Haitian tragedy highlights traditional treasures

Haiti’s 2010 earthquake lasted only 30 seconds but proved so disastrous the country’s loss cannot be measured. While the rubble of destruction and tragedy still litters Haitian landscape and memory, some surprising victors stand stylishly among the collapsed concrete: Gingerbread houses.

Not the Christmastime confections. Not the cutesy Martha’s Vineyard constructions (closer, though!). Turn-of-the-century structures unique to Haiti, the Gingerbreads were nicknamed by 1950s tourists for their architectural flourishes and intricate, lively details. The Gingerbread style is an amalgamation of international styles, but the Gingerbreads were built in Haiti – for Haiti.

The detailed funk and flair inspired the Gingerbread name, but the major architectural features make these buildings  specific to Haiti. High ceilings let hot air rise and residents breathe easier. Large, tall windows and doors can be opened for cool cross breezes or shut and shuttered to protect against stormy tropical weather. The designs of the Gingerbreads are so mindful of Haiti’s natural conditions that executive director of the Haitian Education and Leadership Programme, Conor Bohan, praises them for embodying “green designs 100 years before the green movement” and inherently being “extremely efficient.”*

On top of anticipating the “green movement,” the Gingerbreads also anticipated the “local movement.” While the designs incorporate elements from all over the globe, Gingerbread materials – usually a combination of timber and masonry – were largely local. Unfortunately, many local materials have now been depleted (or banned from construction use due to a history of fires destroying wooden buildings). But their use in construction supported local industry and supplied builders with, for instance, wood that had developed resistance to potential damage by indigenous pests…

In addition to being pest-resistant (in some cases), the Gingerbreads were also unexpectedly and impressively earthquake-resistant. As Olsen Jean Julien, project manager for the Haiti Cultural Recovery Project recognizes, “Their architecture shows us that the people who built them had the memory of hurricanes and the first earthquake in 1770. They respected seismic codes even before they had been written.”** With local materials, and often mindfully-engineered, pliant partially wooden structures, the Gingerbreads were able to roll with the punches, sway and bend with the earthquake, and remain standing.

Without discounting the seriousness of the earthquake’s effects, Haitians might embrace the silver lining threaded throughout the country. The Gingerbreads shine with their fanciful facades, their hybrid building structures, and their representation of Haiti at its most culturally rich and cosmopolitan. They showcase the staying power of Haitian tradition, but if they are going to keep Haiti going, Haiti (and others!) must keep them going. This is the time for Haitians – Gingerbread owners and enthusiasts alike – to take charge of their heritage in the long wake of this disaster; to restore their cultural history and construct their cultural future, so that the Gingerbreads can continue in what they do best: sheltering and celebrating Haiti.

*from Architectural attention seekers by Rebecca Knight for Financial Times: http://on.ft.com/p7XEkJ

**from The Gingerbread Reclamation by Marisa Mazria Katz for Wall Street Journal: http://on.wsj.com/lObZgi

Photo credit: Sasha Bezzubov for Wall Street Journal