By Sam Bojarski
The architectural firm Raco Deco’s winning design for a new national palace includes a grand boulevard running through the Champs de Mars square, a large pyramid honoring earthquake victims and a replica of the old palace structure that stood for 90 years.
The selection of a design “is indicative of the government and the people in Haiti starting to take the initiative to bring to the forefront a new vision for the country, so I think that is a point of hope and a point of optimism,” said Rodney Leon, owner of the New York-based Rodney Leon Architects. The firm collaborated with Archivolt S.A. to submit a design proposal that was not ultimately selected by the government.
President Jovenel Moise announced the design selection on Jan. 12, on the same day that 10 years ago a devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake flattened the gleaming white palace. The country’s executives conducted business in makeshift offices following the earthquake and have since resided elsewhere in the capital. Moise’s announcement concludes a design competition launched in 2017. The government invited firms from around the world to submit proposals. A special Working Group on the Reconstruction of the National Palace (GTRRPN) oversaw the competition.
So far, the government has released minimal details on a construction timeline or an exact cost for the new palace. A funding mechanism is also unclear, but raising money from the diaspora was considered as of last year.
Diaspora members have expressed a lack of enthusiasm about a new palace, which has been touted by those involved in the design as a way to kickstart more development in Port-au-Prince. Some have said the focus on a palace is inappropriate, given Haiti’s current economic challenges.
While the political situation in the country could hamper any construction, the largely Haitian-led effort to restore the palace has the potential to spur new investment in the country and its workforce.
Designed by Haitian architect Georges Baussan, the last iteration of Haiti’s national palace was constructed in 1920 by United States military engineers. The French Renaissance structure made with reinforced concrete became a symbol of the earthquake’s destruction in 2010, after its cupola and columned central pavilion collapsed. J/P Haitian Relief Organization, a charity led by American actor Sean Penn, demolished the palace in 2012.
Development and construction efforts in Haiti have long bypassed Haitian organizations in favor of NGOs. But Dr. Karen Richman, a cultural anthropologist and University of Notre Dame professor who has studied development in Haiti, said the promise of a new palace represents progress if the effort remains Haitian-led.
The Moise administration sought to make the design process Haitian-led from the beginning, requesting that all foreign firms submit designs in a group, with a Haitian company at the helm. Fifteen firms initially expressed interest in designing a palace. GTRRPN, led by the director of the government’s Construction Unit of Housing and Public Buildings (UCLBP) agency, narrowed it down to eight last winter, then to four finalist firms in June. Aedifica Sud/Aedifica, Archivolt S.A., Cecom Consultants and Adjaye Associates/Raco Deco made the final list. Before Moise’s announcement, a jury of comprised of leading Haitian architects and engineers considered the four proposals in a public presentation.
UCLBP did not return an email requesting comment.
The winning firm, Raco Deco, has carried out renovation, architecture, urban planning, construction and decorating projects in Haiti since September of 2001. Raco Deco designed the Fort-Royal Hotel in Petit-Goave and has constructed several warehouses for organizations like World Vision.
The firm’s President and CEO Cassandre Mehu was involved in developing a master plan for the north sector of Port-au-Prince, according to her LinkedIn profile. She did not return a message requesting comment. A separate request to a Raco Deco email address was also not returned.
Adjaye Associates could not provide comment before the deadline, despite repeated requests by phone and email. Renowned British-Ghanian architect David Adjaye, the firm’s founder, designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C., among numerous other projects.
The Raco Deco design promises to integrate a new palace into the Champs de Mars urban park, in an effort to use the palace’s reconstruction as a catalyst for rebuilding Port-au-Prince. A new road running past the palace will be dedicated to Haiti’s renaissance.
Mehu told Le Nouvelliste that she sought to restore the symbolism of the old palace, which Baussan designed to project a new image of Haiti to the world. She said the new design focuses on the theme of rebirth.
The neoclassical facade of the old palace will be restored, but the southern facade will serve as an axis for paying homage to Jean Jacques Dessalines, one of Haiti’s founders, as well as Toussaint Louverture, a prominent leader of the Haitian revolution. A pyramid will serve as a memorial to the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives in the earthquake, as well as the Native and African peoples that perished during European colonial rule.
The palace grounds will contain abundant green space and a circular, tree-lined water basin, representing life.
Leon contrasted his firm’s design with Raco Deco’s, saying the two designs represented different visions of the country. Rodney Leon and Archivolt aimed to design a “palace for the people” that built on the past but also represented a progressive view toward the future. Leon said he was disappointed that his firm’s design was not selected.
Historically, he said, Haitian architects have sought to develop and add functionality to old structures, rather than replicate them.
“We felt that it was important to put the people at the center of government,” Leon added.
Archivolt proposed a reflecting pool and public space as a gateway to the palace. The proposal also included a courtyard with statues of the country’s founders.
He said the Raco Deco design was one of the grander proposals, largely due to its urban design strategy. Leon contrasted the estimated $50 million cost of Archivolt’s design with the $60 million it will likely take to build the palace according to Raco Deco’s specifications.
The path forward for a palace
Enomy Germain, an economist at the Center for Planning and Applied Economics in Port-au-Prince, did not have exact data but said the government can easily afford a $60 million cost as long as corruption does not come into play.
The government has not provided official cost projections or a funding mechanism. UCLBP director Clement Belizaire told Le Nouvelliste in July that seeking diaspora support is on the table. But many diaspora members have expressed lack of trust in the Haitian government.
Leonie Hermantin, a Haitian-American who serves as director of development, communications and strategic planning at Sant-La Haitian Neighborhood Center in Miami, said the submitted designs looked nice but that she “would not give a dime” to the construction effort.
She cited a lack of transparency surrounding the $1.50 fee levied on money transfers and the extra five-cent-per-minute charge the Haitian government started levying on international calls in 2011, allegedly to support education.
“I spent money with every telephone call, and I do not see where that investment is going, she added.
Speaking about the palace, she said, “I have no excitement about it. When I look at the condition of the country, when I look at the abject condition of hospitals, of schools, of most institutions, I’m not getting excited about a rendering of a national palace.”
Conditions in Haiti sparked widespread unrest this past fall, as protesters took to the streets to decry inflation, austerity measures and government corruption. The protests ground many aspects of daily life in the country to a halt.
The security situation could play a major factor in the government’s willingness to move the construction process forward, Germain said.
A March 2019 report released by macroeconomic intelligence firm Fitch Solutions predicted that high political uncertainty would slow down the approval process for infrastructure projects, at least through the end of that year. When it comes to investment climate, Haiti is significantly more volatile than other Caribbean countries ‒ including Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico ‒ according to a political risk index included in the report.
A construction firm for the palace had not been selected as of late January. While a timeline hasn’t been released, Belizaire indicated that “several studies” must be undertaken to get a better cost estimate.
The project has the potential to employ large numbers of Haitians, in a country that suffers from high unemployment. Over 300 workers, mostly Haitian, were employed in demolishing the former palace.
Richman, who has collaborated on homebuilding projects in Leogane with Haitian builders and Notre Dame civil engineers, highlighted the talent and creativity of Haiti’s construction workforce. She said using local labor for the palace would benefit the economy.
“Haitians have tremendous talent and energy and creativity and skill, what’s lacking is some of the resources and capacity,” she said.
Citing builders in Leogane as an example, Haiti said construction workers often lack access to capital and training. Constructing the palace, she said, provides laborers an opportunity to build skills, which could be utilized for future development projects.
Using local firms and labor could provide an alternative to the common NGO-led development framework that was expanded after the earthquake.
“There were lots of missed opportunities after the earthquake with the involvement of NGOs,” Richman said, noting that these organizations did not prioritize the development of local talent.
While the 2010 earthquake brought unprecedented international attention and aid to Haiti, this has largely waned over the ensuing years. Plans for a palace represent a new, Haitian-led vision for the country’s future and perhaps a renewed call for international engagement, according to Leon.
“There needs to be a new vision that is Haitian-inspired that then can perhaps inspire the international community and others to re-engage in the development of the country in a positive way moving forward, and I think this is the time for that to occur. The country needs to find long-term, sustainable solutions for future development,” he said.