Postcard from Port-au-Prince

Six months after a devastating earthquake, many are looking to the past as a possible way forward. Rediscovering Haiti's gingerbread houses

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William Daniels / Panos for TIME

A pink Gingerbread house appears surrounded by trees in Port Au Prince, Haiti.

Port-au-Prince's dominant landmarks these days are bundles of twisted rebar, chunks of concrete and other signs of ruin from Haiti's massive Jan. 12 earthquake. Yet in neighborhoods like Bois Verna, 200 colorful, run-down wooden houses stand remarkably intact above the city's gray sea of rubble. They still sport their intricate fret- and latticework, shiplap siding and ornamental voodoo patterns. Known as Haiti's gingerbread houses, they recall a more prosperous era (the late 1800s and early 1900s) in what is today the western hemisphere's poorest country. "These houses tell us how the Haitian population once created a community," says Haitian architect and former Culture Minister Olsen Jean Julien. "From a psychological point of view, they're very important."

That's because the gingerbread houses may help guide Haiti to its postquake future. Even before the earthquake, preservationists like Jean Julien, backed by Haiti's influential Foundation for Knowledge & Liberty, urged that the structures be renovated. But they say the project is especially pressing now, since the gingerbreads are vivid examples of how Haiti should rebuild. "Almost all these houses are over 100 years old, yet very few actually collapsed" in the earthquake because they were so well built, says Randolph Langenbach, a U.S. architect who led a team co-sponsored by the New York City — based World Monuments Fund to inspect the gingerbreads in advance of renovation work. Many of Haiti's newer but shoddily built and shamefully unregulated concrete structures collapsed in the 7.0-magnitude temblor, which killed more than 200,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless.

The gingerbread-architecture movement adapted French and Victorian styles to Haiti's Caribbean milieu. The buildings are "not colonial architecture," says Stephen Kelley, one of Langenbach's colleagues. "They're physical embodiments of the lives of the Haitian people." And function shines as impressively as form: many of the houses feature high ceilings for enhanced ventilation in the Haitian heat, four-sided roofs to better resist hurricane winds and expert carpentry that allows more flexibility in earthquakes. The gingerbread houses "are proof that if you build a wooden structure well, it's a simpler way to make something that can withstand" nature's wrath, says Eduardo Pardo Fernandez, a project manager for the Miami firm Duany Plater-Zyberk, which is designing postquake Haitian housing.

As a result, say architects like Pardo, wood and wood facsimiles look to be a big part of Haiti's reconstruction — especially for the more immediate task of providing sturdier temporary housing, before this summer's hurricanes arrive, for the hundreds of thousands of Haitians living in rickety tents and jerry-built shacks. The Shelter Cluster, a group of more than 70 relief organizations that includes the U.N., has committed to erecting 130,000 transitional or semipermanent homes to ease Haitians out of squalid tent camps. Many, like the up to 6,000 shelters that the Maryland-based Cooperative Housing Foundation International hopes to provide, use wood, plastic siding and steel, as well as green components like solar lamps. The Duany firm's Haitian Cabins employ a flexible fiber composite that has a high energy-saving-insulation rating and are designed to allow ample cross-ventilation. They can be modified, expanded or arranged in bunches to accommodate Haitian lakous, or extended-family communities.

Still, fewer than 6,000 new homes have been built in postquake Haiti. The core problems: a scarcity of available land to put them on — a situation made worse because the earthquake destroyed most Haitian property titles — and mounds of rubble choking land that could be used. Pressure is on for the Haitian government to begin to resolve those issues as well as promote the gingerbread houses and the construction standards they exemplify. "If we don't respect the values of the past," Jean Julien insists, "we can't build a better future."