Sitting having breakfast in our residence for the week on Rue Pacot, preparing for the final jury of the AA Haiti Visiting School 2015, we heard that the government had been dissolved and that President Michel Martelly was now ruling by decree.
Later, I stood looking out over Port-au-Prince on the terrace of the Comité Interministériel d’Aménagement du Territoire (CIAT), with a couple of Visiting School alumni from last year. In the distance you could see one plume black smoke from the burning tyres - not far from the part of downtown where the students had been mapping sites a week earlier. As I discussed the situation with them and asked if Martelly had become what he promised to dispel from the administration, they exclaimed in tandem as if it was habit, "Welcome, this is Haiti!"
If you were to see the photo on the BBC news website that morning - an image of violent riots and tyres burning in the streets - you would not imagine that we were still planning to hold the jury. You might think that we were going to pack our bags and head straight to the airport. It is important not to trivialise the situation, but it would be an understatement to say that the media have a knack for hyper-exaggeration.
The student projects this year were based in the urban context of Port-au-Prince's downtown - a few blocks around John McAslan's Iron Market. Although the destroyed iron market was rebuilt and opened on the first anniversary of the quake, in stark contrast the rest of downtown remains largely unchanged. The area is still mostly used as an open air market where thousands of Haitians earn their living. One of the sites was in fact the spot I had chosen to represent my own project in 2011, it was very unfortunate to see that students had made the same observations which led to a somewhat similar proposal 4 years on.
The students were able to spend some time mapping their sites, making observations and collecting data that would inform their proposals. The data was analysed for correlations and used to make the first moves on the site. There was a struggle to make proposals due to the enormity and complexity of the situation while also having to grapple with a somewhat abstract method. Slowly, the connections were made and the realisation that they weren't going to solve every problem in the 11 days available gave them some freedom. The proposals were then tested and refined using open source environmental software.
The 4 groups consisted of a mix of foreign students and local civil engineering students who were introduced through NGO Help. The projects were a very direct response to the 4 distinct sites and existing conditions: a car wash – where the cleanest water is used to wash cars and then dirty water is used by those who need it most – became a public baths. The area used by text book vendors became a public teaching space and an extension to the directly adjacent iron market. A largely empty site with formal stalls surrounding it, currently used as a shortcut and temporary dumping area was reimagined as a recycling and sorting centre. An informal bus station - the main crossroads in PaP was formalised and combined with other local art markets.
This year the school was held the government offices of CIAT. Our host Rose-May Guignard kindly gave us her time and expertise throughout the course - one of the highlights being her candid lecture. The quality and range of lectures was without doubt one of the strongest aspects of the programme. Farah Hyppolite of FOKAL (Foundation for Knowledge and Liberty) explained the history of the local colonial gingerbread style, Rose-May spoke about urban planning and the roles of legislation in Port-au-Prince. Our key note speaker and newest member of tutoring team Sebastian Kaminski of Arup gave lectures on bamboo and seismic design. These were supplemented by his extensive day long workshop on production, treatment and construction using bamboo. His input into making the projects structurally viable and responding to the environmental testing was also invaluable.
Our annual visit to the Oloffson hotel to watch celebrated Haitian band RAM and let the students unwind from the rigorous programme was preceded by a visit to Haiti's first bamboo house designed by architect Gary Pierre-Charles. Built using Colombian guadua by Gary and a few of his colleagues – the beautifully detailed yet resilient design is a strong argument for the wider use of bamboo in Haiti.
The Visiting School in its current format is about creating excitement around the potential for the use of bamboo. More importantly it aims to introduce methods of contextually driven testing into local working methods. The results, though quite fantastical, raised some real questions of what is needed in downtown PaP. These needs are somewhat at odds with what is currently proposed by any of the stakeholders involved. The conceptual projects were presented to the association of downtown landowners and will hopefully open up a discourse about what could be possible in the area in the future.
Though the school has a scope to produce excitement for the material and promote collaboration, the fact that it is a short workshop mean's it is unlikely to produce real change on the ground. It also became frustratingly clear this year that the format of the course, though greatly improved, may not be the best way to disseminate knowledge effectively in Haiti. For these reasons our ambition is to push our research further outside the workshops in order to determine the viability of developing a new local lightweight typology.
So in this vein, how are we planning to improve and progress future visiting schools? The next workshop aims encompass a programme in designing and building located within a bamboo plantation. The building aspect of the course will finally give us the level of direct exposure to the material we have been looking for. Detaching the workshop from the influence of the complex situation on the ground may also be a key aspect of the programme. This comes as a reaction to students being stifled by the seemingly insurmountable problems and informal systems that govern Port-au-Prince. By designing building an intervention in a plantation these issues will hopefully become a way to enrich the programme and its rhetoric rather than becoming an obstacle.
Updates on our progress will be posted in the near future. You can find more information regarding the course at the AA Haiti Visiting School website.