Les petites maisons
"Don´t go there, it´s a waste of time and money. You won´t make it anyway." That is what friends and acquaintance told the architect Bonaventura Visconti di Modrone after he met with the founder of “Ayitimoun yo”, an NGO operating in Haiti. She made a proposal that Bonaventura, 27 years old and fresh from University, could not decline. The proposal — to manage and build an orphanage in Anse-Á-Pitres (Haiti) — would have a profound effect on his life and his career as an architect.
Suddenly, Bonaventura was confronted with a great many questions concerning financial, cultural, functional and logistic aspects of a project he would soon initiate. His wanted to build something “for real”, and this project was great opportunity to do it under the spell of the socially valuable project of building an orphanage.
The financial support came in a combination of lucky coincidences. The project could proceed thanks to the financial backing of Pierluigi and Laura Loro Piana, who were immediately inspired by the work of Ayitimoun yo and Bonaventura’s architectonical concept. It was a financial investment that would bring great social benefit and personal satisfaction.
Financing the project was stressful but not as complicated as organizing the labor force on the site, which involved overcoming cultural barriers. Like the builders of the Tower Babel, Bonaventura found himself confronted problems of communication. He had to learn Spanish and elementary Creole, the mother tongue of the Haitian population, as fast as possible. He supervised the work of some 40 Haitian men who laboured five days a week for over a year to complete the project. Because the labourers were unskilled, they required close supervision. There were exceptions. One particularly good worker, Joseph, could produce 3000 bricks in 21 days with nothing but his bare hands and a metal cast, made on site to create anti-seismic bricks. The architect had also to arrange the logistics by himself. He needed to organize all the materials, find different providers, organize the material transport to the site, and constantly check the quantity and quality of what was delivered in order to ensure that he was not being cheated. It is worth mentioning that these tasks and steps of the building process would not be accomplished without the support of the NGO collaborators on site: Edoardo Monti and Rocio Fernandez, who were able to help Bonaventura in the toughest moments of the project.
The orphanage was built very close to the border with the Dominican Republic. Haiti has very limited resources and most of the materials, such as the concrete, the sand for the bricks, wood, and aluminum have to be imported from the Dominican Republic. But trucks are not allowed to cross the border, so materials must be unloaded at the border and reloaded onto Haitian vehicles.
Lack of water and electricity at the construction site significantly complicated the situation. Also, Bonaventura had to buy all the basic working tools such as hammers, saws, clamps, etc. himself, and the few he was able to rent such as the diesel generator or the concrete mixer, were not the most reliable machines. However, strange as it sounds, given the scarcity of primary resources, the Bonaventura did manage to create an earthquake-proof structure, which, considering the location, is of the utmost importance for the children´s safety.
As illustrated in the photographs, and graphics, the architecture is far from simple. This pilot project is clear in its functional organization and innovative for its context, reinterpreting the genius loci of the surroundings and inspiring and teaching the locals methods of contemporary architecture. The success generated by this accomplishment is clearly seen in the will of the Haitian population to build their own houses as volunteers and to actively seek help instead of passively receiving it. Perhaps this demonstrates that architecture has within it a potential to create real social value.
“Leo Bettini, Planphase magazine, issue N°5”