Haiti’s traditional domestic architecture lives on!

Originally published on Haiti Rewired

One of several delightful surprises coming out of my recent trip to Haiti was the many old vernacular style houses I came across.  They were all over the place, in rural areas, and in Port-au-Prince.  This I didn’t expect.  It is my understanding that concrete and concrete-masonry construction arrived sometime in the 1950s.  It would be interesting to know why and how this major conversion took place.  Was it in reaction to a series of hurricanes?  Was it because of deforestation?  My guess is that, yes, hurricanes and deforestation had a lot to do with it, but the use of concrete during that period in Miami and Miami Beach certainly must have had a major influence.  In any case, these very old, mostly dilapidated, and mostly abandoned traditional houses seem somehow to resist falling down, or being torn down.  And, of course, it would be interesting to know from where this seemingly indigenous style came from?  Africa?  Or was it developed by Haitian architects from scratch a few centuries ago?  I hope most of these houses will be restored someday.

Here are a few photos I took of Haiti’s traditional domestic architecture.  These photos likely won’t make it into any coffee table book, but there is a memory or thought around every photo, which I will be pondering forever.

In Port-au-Prince

In Port-au-Prince

On the highway to Aquin

In Port-au-Prince

On the highway to Aquin.  What a hoot!  Note the children way back in this old house.  When I approached with my camera, they were all at the front.  As I raised the camera, they all scurried back, laughing all the way.  I tried to coax them to the front for a picture, to no avail.  I think these kids were playing house.  The young man on the right, sweeping the “sidewalk”, was a very common sight.  If folks (young and old, men and woman) aren’t carrying something important around (and yes, mostly on their heads), or walking a cow somewhere, or doing whatever – and there’s a lull in the activity, they grab a broom.  Quite remarkable.

Facing the town square of Aquin.  Note the children sitting on the porch of the house to the right.  It can’t be emphasized enough how essential the porch, or “gallery” (as I believe they are called in Haiti) is to the lifestyle of most Haitians.  This is where the little children hang out during the day, and even sometimes where Mom cooks dinner.

Also facing the town square of Aquin.  These cute little goats sure keep the weeds down. 
By the way, Haiti’s vernacular tradition was eloquently described in detail by Patti Souter, in her paper, “Haiti Wisdom for Aid Buildings”, released March 15, 2010, not long after the quake.  Sadly, her message about Haiti’s domestic architecture appears to have been largely ignored by those now building houses, at least as far as I could see:  http://haiti-patrimoine.org/?p=271 .  As many of you know, Stouter’s work was widely discussed last year on Haiti Rewired, in the group Architecture for Haiti.