Six years after the catastrophic earthquake which killed over 160,000 people, New York and Milan-based architects Urban Office Architects (UOA) have proposed a sculptural design for a new cathedral in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The design aims to incorporate surviving elements from the post-tremor original cathedral within a radical contemporary structure. But the project is not just a reconstruction of the original cathedral, it is about establishing a new symbol for a city and nation which is still recovering from the devastating effects of the 12th January 2010.
UOA’s design is morphed by the meeting of two opposite vertical forces together – one rising and one descending – as they interlock into the volumetric expression of the sacred space it holds within. On one hand, we have the rising force of the walls, on the other, the descending force of the roof. They meet in a jagged interlace of architectural elements. Despite the building being clearly sculptural, its design is derived from layers of meaning rather then by impartial shape-making. There is symbolism in the form.
These two vertical forces are viewed as opposites to the lethal horizontal forces of destruction caused by Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. In their rising direction, they are meant to imply a sense of aspiration, a source of ambition for a country deeply wounded in its most essential character.
The concept behind the design is that of interlocking hands as an image of unity between man and God. This notion is translated into architecture by the angled roof linking with the rising walls of the cathedral. In fact, these two key elements, responsible for the dramatic shapes we see displayed in the architecture, are used by UOA as physical representations of both man and the divine.
Symbolically nicknamed the Rising Walls, the perimeter structure represents man. It emerges from the ground to the sky, and in doing so embodies the expression of the spirit of the Haitian people, as they strive to re-build themselves after the devastating earthquake. In turn, the roof – conversely named the Descending Light – is the expression of the faith. It represents the divine presence which allows the nation to find a new hope and light. The topo-geography of the roof-scape – which in turn becomes the central element of the design – is defined by the crevices formed by the unification of the two as they interlock.
Despite the contemporary design characterised by slanted walls and ceilings, their geometry complies with the mandate of the Roman Catholic demand for a cross-shaped floor plan. The new cathedral is built over the original perimeter of the fallen cathedral and follows the main guidelines of sacred design. Furthermore, the vestigial remains of the original cathedral are integrated into the proposal: the Rose Window, the Cross and elements of the interior walls re-purposed into both the floor pattern and the iconography placed on the walls interior. In a practical sense, the project is about the re-construction of the original cathedral. On a spiritual level, it is about establishing a new symbol for the city and the nation at large still suffering from the aftermath of the devastation.
The angles formed by the new cathedral also permit natural daylight to penetrate within the interior and exterior folds. The operable skylights and oversized side-chapels doors are designed to impart a highly sustainable use of the space, fostering natural air flow and cross-ventilation. Symbolically, this allures to the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The larger urban fabric is referred to and referenced into the angular orientation of walls, chapels and slants as they extend to reach – in orientation, axis and spirit – the most impacted areas and monumental sites of Port-au-Prince.