Beyond Buildings


Haiti, Again

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“What B.S.” was the (anonymous) reaction of one reader to my post last week on the disaster in Haiti, and indeed, it is difficult to argue with the point that what is needed in Haiti is not analysis, but action: saving lives, rebuilding the city, and, as one writer pointed out, rebuilding the “social relations…that make up the city.”


Nevertheless, we do need to learn from the earthquake in Haiti, and we need to help, as we can, the city of Port-au-Prince to rebuild in a good way.


Kevin Matthews points out that my comparison to the Loma Prieta earthquake in California was flawed: that one took place far from population centers, while in Haiti the epicenter was almost directly below Port-au-Prince. Obviously, the geology was different as well. Moreover, Haiti last saw a major earthquake almost two centuries ago, while California experiences them regularly and so, presumably, is better prepared. Matthews goes on to point out that the damage in the Bay Area was nonetheless significant.


What is even more worrisome is his statement that “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.” If this is true, and I am not sure how to verify it, that certainly gives pause. As Matthews also points out, even in states with strong codes, many pre-code buildings still stand. I live in Cincinnati, a few hundred miles from New Madrid, which saw a devastating earthquake in 1811 that was felt in New York and Boston. I do not think anybody here knows what to do if a quake were to occur.


Reader AEEDT points out that “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.” True, but it is the effect that I was comparing. In both cases, the disaster caused great human suffering, though it was larger by an order of many magnitudes in Haiti. In New Orleans, we should have known and prepared better, which makes it all the worse, but the effect is still that the city is destroyed and must be rebuilt in a better way.


I leave aside here all those who simply dismissed the ability of architects to contribute anything, think they can’t act because (as Boxarch claims) they can only think in “big ideas,” or should act only to help vouchsafe private property, the family, and other social units and economic categories, as AR9 claimed. I will repeat: as citizens, we should all contribute, however we can, to answer the human devastation caused by this disaster. As architects or those who think about architecture, we must ask ourselves what specific expertise we have that we can offer. I do think we know something about making safer buildings, and about making better places for people to live. We spent a lot of time—and society spent a lot of money—for us to gain that knowledge. Let’s apply it.




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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.