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UM School of Architecture hosts competition to rebuild Haitian cathedral

Almost three years after the Haiti earthquake, the rubble of the Notre Dame de l’Assomption Cathedral in Port-au-Prince remains a physical and symbolic reminder of reconstruction efforts that are still far from complete.

The Cathedral today is a shadow of its majestic former self. The shell of the exterior walls still stands, but the rubble from the fallen bell towers and roof has been cleared. The building is closed to the public, so those who once worshipped there continue to view the ruins from afar.

Now, the University of Miami School of Architecture, in partnership with the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince and Faith and Form Magazine, has organized a competition to choose the design for the new Cathedral. In the past year, 250 architects around the world have collaborated to submit 134 plans for the reconstruction.

On Monday and Tuesday, a panel of six jurors, including Haitian and international architects and cultural figures, met to review the finalists. The winner will be announced Thursday.

The guidelines of the competition said that preserving Haitian religious tradition is a priority for the design, along with employing “green” technology and meeting strict earthquake zone codes.

“The Cathedral is not only a religious symbol but it is a national monument,” Yves Savain, consultant to the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince and competition coordinator, said in a statement. “It has a place in history and in culture and its reconstruction can serve as a catalyst for the rebuilding of downtown Port-au-Prince which was also destroyed during the earthquake.”

The winner is sure to imagine the new Cathedral on a grand scale, which could cost upwards of $40 million, said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski. That money will have to be raised before construction begins.

Wenski said the U.S. Catholic Church raised more than $100 million immediately after the January 2010 earthquake, but $70 million was spent on urgent humanitarian relief, and another $30 million have been directed toward rebuilding the infrastructure of the Catholic Church.

This includes the rebuilding of dozens of Catholic schools and churches — a process that has not only been delayed by familiar Haitian issues, such as land titling and false land claims, but also by technical preparations and disagreements over architectural design, availability of materials and costs.

“Sometimes I am not happy with the costs of designs, and I say we cannot accept that,” said the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Bernardito Azua, who is in charge of dispersing the funds for the church’s rebuilding efforts. “The problem isn’t necessarily money. It’s more technical, it’s more the availability of expertise. It’s where your architect lives, where your engineer lives.”

While the reconstruction of some churches and schools is being overseen by different religious groups, the largest effort is being overseen by a Church rebuilding commission put in place after the quake. It is overseeing 60 construction sites, said Azua, the pope’s representative in Haiti.

“I am always pleading for patience with donors. If I were outside Haiti, and had not observed all of these things, I would be impatient, too,” he said. “Even though we are slow, we are ahead.”

The main priority, Azua said, is to assure donors that buildings are hurricane and earthquake-resistant, which doesn’t come inexpensively. For example, the construction of 12 classrooms in one community has cost the church $800,000. And that is without bathrooms and other amenities.

Azua also attributed the slow pace of reconstruction to the phases of recovery after such widespread devastation.

“We also have to think not even Japan can reconstruct that fast,’’ he said. “It’s so hard to have reconstruction after an earthquake. It’s easier to reconstruct after a tsunami because the tidal waves clear everything.”

For example, it costs $300,000 just to remove the debris of the Cathedral. The cost for bringing down the Cathedral bells was more than $30,000 a bell, carried out by the engineering unit of the U.N. peacekeeping mission.

Until now, the bishops of Haiti have focused on rebuilding churches in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince in places like Leogane and Jacmel. Another priority is rebuilding the national seminary, which is in the second phase of engineering and has been hampered by disputed land claims.

“All of these things, you don’t see. All of these things are invisible,” Azua said. “There are so many things in Haiti that you don’t see that make things difficult.”

Still, the first stage in moving ahead with the construction of a new Cathedral will be choosing the best design. But he said it should reflect the church’s history in Haiti.

“There is nothing wrong with a Gothic Cathedral,” he said, laughing. “But it’s certainly not Haitian.”