New and improved: Rebuilding a disaster zone

The rebuilding of Port-au-Prince won't start for years, yet there's already hope it will herald a brighter future for the Caribbean capital. What, asks Rob Sharp, can we learn from the architectural reinvention of other ruined cities?
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Down one side street in Pétionville, an eastern suburb of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, a 12-foot-tall mangle of twisted metal and rubble lies along the edge of the street.

The crumpled concrete and steel was once a three-storey secondary school, the Collège Boisrond Tonnerre. At one point the building dominated the neighbourhood, proudly displaying the blue and red Haitian flag at its summit. It now resembles a collapsed house of cards.

Barely three months after the 12 January earthquake which killed an estimated 230,000 Haitians, flattened a third of Port-au-Prince, and left around 1.3 million people homeless, the community surrounding this school is haltingly beginning to pull itself back on to its feet. In this case, one of the designers advising school staff is Robin Cross, the London-based director of projects for Article 25, Britain's leading architecture and construction aid charity. Cross is consulting the local community over the task of rebuilding the school; his work here will also form part of Haiti's large-scale reconstruction and redevelopment.

"Some streets appear untouched by the earthquake," says Cross, speaking last month in London shortly after returning from a research trip to Haiti. "Cool, comfortable-looking residential properties sit in streets lined by banana trees. Then turn the corner and you are met by a scene from war, a landscape that might have been pounded by heavy artillery for hours or days."

In late March, Haiti's President René Préval unveiled a $3.9bn (£2.5bn) plan to reconstruct the troubled nation. It looked at the replacement of vital infrastructure such as roads and ports, as well as moving residential quarters away from earthquake-prone areas and improving the quality of construction. "There is a silver lining," said Raymond Joseph, the Haitian ambassador to the United States, on the US cable-TV network C-SPAN in January. "What was not politically possible was done by the earthquake. We will rebuild differently. The future of Haiti will be very different from the past."

There could not be a more brutal wake-up call, but the chance of building an improved city, constructed upon the ruins of one that was not built to withstand past disaster – and also, perhaps, not constructed to enhance the daily lives of its residents – is a significant one.

Alongside the vital task of re-building a safer Haiti – the part that dangerous building methods played in the disaster has been well-documented – what will be the aesthetic fallout for the Port au Prince of the future? How will the long-term look and layout change, after the completion of emergency aid work? In Haiti's capital, which elements – important buildings, history, landmarks, architectural style and town-planning systems – will be recreated, and which will bear no resemblance to the destroyed city on top of which they are built? Where does work start in rethinking the construction of an entire city, in parts virtually from scratch, and is it really an opportunity to build better?

These same questions were still being asked in L'Aquila, another city forced to consider starting over, as residents of the medieval Italian city last week marked the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that killed 308 of its residents and forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes. Although Italy is a developed nation, and a year has passed since L'Aquila crumbled – literally, because of the age and non-brick construction of many of the buildings – construction plans here have reached an impasse. The city's rebirth has been delayed by bureaucracy and lack of funds, with the city's mayor, Massimo Cialente, proposing to build new homes far away from the city, rather than repairing the settlement's historic centre.

Plans for 'L'Aquila II', or 'L'Aquila Newtown' ground to a halt when residents objected to the proposed modernisation; they wanted the 1,000-year-old city centre restored to its former aesthetic. But, being in a seismic zone, the rebuild must conform to new anti-seismic regulations – something impossible to apply to such ancient architecture. Residents have accused Cialente of turning their beloved city into a "ghost town", and some have suggested that the city may become another Pompeii – nothing more than a monument to the disaster that destroyed it.

In Haiti, where there has been talk of transposing parts of the capital to a more geologically safe location, are there lessons to be learnt from L'Aquila's impasse? Or, indeed from the way other cities have recovered from, and been reconfigured after, natural disasters?

"In most cases a disaster or earthquake becomes an opportunity for a city to reinvent itself," says Rodolphe el-Khoury, an associate professor at the University of Toronto's architecture faculty, and editor of Shaping the City, Studies in History, Theory and Urban Design. "At the cost of a great human tragedy, this is an important process of renewal."

In the case of developed countries at least, he may be right. The example closest to home is the Great Fire of London in 1666, which changed the face of the city forever. Although the loss of life was low – just 16 dead, according to some records – as much as 80 per cent of the city proper was destroyed, including 13,000 houses and 89 churches. Safety was a key factor in the city's reconfiguration, much of it led by the architect Christopher Wren, as flame-friendly wooden construction was replaced by brick buildings. Streets were also made wider, as the proximity of buildings to each other had helped the fire to spread; and St Paul's Cathedral, of course, was completely rebuilt.

"London after its 17th-century fire was a very important moment in the city's history," continues el-Khoury. "It allowed the city to reinvent itself. It became a more rationally organised city; modern London is a consequence of the entrepreneurial sprit that shaped it then. It was a radical restructure." Not, of course, as radical as it might have been. Although wooden and overhanging houses were banned, and many streets were widened and building regulations introduced that influenced other British towns and cities, Wren's original plans for a grid city were thrown out because the City of London authority had neither the money nor the time to see them through; they needed the city to be rebuilt as quickly as possible so as to avert national economic disaster.

"When a city grows traditionally it grows organically; when there's the opportunity to plan things afresh it allows people to plan properly, facilitate better circulation and better amenities," says el-Khouri.

Which is exactly what happened in Chicago, after its 1871 Great Fire destroyed around four square miles of the centre of the city. But the disaster led to the emergence of a new form of architecture that proved to be one of the most important in history. Like London, before the fire the city was made up principally of wood-framed buildings, which quickly went up in smoke.

Because of the clearing of space in the centre of the city, as well as the wish to accommodate as much as possible within a small area, architects were forced to build high. William Le Baron Jenney's Home Insurance Building, completed in 1885, is widely considered to be the world's first skyscraper. Instead of stone, such buildings are supported with steel, which is light and strong and allowed the city's architects to build higher. The first building with plate glass making up most of its facade, the 1895 Reliance Building designed by Charles B Atwood, followed soon afterwards.

The work of Chicago architects such as Jenney, Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan, known as the Chicago School, influenced the design of high-rise buildings around the world. "This is the clearest example where a whole new city emerged," says el-Khoury. "It became a city that was far better because of the tragedy. The modern Chicago which became an important economic centre was a direct consequence of this devastating fire."

On 1 November 1755, the Great Lisbon Earthquake devastated most of the city, killing up to 100,000 people, historians believe. It was followed by a series of tsunamis and fires. The city's leaders – King Joseph I and Prime Minister Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the marquis of Pombal – were quick on their feet. They immediately set about rebuilding, hiring architects, and engineers and organising labour. The Lisbon that emerged contained big squares, rectilinear, large avenues and light, widened streets. Its buildings possessed some of the first examples of anti-seismic architecture – flexible wooden structures covered by pre-manufactured building materials.

Fast-forward to 1906, when an earthquake devastated San Francisco, killing 3,000 people. The disaster made room for cutting-edge architecture within the city.

The plush beaux-arts Fairmont Hotel, in the city's affluent Nob Hill neighbourhood, had been about to open its doors for the first time when the earthquake hit. Its insides were gutted by fire. A new interior was designed by leading local architect Julia Morgan, blazing a trail for women in her field. She was hired because she used specially designed earthquake-resistant reinforced concrete – still rare at the time.

The US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiro- shima on 6 August 1945, killing 80,000 people and destroying 69 per cent of the city's buildings. Emergency reconstruction measures were initially managed by the Japanese army. Post-war, the governor of Hiroshima prefecture, Tsunei Kusunose, argued that reconstruction should be divided into the short-term and the longer-term. The short-term included temporary housing and building bridges; the longer-term took the form of more permanent structures, allowing the separation of architectural reinvention from more pressing aid. The city's new design centrepiece was the minimalist Peace Memorial Park, a graceful 30-acre site not far from ground zero. It was designed by the late Japanese architect Kenzo Tange and completed in 1954.

While any city's reconstruction can be seen as successful given enough time, it seems clear that those governments that act quickly and incisively come out on top.

After the Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which struck the Kanto plain on the Japanese island of Honshu, and devastated Tokyo, the city's mayor organised a reconstruction plan with modern networks of roads, trains and public services. Parks were placed all over Tokyo, as potential refuge spots, and public buildings were constructed to stricter design codes.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel, completed the year of the earthquake, suffered damage from the tremors but remained standing. Many years later, the industrial Chinese city of Tangshan, after the 1976 earthquake that killed half a million people, saw its government refuse external assistance from outside China but mobilise huge amounts of internal aid, and fast. It benefited from the major economic changes sweeping through the country, something every nation might not necessarily enjoy.

So while L'Aquila could learn from these examples, what are the lessons for a developing country such as Haiti? "Despite taking place in developed societies, these historical examples all show high-level vision," says Ben Ramalingam, a post-disaster reconstruction expert and head of research and development at Alnap, a network of major international humanitarian agencies.

"All of this is relevant in Haiti, where there are efforts being made to demonstrate strong leadership, especially on the part of the aid agencies. But it needs to happen in the context of the existing political contract between the government and its citizens. It's unfortunate that in Haiti there is a lack of trust between the citizens and the leaders which pre-existed the disaster".

In terms of previous examples, Safer Homes, Stronger Communities, A Handbook for Reconstructing after Natural Disasters, a report published earlier this year by the World Bank, contains a number of case studies about rebuilding communities in developing countries blighted by natural disasters. Like those in the developed world, some communities have used disasters to implement improvements. In the case of the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, India, the city of Bhuj used the collapse of buildings for the wholesale redesign of entire neighbourhoods.

Before the disaster, houses were arranged around narrow streets, with communities organised around dead-ends and bottlenecks. When buildings collapsed during the earthquake, they blocked streets, preventing people from escaping and hampering rescue. Afterwards, streets were redesigned to be wider, continuous, and therefore much safer. Plots for buildings remained in the same places, retaining the nature of communities, but were much smaller, reducing what was previously a high density of housing and thus improving the quality of life.

There are equally examples of how to get things wrong. The 2004 tsunami destroyed 154,000 houses in the Tamil Nadu region of India. House-building in India is a culturally sensitive and highly ritualised process; Tamil Nadu's fishing families generally construct new houses on the birth of a son. They consult an astrologer, who decides in whose name the house should be built; they also effectively decide on the house's layout. Women are often in charge of mobilising those constructing houses while their husbands are at sea.

When NGOs set about rebuilding the communities, they employed local construction firms who ignored many of these traditions. Self-built traditional houses were replaced by modern, flat-roof, reinforced concrete buildings. Where no land could be found at acceptable prices, new villages were built on sites adjacent to existing settlements. Some NGOs promised new houses to married couples, leading to a massive increase in the area's marriage rate. Many of the houses are not big enough to accommodate the large families of the region – leading elderly people to worry that once separated from younger generations they will not be cared for. Copious quantities of trees have been demolished, leaving families baking from lack of shade.

While the population has been rehoused, the process has left an indelible mark on the culture it should be sustaining, and has made entire communities uncomfortable, in bizarre social circumstances they are not equipped to deal with.

And there have been other mistakes. A report published last December by Arup, the civil engineering firm, points to lessons that should be learned from post-tsunami reconstruction in the Indonesian province of Aceh. There, new buildings – some of them commissioned by well-known Western aid agencies – have already been torn down or retro-fitted, post-reconstruction, because they did not properly protect against earthquakes. Other new buildings have been damaged by high tides due to delays in building sea walls. "A number of the aid organisations operating there sought advice from local and foreign architects," says Jo da Silva, the author of Arup's report. "But there was an inadequate understanding about earthquakes, which meant that the buildings built there were not always up to scratch. It is the aid agencies who are trusted with the money. They are the ones who need to engage with the architects".

What happened in the town of Dinar, south-western Turkey, after it was hit in 1995 by an earthquake that destroyed 1,228 buildings, provides another warning of what can go wrong when there is a chance to reconfigure a city or town. After the disaster, the city's street plan was changed dramatically. Narrow, disordered, spontaneously developed streets with one-storey buildings with large gardens were replaced by a grid system with wide streets and four-storey buildings. However, locals did not like the taller buildings' lack of space and flexibility, and have since begun to build their own houses without planning permission – meaning they are, again, vulnerable should another earthquake strike.

Meanwhile, Hollywood actor Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation, set up in 2006 to provide help for those affected by Hurricane Katrina, was reportedly criticised late last year for transplanting "alien" architecture into post-Katrina New Orleans. James Dart, a Manhattan-based architect born and raised in New Orleans, told the International Herald Tribune in December that he thought the 11 buildings erected so far by the foundation, a world away from the city's traditional Creole cottages and designed by the likes of Frank Gehry, were "alien, sometimes even insulting".

It seems that the right skills need to be matched to the right work; being enthusiastic and willing to help is often not enough. This needs to be taken into account in Haiti, where since the disaster, some 350 British architects have volunteered their knowledge to Article 25. This has been mirrored across the Atlantic, where US design charity Architecture for Humanity initially had 600 inquiries a day about the disaster. How the designers' work keys into the reconstruction effort remains to be seen.

The architects responsible for these regions' reconstruction must seek solutions from those for whom they are building. "The role of Haitians in the formation of the new Haiti is critical," says Cross of Article 25. "While the physical infrastructure is badly damaged, there remains a social infrastructure and an economic infrastructure which will be the lifeblood of Haiti's future. In planning any reconstruction, we need to pick up the threads of this surviving cultural infrastructure and help Haiti rebuild around its own objectives and environment".


Next to the flattened Collège Boisrond Tonnerre, a semi-collapsed church is leaning precariously over the school's playground. It sits on a plot high above the road. Robin Cross has the skills necessary to make sure the church is removed safely as well as to spearhead any construction work. It's just as well: lessons are still taking place beneath a temporary tarpaulin in a courtyard adjacent to the college. There are also bodies still buried in the rubble. An estimated five people died when the school collapsed, though more may eventually be found. When the school is eventually rebuilt, Cross says, it will need to be made out of modern materials and properly reinforced. Elsewhere in Port-au-Prince, another British architect, John McAslan, is working up plans for 82 dwellings, each of which will be designed simply, using traditional materials and techniques.

While designers can't divert every disaster – or implement the strong leadership needed to pull a country out of a crisis – in a developing nation in which they are effectively strangers they can at least deliver replacement buildings that people want.

One story to emerge from the destruction of Collège Boisrond Tonnerre involves the behaviour of one of its teachers as the earthquake hit. Cross explains that the teacher was playing basketball with some students in the school playground when the disaster struck. Instead of running away with his pupils, the teacher ran to the school to warn those inside. But because of the way the building was constructed, with poor reinforcements and poor-quality materials, it collapsed in under a minute. When 20 students were trapped within, this member of staff was forced to lead his own personal excavation mission. He moved pieces of concrete one piece at a time for hours on end. When the light became too dim, and the rescue effort had to be abandoned overnight leaving a child alone inside, the teacher promised him he would return the following day. He did so, and the boy was eventually released from his temporary prison.

"One thing is clear about this school and so many of the others across the country," concludes Cross. "It wasn't the earthquake that cost lives, it was the buildings. But ultimately it will be the people who will be the key to making sure these societies breathe again."