A Young Haitian Rebuilds After the Devastating Quake

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By Zachary Edelson / Published by Dwell
In the wake of a catastrophic earthquake, a young Haitian photographer builds anew.

"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. 

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Josué Azor’s childhood neighborhood was hard hit by the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. Azor retuned to his family’s plot to build a new home, designed to resist future quakes and decorated with custom artwork and furniture.

    "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." 

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The sculptures by the entrance were crafted by Haitian sculptor Serge Jolimeau. Azor worked with artist Barbara Prézeau-Stephenson on the eye-catching front door: he made slight modifications, though she fabricated the iron pieces and he credits her with the core design.

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."

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Perimeter walls and distance from the street protects the home’s privacy. Azor made the pendant lights that hang over the dining table. His concrete floors are sealed with Drylok. Azor began with white interiors, experimenting with colors over time before arriving at red for the doors and blue for cushions.

"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.  

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The sole remnant of Azor’s old home hangs in his kitchen: a metal window screen with heart-like cutouts. The stool and painted plywood countertop was crafted by Janvier Saint Phanor, a cabinetmaker.

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."

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Under Azor’s direction, Phanor also crafted the light box in his living room: made from perforated wood, it’s painted with white fluorescent paint and contains a red light. A heavily modified IKEA pendant lamp, outfitted with a black light, works with the light box to create a unique radiance at night. The chairs were designed by Azor’s friend Fritzlaine Thézan; the pillows were crafted by Mirta Saintil to his specifications.

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." 

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Concrete pavers lead from Azor’s back door to his backyard garden and deck. The roof’s overhang protects the home’s walls from rain.

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."  

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Prézeau-Stephenson also designed and built the sliding metal door. Azor’s home has no front gate, so every window is also secured with metal bars.

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The city’s public water can be unreliable, so he has a large drum that stores his supply for dry days. The drum is secured by three reinforced concrete columns hidden from view. His deck is plywood and elevated just above the ground by posts underneath. The pillows also come from Saintil and the table is an IKEA frame on casters that Azor installed.

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A view of Azor’s home across a gully where a shallow creek runs; its gently babbling water is audible from his backyard.

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The kitchen is lit by an IKEA pendant light.

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Adjacent to the kitchen, lit by an IKEA pendant light, is a dining area with a table and chairs purchased at a local Port-au-Prince store; the curtains are also from IKEA.

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