes touches many nerves. The architecture community’s knee-jerk reaction in the face of any overwhelming event is usually some kind of ‘rebuilding competition’, but it is unlikely to do anything but give its organisers and participants a false sense of worth.
There is a fine line between wanting to help and appropriating a disaster zone for intellectual self-gratification.
Or maybe there isn’t. A spate of charettes, competitions, visiting studios and symposia followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Architects, planners and celebrity-funded nonprofits hit the ground before floodwaters receded. Nearly five years on, there is only a handful of case-study houses to show, not a city rebuilt with sustainability (environmental or economic) in mind. New Orleans now has less affordable housing than before the storm, and the homeless population has doubled. There is still no masterplan.
Even with plenty of time and resources on their side, American architects have so far failed this city in the face of fractious politics, misplaced priorities and ebbing media attention. Perhaps we need to learn that disaster zones are not blank slates, that wiping out structures and lives does not wipe out history, culture and desire. Maybe we should invest ourselves in advancing a realistic and inclusive civic vision for New Orleans (or Detroit, or any one of the hundreds of failing large American cities) before we start sketching a new Port-au-Prince.
Designers have the power to make things worse as much as better, and are most effective for good when operating within a context prescribed by their abilities and influence. If there was a genuine programme to help Haiti, it would have been initiated years ago, in concert with an organisation with the resources to carry out a focused, effective (and therefore probably small-scale) intervention. It might have saved a few dozen lives. But architects were too busy drawing houses on stilts in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Efforts to help have looked ham-fisted because they were guided more by news cycles than strategic thinking.
Effective humanitarian response depends on timing, logistics and preparation. A few architects, designers and planners might find ways to make their labour useful, but as a community there isn’t much more we can do. A week after the quake, a press release by the Washington DC-based National Organization of Minority Architects eloquently acknowledged the emotional pull of the disaster. Yet it provided only sensible steps for action: an initiative to send donated tents to Haiti via established relief channels and an inventory of members’ technical skills to be offered to the Haitian government or capable NGOs.
Architects are not known for pragmatic restraint. But in the aftermath of catastrophe we need to learn it, for there is nothing design alone can contribute.
The Haitians living under blue plastic tarpaulinshave no use for city-beautiful visions or schemes to turn pallets and shipping containers into clever emergency shelters.Producing these sorts of responses is not only useless, it is harmful. It presupposes that the messy complexity on the ground can be flattened into a single diagram.
It’s a human impulse to want to help - to sacrifice, even - in the face of a massive challenge. We need to recognise this has as much to do with our own selfish need to feel useful and involved as it does with altruism. There is nothing wrong with having mixed motives, but the critical question should be not how to help but where to help. It might lack the passport value of a far-flung disaster zone, but most architects know of schools and community organisations closer to home where their design communication skills could have much greater impact.
If the Haitian earthquake has made one thing shockingly clear, it is current architectural culture’s provincial approach to human suffering. You don’t design your way out of a sudden calamity or the ongoing calamity of poverty and social breakdown that preceded it. Ersatz competitions presume that new ideas are always helpful. They aren’t. A former World Bank senior advisor, Professor William Easterly of New York University underlined this in a recent New York Times article. He was discussing political structures in Haiti (which weren’t working well before the earthquake), but they serve as a good warning for design carpetbaggers: ‘I think the whole idea of the earthquake being an opportunity for foreigners to do more aggressive interventions is really problematic and objectionable… We have tried everything in the book already in Haiti as far as grandiose plans, and those haven’t worked.’