April 9, 2018 Students Visit Haiti to Explore Culture Through Design

Students take a selfie with children in Haiti

Eight students traveled to Fond-des-Blancs, Haiti, in February to immerse themselves in the culture of the Haitian community and better understand the context of their studio designs this semester. The group is part of the 3rd- and 4th-year Integrated Discipline Studio, a collaborative studio with Architecture and Interior Architecture students led by Associate Professor Katherine Ambroziak and alumnus Andrew Godwin (B. Arch, ’07).

The students are developing a new model of community living, including designing housing and community space, where residents share resources and participate in social mentorship.  Their primary focus for visiting Haiti was to understand the culture, environment and local resources in order to create a design responsive to the community’s needs and values.

Students spent four days visiting important places including the site for the new community, downtown areas of Fond-des-Blancs, schools, market and church. The secondary school and guest house where they stayed were designed by UT students participating in Project Haiti in previous years.

“We wanted to understand how [the local citizens] live on a daily basis,” said Rachel Montgomery, a 3rd-year Architecture student. “Yes, it was important for us to visit the site, but we also wanted to look at the culture and surrounding environment that we were designing for.”

Haiti river with local citizens

Upon visiting the build site, the group discovered the importance of the river and springs that lined the property. Not only are these the sources of water, but they also constitute the social hub for the community. Individuals gather to do their laundry, bathe, get drinking water and talk. After seeing how important the river is, the students wanted to respond to it in their designs.

“When visiting the river that borders the site, we witnessed how important it is to socialization,” explains Leah Cassety, a 3rd-year Architecture student. “It’s a huge cultural aspect of this community, so we want to focus our design on how people access and use the river.”

Since visiting the site, Cassety and her studio partners Daniel Byrd, Susan Stewart and Jonathan Winfiele are focused on the idea of developing public open space in a densified network of buildings and landscape. “We have shifted our concepts toward social space and how we can help this culture thrive in this community,” Cassety said.  She and her team are working to incorporate more communal spaces and open green space in their design in order to better emphasize social inclusiveness.

Rachel Montgomery and her studio partners Destin Manous and Andrianna Thompson explained how visiting the site and exploring the culture impacted their design plans overall. “We changed a lot of our programmatic views, our values and what we wanted out of our project,” said Montgomery. “We’re not making assumptions anymore; we understand the context better.”

Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Architecture Professor John McRae initiated our faculty and students, as well as the UT College of Nursing and Tickle College of Engineering, to address the needs of the country by developing proposals for schools, housing, medical clinics and disease prevention in Haitian communities.

The Haiti Project is administrated by Jean and Joy Thomas of the Haiti Christian Development Fund and challenges the students to explore “an urban alternative to rural Fond-des-Blancs.”

Other students participating in Ambroziak and Godwin’s studio are Logan Coster, Lauren Higdon, Daniela Neal, Nicole Niezgoda, Ally Rees, Heather Shine, Billy Smith and Breanna Williams.

To read more about Project Haiti, visit archdesign.utk.edu/projects/Haiti/