A Lost Opportunity in Haiti

Yesterday the winners of the international design competition to build a new cathedral in earthquake-devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti were announced.  Regular readers of these pages will recall that I had shared my fears about this competition previously.  According to the University of Miami, which sponsored the competition, 250 architects from around the world submitted entries, and the winning design came from an architecture firm in Puerto Rico.  The new cathedral will preserve the facade of the old, but “veers from the original with a new, circular building that wraps around a central altar, accented by local art, with retractable walls that open to the garden for special occasions.”

Where to begin…

Some time ago, a group composed of fellow architecture aficionados/actual practitioners with whom I maintain friendly relations was discussing what sort of design competition they ought to hold.  At the time the destruction in Haiti was constantly in the news, and the images I had seen of the destruction of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in the capital had really struck me.   I suggested to the group that the clear answer for the subject of their competition was the Port-au-Prince Cathedral.  It is not often, after all, that one gets to build a brand-new cathedral from the ground up, and in an environment which not only has a great deal of history, but also a great deal to keep in mind with respect to building in an earthquake/hurricane zone.

Traditional Caribbean architecture varies from island to island, but there are certain commonalities which we can appreciate.  For example there is the prevalence of traditional ornament, somewhat simplified, and applied over flat surfaces which are often whitewashed or painted in bright colors.  We can see this in photographs of the Cathedral as it existed prior to the earthquake, with its almost sugary-pink and white color scheme, referencing a mixture of French Neo-Gothic design with other elements.  It called to mind the famous Basilica of the Sacred Heart in the Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre, but with a more tropical sense of joy.

Unfortunately, the new Cathedral looks less like a church and more like a movie theatre on the planet of Naboo, from the “Star Wars” universe.  While incorporating what remains of the old facade, and appearing at least from the outside to loosely keep to a basilica plan, this design does not say “timeless Caribbean”, it says “tacky po-mo California suburb.”  The square bell towers with long (presumably concrete) crosses imbedded in them and the church in the round are really not contemporary at all, unless by “contemporary” you mean 1974.  I will not even begin to try to explain why the horizontally ribbed walls look like giant black air filtration systems.

Once again here we are being presented with the same, ugly aesthetic that has continued to fascinate both architects and the powers that be within the Church since the mid-2oth century.  It is the same bad taste, bad theology, and bad liturgy which has brought us the overpriced white elephant known as the Taj Mahoney – i.e. Los Angeles Cathedral – the intergalactic landing bay known as Oakland Cathedral, and parish churches that look more like high school gymnasiums or drive-in banks rather than houses of worship.  The new Cathedral of Port-au-Prince will cost many millions of dollars to construct, and it will sit like a fat pimple on the landscape of Port-au-Prince for about ten years before it starts to leak and fall apart, as it will inevitably do.

It is all too telling then, that the passage quoted above rather gives away the game.  It notes that the new Cathedral will have retractable walls, which will open to the outdoors gardens for “special occasions”.  So in case anyone has missed my meaning to this point, allow me to clarify my point of view.

There is no more special occasion that takes place in any Catholic church, whether it be a Cathedral or a parish church or a tiny chapel, than the celebration of the mass – absolutely nothing else is more important: no wedding, no funeral, no concert, no conference, or any other event matters as much.  We cannot blame the architects for not seeing that, but we can blame those who selected this work as being worthy of such a function.  It is deeply unfortunate that the people of Haiti are now going to be saddled with an architectural monstrosity which will do nothing to remind them of the fact that here is the House of God, where He dwells in the Real Presence of the Eucharist reserved in the Tabernacle, and where He comes to us again and again in the Holy Sacrifice of the mass.  What a shame that this was not the focus of those who selected this inadequate, bad marriage as representative of the heart of the Catholic faith in Haiti.


Winning design for the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, Port-au-Prince

6 thoughts on “A Lost Opportunity in Haiti

  1. Punitive architecture. I guess I can see some practical value in the “church in the round” for huge churches, as it allows for less neck craning and an unobstructed view of the sole Mass going on. Before Vatican II, you had a situation of simultaneous Masses at side altars, so getting a glimpse of the main one wasn’t so important, but now that’s no longer allowed, why not? And I can see value in retracting walls. What if you have a Mass so important that you have an overflow crowd? At least if you can open the walls, the faithful can have an eye view of the Real Presence and the Holy Sacrifice, not just a sound-only on speakers experience. They can truly say they made the Mass and didn’t just listen to a broadcast: you can have an outdoor Mass for 50,000 without leaving the cathedral!

    Once again, the issue isn’t the what but the how. Instead of using colonial architecture imported from French masters, they’re using 20th century modern drab architecture imported from the secular void – still a sort of cultural colonialism. I don’t know if there IS a Haitian architectural tradition, but if there is, where is it herein? I’m not some Luddite who wants all churches to look like an 1830 Baroque paperweight. Not all music needs an organ. Whenever a new engineering feat came by, the Church incorporated it into churches that used it to express the holy experience, whether the Romanesque, the dome, the Gothic arches allowing stained glass, etc. Why is it so hard for modern architects to design a true Catholic experience of church in steel and glass, where even if it’s 100% modern and state of the art electronically, it still tells the Jesus story in universal language like the churches of old did for their illiterates?


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