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.