Beyond Buildings



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I have no desire to add to the uses to which pundits, most of them mendacious, have put poor Haiti in the last few days, but I do think it is worth pointing out a simple fact—namely, that buildings failed, and failed spectacularly. They failed by the thousands, and it does not seem to have mattered if they were shacks or palaces. As several of those pundits have pointed out, an earthquake of similar proportions (though degrees matter an immense amount in these disasters) caused only a handful of collapses and relatively few deaths when it occurred in San Francisco in 1989 and in Los Angeles in 1993.


In other words: codes work. It is absolutely possible to create structures that are better able to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. What is also a fact is that this requires an investment in buildings that Haiti and many other poor countries are not able to make. If we are going to help build a better world in such places, we will literally have to do so, and architects will have to be part of that process. We must devise smarter and safer buildings. We will, however, have to be willing to simply invest resources in making any improvement possible. That is something we as a society have been unwilling to do. So, what can architects do beyond such essential aid?


Beyond the buildings, the larger architecture of Port-au-Prince also failed, and is still doing so as I write. A good and safe city is not just a collection of structures, but also of infrastructures. Some of those foundations of urbanity are tangible, such as sewers and transportation, while others, such as working firefighting and police forces, are less so. Yet all are necessary. One of the things architects can do beyond offer technical expertise (which is as much the province of engineers) is to offer their ability to synthesize an understanding of what it means to dwell communally, and to offer visions of how we can use history to build a better future. Architects know what worked and didn’t work, from Lisbon to China, they can think spatially and they can think structurally. They need to do so now.


Perhaps the age of the visionary architect is over, but we are in dire need of clear visual and analytical models that can stand against the dead-end urban policies that pervade most urban developments. Haiti makes the case, but so did New Orleans. There, architects provided some visions of what could make that city make more sense, but none of it came to anything. I am afraid that we will live to see another disaster there, just as we might well see one in Haiti.


I have lived through earthquakes. They are as close as I have come to experiencing unfathomable terror. Yet I was safe within the structure of my dwelling, my city, and my society. It is a safety I wish on everybody, and that I believe we can only provide if we invest and plan, do and think about how to make better places to live.



Comments (16 Total)

  • Posted by: Boxarch | Time: 12:54 PM Monday, February 08, 2010

    Sorry. As I wrote earlier, Architecture is still too concerned with BIG ideas. As someone else has written - actually many many others in this and other venues - Haiti is a desperately poor country. It doesn't need construction systems and codes which it can't afford, it needs a way to get water, cooking fuel, and sanitation to its people NOW. Maybe we should be thinking about how to organize the physical environment around that now, and how neighborhood, towns, and cities can grow from it later.

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  • Posted by: allyhing | Time: 11:00 PM Wednesday, February 03, 2010

    We need anti-seismic low cost steel framed houing to rebuild HAITI.. Contact me for my designs. Ally Hing (520)689-5598

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 10:15 PM Sunday, January 31, 2010

    I guess it could be said that in a perfect world thing could be done perfectly. But the simple fact is we are not in a perfect world. What people fail to understand is that in Haiti we have the problem of poverty, The lack of money to build better structures is the real issue and always has been. Architects knwo it takes money to build a structure that is earthquake proof. Haiti shoud be wrote off actually. It would be far more cost effective to move the people to other nations. Haiti has some major issues that are not going to be solved over nite. Architects fall to understand the fact that in Haiti we have non skilled workers to build the homes. If you want a lowcost earthquake proof building design then to float above the ground and avoid the shock wave. It is called a cushing system. Build them light weight. With shock nutural leg units. That midagate the power of the earthquake. Or you can build buildings for 400 times the cost that will fall down due to the materials being subgrade. A plywood house is better then a concreat in a earthguake prown Island. Good luck.

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  • Posted by: archaid | Time: 11:21 AM Saturday, January 30, 2010

    There are currently known structural designs for earthquake resistant structures. Building codes set minimum standards for structural and other design elements to establish reasonable amount of risk, making construction is affordable. Exceeding building code requirements reduces the amount of risk increasing safety. Haiti may have had a limited building code, permit, and inspections process or none at all.

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  • Posted by: Greg Higgins | Time: 8:53 PM Wednesday, January 27, 2010

    Well said Mr. Betsky; Let's hope big "D" architectural design can be held at bay in Haiti until the correct materials and methods of assembly are defined. That's the first order of business. A modular steel hybrid system should be developed (actually has) that is design neutral, and when assembled -- virtually self-inspecting -- and one that can adapt to local culture and skill levels. I'm an architect.

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  • Posted by: nammitt | Time: 10:23 AM Monday, January 25, 2010

    I think structures and code are among several issues that usually go unconsidered by many architecture and design students today. Anyone wishing to be an architect must consider the safety and basic structural requirements of any building they go on to design - the aspect of engineering a safe and secure buildings can't always be simply allocated to structural and civil engineers! Architects have a social responsibility to provide safe and secure dwellings for their clients.

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  • Posted by: Kevin Matthews _ ArchitectureWeek | Time: 2:09 PM Thursday, January 21, 2010

    Thanks for the thoughtful commentary. A detailed comparison with the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco area is instructive: - California has experienced large quakes regularly. Haiti had not within two centuries. - The Loma Prieta quake epicenter was in a mountain area relatively far from the population centers, compared to the relatively close and shallow Haiti quake. - The total number of building collapses was rather higher from Loma Prieta than people tend to account for - since dozens more fell in the Santa Cruz area than San Francisco. - The simple prevalence of wood frame as opposed to masonry construction - separate from all other cultural and regulatory factors - is extremely significant in the survival rate of houses and small commercial buildings. - The monetary value of property damage from Loma Prieta might end up higher, even with the Haiti quake one of the top ten deadliest of the modern era. What does this say about Californians' relative ability to protect their property, proportional to their wealth? (It's a terribly irrelevant consideration at this stage of human rescue and relief, but not to the property insurance industry.) - About three times more people live in US areas, in six states, that do not have state or national building codes as the entire population of Haiti. - Outside of California and a few other quake-prone areas, relatively few buildings in the US, built in the 1970s and before, have received adequate seisimic upgrades. How would our most of our older building stock perform in a 7.0 Richter quake?

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  • Posted by: RBrianDietrich | Time: 1:25 PM Thursday, January 21, 2010

    Disaster Relief 101 for 2010 ! What WE all can do together .... a sustained response will surely include 'design', entreprenurial spirit and a generousity not seen to date ! Build well ....

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  • Posted by: AAEDTCC | Time: 11:17 PM Wednesday, January 20, 2010

    New Orleans is a completely different issue. There's considerable evidence that hurricanes and global warming are linked. Earthquakes, on the other hand, are a geological event. Unless the Haitians were literally digging a pit to Hell (as Pat Roberts seems to suggest), it's unlikely there were any man-made causes of the earthquake. I don't know for sure, but it also seems like the landmass of Haiti itself was the result of a volcano. Basically, this has probably happened multiple times across the millennia and will probably continue to happen. New Orleans, on the other hand was more than likely avoidable. New Orleans had, and still has, skilled masons. There were systems in place to deal with the weather. The storm was bad, but there was a crucial breakdown in the chain of responsibility. Katrina no doubt would have been a problem either way, but the situation was no doubt fatally worsened by the lack of maintenance, both of structural and institutional systems.

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  • Posted by: AAEDTCC | Time: 11:00 PM Wednesday, January 20, 2010

    I think when it comes to architecture in places like Haiti, the engineers could really help in creating applicable minimum standards for structural stability. There's a large population, a relatively small square footage of land to build on, and a very low budget. The engineers are tasked with advancing building technology so that structurally sound constructions can be built more economically.

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  • Posted by: Boxarch | Time: 8:39 AM Wednesday, January 20, 2010

    There is a reason that architecture, as an institution, has not been able to seriously address such catastrophes as 9/11and Katrina, and will not in my view, Haiti. It lies in the The Institution of Architecture – schools, journals, and awards programs. From the very beginning of their training architects are taught – by example if not by dictums such as Daniel Burnham's "Make no small plans" – that a failed big idea is much more valuable than a small successful one. As long as Architecture teaches, publishes, and awards only big ideas – flawed as they might be, the modest ideas which one after the other are necessary to succeed in every walk of life, architects will remain marginalized as courtiers and the handmaidens of the elite.

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  • Posted by: ar9 | Time: 12:33 AM Wednesday, January 20, 2010

    Ugh. This post makes a great argument for the non-necessity af architects. Thanks for nothing. I would agrue that my fellow architects have not even the faintest notion of what it means to dwell communally. We like to think we do, but we're clueless, since we all went to school in the 20th century. Send 1000 unemployed architects to Haiti, and they will serve best by cleaning up rubble, mixing mortar, and stacking bricks - as instructed by the engineers of course. No amount of goatee-stroking synthesis of understanding will help. Please... End government corruption, establish societal standards such as the rule of law and the protection of private property (which encourage free enterprise and investment), and most importantly, support the family, civic, and religious institutions that serve to encourage the development of personal responsibility and other civic virtues that support human freedom and flourishing. It is not a viable process to dump in the cash, bring planners from on high, and then wring our hands about how our visions were not fully implemented. And no, Mr. Betsky, "a good and safe city is not just a collection of structures, [and] also of infrastructures", it is a collection of interconnected personal and social relationships first, foremost, and finally. No, Mr. Betsky, codes don't "work" - rather people within a society who feel responsible enough to one another to follow codes, they are the ones who "work". When will the cultural elite in this country cease to think of everything in terms of top-down structures, and regain some notion of the human person and people in social relationships. Unfortunately thinking through a tragedy in structural terms seems so easy in just 520 words. This article misses the point dramatically and dangerously. Architect's can't save the world - and especially not by offering our abilities to, um, think really hard about it. Let's all just take the shortcut and re-read Aristotle on the civic virtues and the life of the city.

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  • Posted by: DCFETT | Time: 6:24 PM Tuesday, January 19, 2010

    "If architects gave them safe structures, they'd probably sell the door hardware for more ganja"...or Voodoo dolls, right, idiot?

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  • Posted by: wlfadesign | Time: 6:00 PM Tuesday, January 19, 2010

    A lot has to do with the quake generating just 6 miles below Port au Prince. Post study of the area should bear out some new information regarding what can be re-built and stand up to the extreme shaking that took place.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 5:36 PM Tuesday, January 19, 2010

    " offer their ability to synthesize an understanding of what it means to dwell communally..." What typical pseudo-intellectual drivel. No wonder he teaches and 'curates'...didn't last long in the harsh world of reality. B.S. is not what Hait needs. Haiti needs a basic civiization and reasonable society, for starters, which ain't something an architect is going to give them. If architects gave them safe structures, they'd probably sell the door hardware for more ganja.

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  • Posted by: will h | Time: 5:23 PM Tuesday, January 19, 2010

    I studied under Aaron, at Cal Poly Pomona. His, is the most wildly intelligent architectural mind on the planet. The images we are seeing from Haiti recall New Orleans but one order of magnitude worse (and considerably drier). Hopefully the instruments in place to re-build Haiti are aware of Mr. Betsky.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.