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The rebirth of Port-au-Prince's historic Iron Market

The restoration of Port-au-Prince’s Iron Market after last year’s earthquake is the latest chapter in the life of one of the city’s most remarkable buildings

If travelling to the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, you are likely to arrive at Toussaint l’Ouverture International Airport, emerging into a scrum of baggage carriers and drivers. If you exchange some money, you may notice on the 1,000-gourde note (about £15) the oriental-style Marché Vallière - the Iron Market. On the reverse side is Florvil Hyppolite, President of the Republic of Haiti between 1889 and 1896. Most visitors from abroad fly into the country, since overland communications between Haiti and its bordering neighbour, the Dominican Republic, remain difficult. Although the Haitian capital, as its name suggests, was established on a port - the waterfront from which the French laid out their colonising grid - few passenger ships dock these days at Port-au-Prince.

Leaving the airport precinct, you are immersed in a low-rise urban sprawl, an often shoddily constructed city devastated by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake on 12 January last year (AR February 2010). In the aftermath of that event, entire zones were occupied by tightly packed tent cities, temporary settlements that are perhaps more correctly defined, over a year later, as semi-permanent. The streets are cracked and potholed, making progress difficult; they are lined by arcaded or colonnaded buildings that are, in many cases, now reduced to carcasses of concrete and fragments of rebar.

On occasion, there is a shard of startling colour or an exposed remnant of painted graphics. There are also swarms of red umbrellas, everyday parasols sheltering street vendors. For the bookish visitor, Port-au-Prince recalls not only the tropicalism of Graham Greene (much of The Comedians is set in the harbour), but the environmental dystopia of JG Ballard. Yet underlying the ad hoc street life, the structure of downtown Port-au-Prince is that of a rationalist city. The normative urban grain of the business district is established by the orthogonal grid and by dense, low-rise blocks.

Here many of the nation’s most significant monuments are in ruins. For the first-time visitor, it’s a shocking sight. The white Beaux Arts National Palace - official residence of Haiti’s president and key symbol of the state - collapsed in the earthquake and lies today behind its railings like a crumpled and deflated giant wedding cake. The Roman Catholic Cathedral is reduced to a girdle of outer walls. The Holy Trinity Episcopalian Cathedral was also destroyed, even though some still hope to recreate famous murals painted six decades ago.

Amid this ruination, the historic Iron Market of Port-au-Prince has, against so many odds, been reconstructed. Beneath its striking orange-red roofs, the market again functions much as it has since being founded in the late-19th century. With both civilisation and culture under existential threat, the market is a remarkable symbol of rebirth. Local lore has it that the original building was intended as a railway station for Cairo. This belief appears predicated primarily on the clock tower, with its four minaret-like turrets, one at each corner.

The rebirth of Port-au-Prince's historic Iron Market

Partially damaged by fire in 2008 and further destabilised by the 2010 earthquake, the Iron Market has now risen from the rubble. The restoration is due to the persistence of Irish entrepreneur Denis O’Brien (chairman of Digicel, the largest mobile phone provider in the Caribbean), the support of ISPAN (The Haitian Institute for the Preservation of National Heritage), and the expertise of a design team led by London-based John McAslan + Partners.

McAslan has for several years developed this expertise, in parallel to the design of crisp new buildings, as seen in the refurbishment of such important Modernist buildings as the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff. More recently, the practice has devoted part of its activity to construction projects in less affluent countries, for example building infrastructure for Indian villages and several schools in Malawi. Connections made in Malawi with the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) brought McAslan to Haiti shortly before the 2010 earthquake.

The Iron Market was constructed from a kit of parts fabricated in France by Baudet Donon et Cie and inaugurated in 1891 during the presidency of Florvil Hyppolite. Commonly known as the Iron Market, it is also more formally called the Marché Vallière after a French colonial administrator, and the Marché Hyppolite. The market’s surprising orange hue, accessorised by dark green trim, reverts back, through layers of repainting, to the oldest identifiable colour chip.

The vaguely Levantine tower straddles a pedestrian route that runs between two symmetrical sheds. Each wing consists of three parallel bays, three hipped roofs rising above open space, interrupted only by a regular grid of slender cast iron columns. Traditionally, the north half sheltered craftsmen and women offering artefacts to tourists, many of whom arrived from cruise ships. The south wing has long been allocated to food merchants supplying the many street vendors of the capital. This bifurcation has been retained in the reconstructed market although, for now, few tourists alight at Port-au-Prince.

The design team was able to salvage structural fragments from the ruins of the north wing, devastated by fire in 2008, and to re-use them in the renovation of the south wing, so the portion preserves its 19th-century origins. Above the surviving foundation, the other, northern half is an entirely new structure. Taking into account the availability of building products and the desire to re-open on the first anniversary of the earthquake, the new posts are simple U-shaped steel columns.

The new roofs are made from corrugated steel, painted white on the underside. There seems to be a constant breeze inside the market, a sign of the sensitivity to the local climate displayed by the original designers. The square stone pavers in the south wing have been replicated in the north in concrete. Fresh concrete stalls have been laid in parallel lines to facilitate the display of merchandise. One allée in the craft wing of the market is dedicated to eclectic paraphernalia pertaining to voodoo (in Haitian Creole, vodou).

The oriental-looking turrets of the market have been salvaged. Nevertheless the lower structure of the tower, with its tiny cylindrical stairways, appears new. It has been fabricated as plate in the United States and fastened to the ground surface with what the architects refer to as ‘galoshes’. Artificial rivets were added on site to approximate the originals. Above the shed roofs is the largest solar panel array in the Caribbean. This is a further symbol of progress for Haiti. The ironwork of the railings about the market and the semi-circular panels of louvres in the main facades were fabricated in Haiti by a team led by the internationally acclaimed artist Philippe Dodard.

John McAslan + Partners is moving ahead with several projects in Haiti, including an ambitious plan for a Housing Expo, scheduled to take place later this year. The work of these British architects thus deserves to receive high praise for its spirited engagement with issues that are far from the artificial territory of so-called starchitects. For Haiti to progress, however, the country needs to embrace, challenge and develop the skills of its own people. Only by working with indigenous reality can this city and this society move forward.

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