Late one afternoon, I was walking with a local friend in the small border town of Anse-à-Pitres, Haiti, when we reached what looked like an impromptu public square. “You see the mosaic promenade?” my friend said. “And the benches over there? We know every great city has a public square, so we decided to build one here.” In the center I saw a concrete column with rebar protruding from the top, surrounded by a spiral concrete wall.
“And all great public squares have a monument with a statue, right?” he said. I demurred, but he continued: “Everyone in town can agree about that. But whenever we discuss which historical figure should go up on that column, it turns into a fight. We can’t come to a consensus. So we’ve decided to leave it empty. One day, this person will come. And when they do, we will have a place waiting for their statue. This will bring great pride to Anse-à-Pitres.”
You find examples of this typology all around the world: buildings and structures that are activated or inhabited even though their construction is not complete. 1 For the past several years, I’ve been collecting photographs, video and anecdotes of cases in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, the United States, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Turkey. Instead of attempting to explain these approaches to construction or indulging in obvious generalizations, this investigation asks: How can we read these objects in a different way? This is not a study of the “creativity of the poor” or an attempt to improve design practice; my research is motivated by an impulse to produce understandings for which we may not have immediate use.
Some months after I left Haiti, I was presenting my research at the International Academy of Art Palestine, in Ramallah. An artist from the older generation, whose work had given visual expression to the concept of sumud — or “perseverance” — offered a thoughtful response: “You are going to meet people who will tell you that this form of architecture is about optimism for the future. But I can tell you that in Palestine, for me, this cannot be the case. When I see rebar coming from the roofs of the buildings, I see a violent fear of the future. A fear that comes from not knowing what is being passed down from one generation to the next. Previously, we had the olive fields, and there was a rootedness to the land. But what was once a communitarian, horizontal mentality is now individualistic and vertical. No matter how hard people work, no matter how far they extend their efforts, they just go higher and higher, never touching, never making contact with those around them.”
People often tell me the reason buildings are left unfinished is so that the occupants can avoid paying property taxes. They come rushing up after talks, excited to report that they know the answer. Perplexed that such a tax loophole could exist in a range of markedly different cultural and climatic contexts, I asked an urbanist friend in Italy what he thought. “It’s an urban legend,” he said — one that is informed and propelled by implicit racism. He pointed out that in Italy this approach to construction is almost entirely confined to the South, where a larger proportion of the population is from a migrant background. “The myth generalizes a group of people who those in power would like us to see as selfish and opportunistic.”
Last spring, I found myself in Delhi, talking with a group of young architecture students whose professors urged them to move beyond discursive dichotomies — formal/informal, legal/illegal — and to navigate by other means. We tunneled through several thought-provoking detours until one student lost patience and interjected, “When does all this nebulous talking end? When are we going to do something about this?”
There was silence in the room. After a long moment, one of the professors spoke. “Where is this fear of endlessness coming from? What might we learn when we avoid that urge to do something, and just allow the building to remain endless?”