Photo © Hufton & Crow

Iron Market

John McAslan + Partners

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Rising from the Rubble: The 2010 Haiti earthquake caused severe damage to the bustling Iron Market, a treasured icon. Thanks to a remarkable restoration, the bazaar is back in business.

By Jenna M. McKnight

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Two years after a massive earthquake devastated Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, signs of the disaster remain, particularly in the dense downtown district. The once regal National Palace sits in shambles; the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, the country's central Catholic church, is an eerie ruin speckled with trash. While much rubble has been cleared from the streets, the urban core is still dotted with partially collapsed buildings and deplorable refugee camps. To the typical American, the scene feels apocalyptic.

But there is one gleaming structure here: the Iron Market, or Marché de Fer, a late-19th-century facility that has been beautifully restored by the U.K. architect John McAslan and a diverse group of Haitian and foreign consultants. The striking landmark comprises two 25,000-square-foot halls filled with an assortment of goods, from fruit to wigs to voodoo potions. Between the halls, a clock tower pavilion flanked by four 75-foot-tall minarets rises from a busy courtyard. Personally funded by the owner of Digicel, one of Haiti's main cell phone providers, the $12 million project serves as a rare symbol of revival in this destitute metropolis of roughly 3 million people. “Everybody in Haiti recognizes this as something that was almost destroyed and has come back to life,” says McAslan.

The distinct red and green market was inaugurated in 1891. Prefabricated in France, the structure was destined to serve as a railway station in Cairo, according to some accounts. But when plans fizzled, the Haitian president Florvil Hyppolite stepped in to buy it. The building was a lively commercial hub for more than a century. A fire in May 2008, however, decimated the north shed; the 7.0-magnitude quake on January 12, 2010, wreaked further havoc and killed several people at the site.

Eager to contribute to Haiti's recovery, Digicel's Irish owner, Denis O'Brien, set out to resurrect the market. “It's one of the most significant buildings in the middle of the city,” the entrepreneur explains. “We hoped it would set an example and encourage other people to do projects in the area.” Just weeks after the quake, he hired McAslan's firm to direct the endeavor, and he gave them less than a year to complete it. “The project was ferocious in speed,” says McAslan, who had been working in Haiti with the Clinton Global Initiative since 2009 and had actually proposed restoring the market prior to the disaster.

Early in the process, Robert Bowles, a British engineer and historic-preservation specialist, was brought in to assess the building's condition post-quake. To a casual observer, it seemed beyond repair, but he was optimistic. The south hall—expertly constructed using high-quality wrought and cast iron—had performed well, “wobbling like jelly” but staying intact, he says. The destruction was primarily due to an “ill-considered” elevated concrete deck that was added between the two sheds decades earlier; it collapsed and crashed into the south hall. “The weight of the concrete slab chopped the columns in half,” he explains. It also destabilized the clock tower.

The designers, with the support of Haiti's Institute for the Protection of National Heritage, conceived a restoration scheme that incorporated as much salvaged material as possible. While the clock tower's legs were largely refurbished using steel, its upper portion was meticulously restored by Haitian craftsmen using existing materials. The team fully rebuilt the north hall with steel, but preserved most of the south hall's iron frame. They added corrugated steel roofs to both sheds, along with column anchors and X-bracing to ensure the facility could withstand storms and earthquakes. The market now meets International Building Code requirements, notes engineer Aamer Islam, whose New Jersey firm, Axis Design Group, worked on the project. The team added other modern accoutrements: industrial-sized fans aid in air circulation, and rooftop solar panels help meet the facility's minimal power needs.

The market reopened on January 11, 2011, one day before the quake's first anniversary. During a recent visit, the venue was packed with hundreds of sellers and local shoppers. Ronald Edmond, who peddles handmade souvenirs, says the restored facility is nice, but “tourists don't come that often.” The market is ringed by tattered tents, dilapidated buildings, and clogged streets—a deterrent for most foreigners. “We are waiting for them,” he says. “One day there will be more activity.”

Formal name of building: Marche en Fer, the Iron Market

Location: Boulevard Jean-Jaques Dessalines, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Completion Date: January 11, 2011

Gross square footage: 4,645 square meters

Total construction cost: Confidential

Owner: Boulevard Jean-Jaques Dessalines, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

John McAslan & Partners
7-9 William Road
London, NW1 3ER
Phone: 020 7313 6000
Fax: 020 7313 6001

February 2012
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