The Design Observer Group

Posted 01.27.10

Hector Fernando Burga

A View of Haiti from Liberty City

Port-au-Prince, January 2010. Impromptu tent city. [via United Nations Development Programme]

 We can usually rely on the lines we draw. I pick up my pen and with determination put marks upon the paper. This is often the starting point of an extended creative process that balances delicately between intellectual rigor and aesthetic pleasure. With the sketch, in studio, we are in a zone we can control, a place of direction, maybe even refuge. And with the unfolding work there is always tomorrow.

But like so many of us, in the past weeks I haven't been able to take the pen and draw with purpose. I’ve become one of millions of spectators to the unfolding catastrophe in Haiti, and I am driven to write about a place whose struggles can’t really be drawn or envisioned in plans, whose suffering reveals the comparative inadequacy of design before the immediacy of death and destruction.

This is not a comfortable place to be at or to speak from. It doesn’t provoke quick solutions or prescriptions. So with humility, and unable to just draw, I want to ask: what can I do? Where do I start?

Pedestrian Activity
The images of destruction that fill the screen evoke memories of New York after September 11, of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Katrina, of Banda Aceh after the tsunami and countless other scenes of devastation. We know each situation is unique. Yet past tragedies are inevitably recalled in the nonstop news loop, and as old footage is replayed — as much to fill screen time as to impart meaning — the series of calamities merge into what can seem a cycle of visual bombardment. Thus Haiti becomes the latest point in the world map of calamity.

The de-sensitizing media onslaught transports me to the streets of Port-au-Prince. I imagine walking through the devastation. The cameras show us multitudes in agony; we hear Creole spoken and see limbs reaching out from piles of demolished concrete. I have to grapple with the complications of my own imagination. This act of teleportation might be the first moment in a design process: a place has been un-made. What can we make now?

Port-au-Prince 2
Port-au-Prince, January 2010. Provisional tents set up near the National Palace. [Photograph: Marco Domino/United Nations]

I am aware that I write from a position of privilege. I am an onlooker with access to knowledge, power and comfort. But there is more; as a designer, I have been taught and trained to find solutions. My professional creed professes positive transformation and possibility. Design professionals operate at once from a place of entitlement and from a sense of duty and responsibility. We want to help.

No doubt, there are important contributions that we can make as design professionals. Temporary housing, community reconstruction, improved building standards, etc. But I cannot help but recognize that these actions are now abstractions — they will happen in the future. They are trumped by the need for survival, by the rescue efforts of others, from medical and relief organizations, that are happening today.

Eyes on the Street
Port-au-Prince is 2½ hours by plane from Miami, a city I attempt to decipher with pen and paper, a place I endlessly observe. This is the city I call home, where I conduct fieldwork for my dissertation research and where I became a professional architect and urban designer. Following the recent catastrophe, Miami has acquired yet another important dimension for me. It has become a threshold to Haiti.

Here Spanish and Creole combine with English to become features of everyday life. Liberty City, north of downtown, is home to the largest Haitian diaspora in the world (it's estimated that more than 200,000 Haitians and Haitian Americans live in the metropolitan region). For decades this community has contributed to the city’s social life and urban economy. Miami’s recent urban history has been defined by climate and politics — by hurricanes and the arrival of immigrants. These facts connect the city to the Caribbean and to this event in particular.

Port-au-Prince, January 2010. [Photograph: Marco Domino/United Nations]

The catastrophe in Haiti feels like a local experience in Miami. Soon after the news and the first images of devastation in Port-au-Prince, I visited Liberty City to meet with friends and colleagues from the field. This time, however, I didn’t come as a researcher, an ally or partner asking questions. Rather I was an ordinary Miami resident struggling to comprehend the depths of calamity. I attended meetings in churches, community centers and schools, and became aware that a conversation about the prospects of reconstruction is taking shape. Community leaders are asking essential questions: Who will be the leading actors of reconstruction? Where will the funding come from? How to avoid past mistakes? How to ensure transparency, an equitable platform for reconstruction and the fair distribution of resources? 

The Haitian community in Miami is in deep mourning — but it is also taking action. Haitians and Haitian Americans are framing these questions based upon their first-hand knowledge of Port-au-Prince. A part of me hopes to hear the voices of architects, urban designers and planners in these conversations. Yet so far these voices are silent, perhaps absent, in public. The reality of the catastrophe and the ties that bind Miami to Haiti force me to think beyond my role as a designer. Given the mobility of a cross-border community, how can we contribute? Maybe right now we need to focus on the needs of people first and the design of physical places second. 

Design for Emergency
For Haitians the earthquake marks the “before" and "after" of their lives, their country. Amid decomposing bodies and mass burial sites, life continues. The Haitian people are beginning to rebuild their destroyed cities with their own hands and by their own means. Amid hunger, homelessness and despair, and despite the aftershocks and the inevitably waning attention of the world, Port-au-Prince is becoming the largest self-help re-construction site on the globe, its buildings demolished but its people persevering.

Far from the island, design professionals are alert to the challenge. We know how it played out in past disasters: teams of architects mobilize for the redesign of a city and a country. Parachute architects gear up. Construction technologists and building industry specialists catch the whiff of opportunity. Architects and planners plot the deployment of big visions as precisely planned as military operations. Some come to the rescue with predetermined templates of renewal. Reconstruction is framed within a familiar toolkit: urban form, building structure, standard codes, construction details and housing typologies. ...

Port-au-Prince, January 2010. Haitians wait in line for water distributed by the firefighters, near the National Palace. [Photograph: Marco Domino/United Nations.]

But Haiti and its people —already struggling before the earthquake — may prove to be at once the endgame of design-for-disaster as usual and the recognition that we need to retool our reconstruction approach. In the sheer scope of its catastrophe, Port-au-Prince may provide a before and after moment in architecture and urban planning. As designers we work to make built form meet human needs. Here we have a chance to move past what we already know, and to educate ourselves about what is actually needed.

For my part Haiti makes me understand the value of an interdisciplinarity I have yet to learn — it spurs me to reconsider my professional scope in provisional terms. To be of use I'll have to partner-up with non-designers to translate the language of design from disciplinary abstractions to on-the-ground necessities. I'll have to shift from envisioning large physical transformations to enabling surgical deconstruction and improvisation. On the streets of Port-au-Prince the challenge today is — and will be for many months to come — to deal with demolition, debris removal and basic infrastructure, with preparing land for pre-construction and salvaging and distributing building materials. And to really make a difference I'll have to make a commitment: for instance, to focus less on designing shelter than on building the skills and capacities of Haitian citizens to create their own shelter.

This role will require the recalibration of my ethics as a practitioner. I will have to face my position of privilege in the field and engage its complications productively, and to adapt my skills as a professional whose training assumes a high degree of stability and linearity. I will have to challenge the usual assumptions of duration — even sustainability — and flip the issues from long-term application to quick intervention.

Outside the comfort of the drawing, the zone of the studio, lies another place for design, where immediate experience drives the agenda for action and pushes us to come up with new strategies, new ways to be of real use. This is the place where I want to be.