January 20, 2010

Haiti's Presidential Palace

Devastation of the quake at the Presidential Palace of Haiti
(photo by LisaandroSuero via Twitpic)

Due to the tremendous loss of life and suffering there, I've waited a little while to post these thoughts about the impact of this month's earthquake on the architecture of Haiti. There is a terrible habit of some professions to use tragedy as a convenient way to get publicity, even architects, so I waited to post these thoughts some time afterward.

One of the first things that I noticed in the photos of the devastation wreaked upon the island nation of Haiti was the destruction of the Presidential Palace in Port au Prince. This majestic beaux-arts building, according to wikipedia, was built by French trained Haitian architect George H Baussan, in a French imperial style.

My question is what will the fate of this building be in the reconstruction? Certainly I don't want to diminish the loss of tens of thousands of lives by quibbling over a building, but I do think it is an important thought. As some reports have said, the building's destruction has become symbolic of the destruction of the country as a whole, but will the reconstruction of this building in all of its majesty be the symbol of the reconstruction?

I hope, as many readers probably would guess, is that the building either be reconstructed as it was, at least in appearance. Or better yet, that a new classical building replace it. My worst fears however are that the building would be replaced by a modernist monstrosity, ala Thom Mayne's Alaska Capitol scheme.

Will Haiti get a Thom Mayne Deathstar Capital?

What are your thoughts? Would it be appropriate to design a new classical design? How about a competition to do so?


Anonymous said...

Since Haiti is a majority Catholic country with an until-the-earthquake beautiful Cathedral, I think that (and not the palace) would be a more fitting symbol of the people. Following this, I think it would be far more damaging to the welfare of the people for this Cathedral Church to be replaced by a "modernist monstrosity".

Anthony OPL

Erik Bootsma said...

That's a good point. I haven't seen any photos of the Cathedral. Do you have a link? I'll do some searching.

Erik Bootsma said...


NurDas said...

I think both the palace and the cathedral should be restored as they were. The back wings of the presidential palace don't seem to be too severely damaged, so I don't think they'd have to build the whole building anew. The cathedral may be in my opinion in an even sadder condition. Could the Catholic Church help with the restoration? Haiti obviously will not have funds for this construction for a long time. New architecture, even new traditional architecture, may not be able to replace the cultural and historical associations that has gathered around the old designs. This is vividly seen in Europe where people still rebuild buildings lost in the war (Dresden!). The historic significance and cultural value of these buildings did not get lost and forgotten, they lived on, even though the buildings themselves where gone and there aren't that many people left anymore to actually remember them. To truly celebrate this living heritage that in it's physical form was taken from the people too rapidly and unreasonably (be it war or earthquake) the buildings need to be rebuilt. They are not copies in the sence of being inferior to original, the architecture is redone like Mozart is reperformed. And now, I believe that not many people in Dresden think about, that the Frauenkirche wasn't there for decades, or wan't to think about it. It is atleast the case with restored churches in my town and country. You can't bring back people if they're gone, but you can bring back buildings people love to bring hope and assurance that their culture will live on to those that have stayed. Replacing these symbols with alienating and inferior structures brings decline in some way or the other. Also easily observed in the war-damaged cities of Europe.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Nur Das said it better than I could ever have.

Douglas Andrew Willinger said...

Leaving them as monumental ruins makes a statement...

Anonymous said...

I fully agree that the Presidential Palace and Cathedral must be rebuilt. They represent the cultural identity of a people. They are among the most powerful physical symbols of the Haitian Nation.

At the same time a carefully thought out Master Plan designed to achieve the intelligent dispersal of population from the grossly overpopulated and unworkable Capital, Port au Prince to an agricultural based nation-wide network of small settlements must be produced.

I also agree that the arbitrary and tired Modernist 'formulas' and the hermetic repertoire of currently fashionable images must be protected from.
The danger of such is strong here, as Modernist ideology tends to find fertile ground in crises and instances of cultural displacement.

I would like to refer you to our premiated design
for the definition of Miami, Florida's 'Little Haiti' Competition or two decades ago (www.fruizarchitect.com) as example of the positive potential that exists in this lamentable situation.

Unknown said...

I think they should worry about getting their people into homes instead of living in tents, and dying of cholera. The president can wait to get his glorious palace back after this has happened!!!

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