Harris: Design for developing nations developing at IIT

Architect Ann Clark's graduate-level course uses boarding school project in Haiti as real-world lesson

Melissa Harris

Chicago Confidential

December 23, 2012


Chicago architect Ann Clark is designing a boarding school that will sit in a saddle-shaped field of mostly beans in Grand-Bois, Haiti.

Among the challenges: One side of the field slopes more than 25 degrees, and getting there is rougher than white-water rafting.

Along the 40-mile, 41/2-hour drive from Port-au-Prince in April, Clark warned her client: "I'm telling you, I don't know how we're going to transport steel beams on this road." Her boyfriend riding in the back of the 4x4 sarcastically suggested a helicopter.

Clark has since turned her challenge into a graduate-level class at the Illinois Institute of Technology called "The Role of the Architect in Developing Countries." IIT's architecture program approached Clark about teaching after the Tribune published a story in May about her first project in Haiti, a national teaching hospital run by the Boston-based charity Partners in Health.

Since Clark's April visit, Partners in Health has finished construction of the 205,000-square-foot facility in Mirebalais and is in the process of hiring and training about 1,000 employees. The hospital will be the largest and most sophisticated in Haiti, and Partners in Health plans to begin accepting patients there in the first half of 2013.

"Our biggest need is support for the first-year operating budget," Dr. David Walton, who grew up in Skokie and led the building effort, said via e-mail. "When we open the hospital, and when people see the value — the decency and the appropriateness — of quality health care for the people of Haiti in a public facility ... we are confident that funding for years two and beyond will be forthcoming."

With Clark's work in Mirebalais finished, she has turned her attention to other projects: A store for fashion retailer Peruvian Connection on Armitage Avenue, houses, the boarding school and her class. Her students spent the first half of the semester devising master plans for the Grand-Bois site.

"It was really, really difficult for them," Clark said. "First of all, they all told me they had only designed in Chicago on a rectangular lot that was flat."

To get to Grand-Bois, a remote village two miles from the Dominican Republic border, one rises before the roosters crow. In April, Clark was on the road in a two-car caravan by 5:30 a.m. with her client Edwidge Dorelien, whose father grew up in Grand-Bois and is founder and chairman of Haiti Sustainable Education; her boyfriend, cardiologist Samuel Dudley; a Tribune reporter and photographer; Chicago designer Jacob Wahler; and a Haitian water engineer.

First, we stopped to pick up Dorelien's brother, whose house was destroyed in the earthquake. The houses in this neighborhood are all walled, making the city look medieval in the darkness. And a night of heavy rain had pushed all of the trash into piles at the bottom of the roads, creating a stench so rancid Clark almost got sick.

Once we passed Thomazeau, the only road to Grand-Bois turned to gravel and later to rocks and mud, with some intermittent sand pits. The 4x4, whose engine wheezed like a police siren, bottomed out several times, each hit making me wish I had brought along a neck brace.

According to Lonely Planet, King George III of Britain once asked an admiral to describe the island of Hispaniola, now divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The admiral responded by handing the king a crumpled piece of paper to show how mountainous it was.

The road over the mountains to Grand-Bois is no better than an American hiking trail. Along the way, we pass women wearing bright-colored head scarves, skirts and sandals. They are walking 10 miles or more to the Saturday market, balancing large baskets of goods atop their heads. Occasionally, someone is riding or walking alongside a mule or donkey, slapping them with switches.

In 41/2 hours, we pass just one car. That is a problem. The road is so narrow that the other car has to back up to let us pass.

Clark and her boyfriend continue to raise concerns about the ability to get building materials to Grand-Bois. Dorelien, himself a teacher at a boarding school in New Jersey, dismisses them.

"When you see where my father came from and you see where I am, you have to believe," he says. "We will have no problem getting steel and rebar up here."

As we climb, the air turns soft and fresh. Gone is the dust and filth of Port-au-Prince. Cool breezes roll down the barren mountains, and panoramas of bean and corn farms — and animals out to pasture — in the greener valleys are close to picturesque.

From the crest of Dorelien's land, where he wants to build the school, one can see the Dominican Republic. Facing that direction, the land is an ever-deepening shade of green. Turn around to face Haiti and everything is brown, thanks to deforestation and desperation.

Clark snaps photos every 50 yards or so, thoroughly documenting the property. The first hurdle is that Dorelien's ancestral land is about 150 yards off the road. He's going to need to acquire the parcels in front of his, one of which is a sugar cane field.

But there are reassuring features as well. Dorelien already has paid an engineer $3,000 to do a proper site survey. And there's more flat land in front of Dorelien's parcel than Clark anticipated, which would mean an easier build.

Still, the Haitian water engineer traveling with us warns Clark that given flooding concerns during the rainy season, it would be best if she built up the hill a bit.

To convey this to her students, Clark arranged Skype calls with Dorelien; his daughter Audrey, who is doing postdoctoral work at the University of Michigan on demography and public health; Nathalie Jolivert, a recent graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, whose father died in the earthquake; architect David Hampton who previously worked for Sean Penn's relief organization, J/P HRO; Michelle Sakayan, a Chicago architect who helped lead the design of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa; architect Malcolm Morris, who designed a school in Mirebalais for L'Ecole De Choix led by Chicagoan Laura Hartman; and Stuart Dykstra, a hydrogeologist from Woodridge-based V3.

"They got a fair amount of firsthand experience from people, which is really good, because I refuse to go in there and say, 'You're going to design a boarding school in Haiti' and just let them dream and not think about it in real terms," Clark said. "That's what made it even more challenging because they can't use anything to build with. And then we get to the point, where I say, 'Yeah. There's this road. You just designed something with a 35-foot-long truss. How are you going to get that up the road? How's it going to get there exactly?'"

In Clark's view, much of the aid that flooded Haiti after the earthquake was "inappropriate." And the proposals for temporary and permanent housing were "useless" because the architects planning them had "insufficient information" about the community and the culture.

So Clark demanded that each student ask:

•Does their design demonstrate an understanding of Haitian culture and the community? (She made the class spend two weeks reading Haitian literature and history.)

•Does it take into account local conditions, climate and ecology (such as the rainy season)?

•Does it incorporate available materials? (Deforestation has wiped out Haiti's wood supply. No wood allowed.)

•Is it sensitive to the overall psychology of Haiti? (For instance, putting girls on the second floors of the dormitories for privacy and safety.)

"The kids who were in my class, they wanted to do something that felt real and to sink their teeth into something that felt more of-the-world," Clark said. "I think they enjoyed it, and I felt like I actually had something to offer them."

Clark will teach at IIT again in the spring.

Melissa Harris can be reached at mmharris@tribune.com or 312-222-4582. Twitter @chiconfidential