Global Dialogues Travels to Haiti


A team of architects, engineers, and volunteers traveled to Haiti with the AIANY Global Dialogues Committee. While there, the group constructed two structures with the help of local residents.

Noushin Ehsan

Soon after the Haitian earthquake, the AIANY Global Dialogues Committee, which I co-chair, began organizing a program to help. I was inspired by a team called Love for Haiti, an organization that sends groups of physicians and nurses to Haiti each month and takes a practical approach to pitching in with relief efforts. When founder Dr. Muni Tahzib invited me to travel to Haiti and lead a team of eight architects, engineers, and other volunteers, I accepted. Within a few days, we planned our trip and arrived in Port-au-Prince on 03.03.10 at a moderately undamaged school on the outskirts of the city — our base for the next five days.

Upon arrival, we surveyed the conditions of various public and private buildings. Some of our A&E team members specialize in disaster assessment, and with their help we identified the unsafe buildings. We then began collecting data for future planning and rebuilding of Haiti. These investigations were some of the most heart-wrenching and emotional times for the team.

Although architects and engineers often have no experience with hands-on construction, and our initial intention was only to assess and survey existing conditions, we were inspired by the urgent need for housing to experiment and assembled two temporary structures. One structure was made with rigid polyvinyl chloride (PVC) tubes, one of the few locally available materials — an idea conceived by Maryanne Fike, the co-founder of Love for Haiti. The other structure was constructed with 1/2-inch-diameter, 30-foot lengths of re-bar, an idea conjured up by Mark Freehill, a Dominican Republic assistant with Love for Haiti. Ironically, both concepts were derived from our non-architect team members, underscoring the idea that we architects must “think outside the box.” These versatile assemblages were easy to build and move; they did not require skilled labor; and they allowed for variations in their coverings. While we began construction, the local populace observed our enthusiasm, offered their assistance, and even helped erect the two structures.

We met Dr. Florentino Latortue, a Haitian with a Ph.D. in structural engineering from the U.S., who took himself away from his prior commitments to tirelessly drive us around and explain why some of the outside help was not working in Haiti. We saw some imported prefabricated houses but were inappropriate for Haitian habitation. For example, even though there is no water or sewage system, these houses have showers, full kitchens, and toilets. Also, the temperature in Haiti often reaches 110 degrees Fahrenheit, but ventilation is absent in these houses. Latortue pointed out that every day people are dying from lack of shelter, but well-intentioned foreigners are taking up valuable time to develop extensive building codes with the authorities.

Our trip to Haiti was an eye opening experience and prompted us to recalibrate our thoughts as to how one can effectively assist them. I would strongly recommend such a trip for all architects, engineers, and any interested party who wants to be involved in rebuilding Haiti.

We all know that the devastation in Haiti is vast, and clearly it will take considerable time and effort to help rebuild. Therefore, in addition to Love for Haiti, I am consulting with different people and organizations to work toward additional tangible solutions that can lead to improved habitation. With the Global Dialogues Committee, we will generate new design ideas for Haiti and try to make sure it gets built. Then, we will return for further help and public feedback. We intend to use local technology, materials, and manpower; incorporate Hatian culture and habitation; seek acceptance by the local residents; and teach them additional skills to improve their lives.

In upcoming months, the committee is planning to request proposals for design solutions that can be built by Haitians with available, inexpensive materials. We will give preferences to ideas that can be utilized as interim solutions and, with additional work, can be made into permanent structures. We then hope to fund the winning designs so the designers and a few volunteers can travel to Haiti to build them in a way that Haitians can expand upon and adapt. Our overall goal is not only to create near term, usable housing, but to create a new mindset among Haitians.

I urge interested readers to contact me at to help with this cause. Also, click AdditionalNotesOnHaiti to read my additional notes and lessons learned; the description of the temporary structures assembled in Haiti; and a few suggestions for Criteria for the Suitable Design for Haitian Habitation.

Architects Travel to Cuba for Global Dialogues

Event: Global Dialogues hosts trip to Cuba
Havana, Cuba, 11.07-14.09
Travelers: Margaret O’Donoghue Castillo, AIA, LEED AP — AIANY Vice President for Public Outreach & Principal, Helpern Architects; Pedro Castillo — Principal, Pedro Castillo Architects; Judith DiMaio, AIA — Dean, School of Architecture & Design at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT); Jeremy Edmunds, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP — Project Manager & Sustainability Advisor; Noushin Ehsan, AIA — President, 2nd Opinion Design & Chair, AIANY Global Dialogues Committee; Frank Mruk, AIA, RIBA — Associate Dean, School of Architecture & Design at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT); Brian Taylor — Professor, New York Institute of Technology (NYIT); Gerard F. Vasisko, AIA — Associate Principal, Perkins + Will; Margot Woolley, AIA — Assistant Commissioner and Public Design Commission Liaison, NYC Department of Design and Construction
Organizer: AIANY Global Dialogues Committee; Margaret Castillo, AIA, LEED AP

From 11.07 to 14.09, nine architects and designers traveled to Havana, Cuba, on a historic voyage. The trip was initiated by Noushin Ehsan, AIA, chair of the AIANY Global Dialogues Committee, and Margaret Castillo, AIA, LEED AP, AIANY Vice President for Public Outreach. The Fundación Amistad, under the leadership of its president Luly Duke, transformed the proposed wish list into a trip that exceeded everyone’s expectations. The success of the trip was due to the knowledge and efforts of the administrators of Fundación Amistad and the respect that Duke, a Cuban-American, has earned in Cuba.

In addition to the program (click Cuba-AIA Agenda for more information), the group had several opportunities to meet with the highest-ranking professors of architecture and planning in Cuba, and historians who have been devoted to the successful preservation of Havana’s historic center. Architect Roberto Gottardi gave a tour of the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte (See “Foundation Catches Up With 2009 Brunner Grant Recipient,” by Alysa Nahmias, recipient of the 2009 Brunner Grant, and Glenda Reed, Center for Architecture Foundation, in this issue to read more about a documentary on the school). We visited several private houses that were designed in the 1950s by noted architects, including a house designed by Richard Neutra and built in 1954 for the Schuthess family, now occupied by the Swiss Ambassador. We were also invited to meet with Jonathan Farrar, the Chief of Mission, U.S. Interests Section, at a party in the former U.S. Embassy (now his residence).

The individual stories of the people who went on the trip, those we met, and the outlook for the future of Cuba were varied and often very emotional. For example, Pedro Castillo, who was returning to his native Cuba after 50 years, found the school that he used to attend when he was a child and the cathedral where his parents were married. I, myself, was in ecstasy when I found the Baha’i Center in Havana and spent the celebration of our prophet Bahá’u’lláh’s birthday with fellow Cuban Baha’is who, until only recently, had not been allowed to practice their faith for decades.

After exploring local architecture and attending tours and discussions with Cuban professional experts by day, we enjoyed the different historical nightclubs and cabarets in the evening. Among them was the Tropicana, now celebrating its 70th year. In our free time we experienced Havana’s nearby beautiful beaches. Some of us saw a modern dance performance at the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte. We also listened to a choir of Baroque music in the cathedral.

Above all, as part of the humanitarian aspect of our trip, and reflecting the main mission of Fundación Amistad, we were asked to bring gifts of basic goods, such as tissue paper, toothpaste, clothes, and other necessary items, for children who are cancer survivors. Observing the smiles of the youths, who through the help of Fundación have built hope and the ability to continue with their schooling, was truly one of the highlights of the trip.

On behalf of the Global Dialogues Committee, together with Margaret Castillo, and the Fundación Amistad, we will soon host a symposium at the Center for Architecture where we will present selected pictures, documentation, and narratives of our nine-member group.