Dwelling + Ground: Terraformed Housing for Port-Au-Prince

by Belle Verwaay (MArch '18)—Winner of the 2018 Clifford Wong Prize in Housing Design

This housing design, sited in Port-au-Prince, studies the relationship between dwelling and landscape by reimagining the ground as civic surface that has the capacity to provide for diversity, freedom of choice, and well-being in the living environment.

Cultural practices in Haiti have deterred vernacular architecture from expanding vertically. Due to the cultural and spiritual significance of the ground and the economic dependency of access and exposure to terrafirma, urban dwellers have turned to the single-story dwelling unit as the dominant housing type. Recent laws legitimizing the co-ownership of property hope to stimulate vertical growth to accommodate the country’s rapid and unprecedented urbanization. However, urban dwellers are unlikely to adopt high-rise housing typologies to resolve the city’s severe housing crisis as it undermines the role of the civic surface in their daily lives.

This produces a productive challenge for architects: can we densify urban housing to meet the demands of our growing urban populations while still providing every urban dweller their own “front door”? For Port-au-Prince, an innovative shaping of the groundscape and dwelling unit is necessary to address housing needs and allow for densification of the urban fabric to occur. Historically, urban densification has often resulted in vertical growth and the abandonment of the ground plane. This proposal aims to marry the two: densification and allegiance to terrafirma, in order to improve the dweller’s quality of living and freedom of choice in the city.

By understanding the role of the ground plane in the quality of urban life, we are better suited to design dwelling space that responds to both interior and exterior pressures, thereby potentially reconfiguring the very DNA of the city. The potential lies in developing cities, like Port-au-Prince, that face massive inevitable densification whereby the institutional norms of planning have failed. Through such cases, we are challenged to develop new types that better serve and have the potential to reimagine urban dwelling.

ground plane
The new, multiplied ground plane produces intimate buffer spaces throughout the site: shaded spaces that could welcome a domino game during the day, or a study session at night.