A Young Haitian Rebuilds After the Devastating Quake
"At a certain period it was hard to see hope," says Josué Azor of Canapé Vert, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where he grew up. Once "a very quiet and middle-class neighborhood" full of greenery and scores of homes, it suffered a grievous blow from a 7.0-magnitude earthquake on January 12, 2010. While exact figures remain disputed, estimates put the death toll between 220,000 and 316,000, with more than two-thirds of the capital’s buildings in ruins. More than 170 years had passed since the country’s last major earthquake: lack of building code enforcement, poorly trained engineers, and shoddy concrete and masonry construction had left Haiti vulnerable.
"Everything collapsed," Azor says, and neither his family nor most of his neighbors wanted to return to the devastated landscape. "They thought it wasn’t a good idea, that I was a little crazy." Undeterred, Azor chose to return alone to his family’s plot to rebuild a peaceful dwelling, construct it economically, and ensure it wouldn’t be felled by a future disaster. "I knew I would have to find a way," he says. "I wanted something very clean, very simple…I wanted to make it happen, but in a good way."
In 2010 Azor was in his early twenties, and in Haiti, it’s rare for a young person to have his or her own place before marriage. But Azor is used to cutting his own path: his parents, aunts, and uncles are all in finance, administration, and marketing, and while he initially studied for those fields, he opted to pursue photography professionally instead. After the earthquake, a friend suggested he construct a place for himself: "A lot of people were building shelters, so the first idea was to have something cheap but strong." His old family plot was still vacant: "The land was free. I said okay, maybe I should try this."
"It was a very humble project because I didn’t have a lot of money," says Azor. He knew he would have to be very hands-on with construction to keep costs low and to modify the plan to fit his needs. Through a friend of a friend he found an engineer—the notion of an architect is relatively new in Haiti—who suggested an initial plan. Azor had two unwavering conditions for the engineer: The build shouldn’t be expensive but it must incorporate an earthquake-resistant design. Its structure, a mixture of reinforced concrete and concrete masonry units, had to be able to resist a future quake. Azor immediately made changes: he moved the bathroom to allow sunlight in and enlarged the windows. And he raised his walls to 13 feet, a full five feet above most Haitian homes. That height "makes you feel like you’re breathing better, that you have more air circulating," he explains, acknowledging an especially critical need in tropical Haiti.
Even more essential to Azor was the question of illumination. "Light was a very big preoccupation for me," he admits. "I even say I have two houses: during the day it’s [one] place and at night I work with the light to create ambiance." In his backyard garden a wall-mounted light box, punctured with holes, shines gently over cushions and a small table. Azor frequently refers to his place as a refuge, a sanctuary of sorts, and his backyard, where he entertains friends and family, is its heart. Azor describes the visitors’ journey from the street to the garden, which is filled with plants and even carries the sound of water from a nearby stream: "You’re coming through a corridor, a long way like a tunnel, and then you’re discovering a quiet place."
Word has spread fast of Azor’s unusual home. Does he hope this home will inspire others to rebuild, and in a way that’s ready for a future earthquake? "I have to admit," Azor says with a note of lingering incredulity, "when people come to my place, after that, they will talk about my place and say ‘Whoa, if I have to construct, if I have to build something, this is definitely inspiring.’" Azor is quick to point out that it isn’t just the more minimalist aesthetic that others find so notable, it’s also the use of simple white surfaces and humble materials like exposed concrete and iron. "The materials used here are considered as suitable for poor people," he explains. "Then when you use them in a new way, people find them to be very chic and they are surprised that it can go so well."
With all of this positive feedback, one might wonder if Azor will embark on a new phase in his career—that of designer. "Oh! I already have had that offer many times but I said, well, no. I can’t pretend I can do this." For Azor, creating a home from scratch can only be a personal endeavor. "From time to time,"
he explains, "you see what is best for you."