Architecture by Moonlight:
Rebuilding Haiti, Redrafting a Life
By Paul E. Fallon
Architecture by Moonlight chronicles author Paul E. Fallon’s journeys to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake to design and supervise construction of the Mission of Hope school and Be Like Brit orphanage. The rudimentary tasks of building in a developing country provide the context for a deeper exploration of this beguiling land, so different from the United States, yet rooted in our shared history as the Western Hemisphere’s two oldest republics.
The book reveals Paul’s personal story of balancing contradictory demands. The Gengel’s, a boisterous American family, seek to construct a memorial for their deceased daughter. Lex and Renee Edme run Mission of Hope, but their evangelical missionaries are sometimes more interested in saving souls than filling bellies or educating minds. Tradition-bound construction workers are more comfortable with magic than the physics of earthquake-resistant construction. The soul of the narrative belongs to Dieunison, a wily Haitian orphan who captures Paul’s heart and exemplifies both Haiti’s tragedy and its indomitable spirit.
From the simple yet sturdy buildings that Paul conceives, Architecture by Moonlight posits larger questions about our individual and collective response to tragedy, the act of construction as a path through grief, the benefits and pitfalls of philanthropy, and the shortcomings of international aid. By the time the two projects are complete, he envisions Haiti, unhinged from outside directives, mapping its own future.
Architecture by Moonlight is the eloquent tale of “an ensemble of incomplete people struggling in a land of great trial and great promise, trying to better understand their place on Earth.” Paul reveals how, when seemingly different people come together, we succeed by seeking our commonality. Therein lies the strength we need to rise above disaster and celebrate recovery, perseverance, and humanity.
- One out of every 40 Haitians died in the earthquake; an equal number were wounded; and one in six of the survivors were homeless. Americans believe our infrastructure and technology will protect us from such a catastrophe (as it did in Chile’s February 2010 earthquake). Yet the damage inflicted by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy were much worse than we anticipated. Can you envision a natural disaster of that scale occurring in the U.S? Would we cope better or worse than Haitians did?
- Do you think Dieunison, the boy who ‘adopts’ Paul as his blan, exemplifies both Haiti’s problems and its promise? Which of his characteristics can be extrapolated to Haiti’s larger society? What aspects of Haitian culture does the book describe which Dieunison does not represent?
- Paul states, “When it comes to acknowledging feelings, I am as opaque as any guy.” (page 4). At what point in the book did he move from having a vague tug toward Haiti to understanding his reason and purpose for being there?
- When Paul brings a carton of children’s books to the construction site, he notices, “If a child picks up a book, his right of use is fiercely guarded, and a clawing fight breaks out if another child tries to snatch it. But once finished, the books returns to the pile, available to whoever might want it next.” (page 34). Why do the Haitian children have such a casual sense of ownership? Is it a desirable trait that fosters sharing, or reflect a lack of respect for valuable possessions? Would their attitude be different toward objects of greater immediate value, like sneakers or cellphones?
- Paul comments on the simplicity and directness of Haitian Creole (page 110), a language with a limited vocabulary and no tenses, while English contains more vocabulary than any language in the world. What are the advantages and limitations of having a language or unlimited vocabulary versus one of few words?
- How would Paul’s working relationships with Lex, Renee, and Len have changed if they knew his personal feelings for Lex? Should he have been more forthcoming in sharing those feelings?
- Do you agree with Renee Edme’s statement, “Haiti is a country of teenagers?” Is that a positive or disparaging remark?
- After Nightline visits the orphanage site, Paul reflects, “…we have all been willing fools in the dream machine.” (page 117). Does Nightline provide positive value? How could the segment be reframed to more accurately portray the project?
- Paul interprets Len Gengel’s statement, “Cherylann and I have given the most anyone could to Haiti, and that’s our only daughter” (page 157) as an attempt to reframe Britney’s death to provide Len some control over it. How do you interpret Len Gengel’s statement?
- Paul does not believe in pure altruism; he purports that every good deed is motivated by some self-interest, however defined. He is often frustrated by the Evangelical missionaries’ conversion agendas. But how different are their actions from the personal agendas that the Gengel’s, and even Paul, bring to Haiti?
- Do you agree with Paul’s statement on page 120: “I don’t really believe humans seek peace and light, or we would make more of it on this earth.”?
- Are W.B. Seabrook’s words, written in the 1920’s, “…our attitude now in Haiti is superior, but kindly” (page 161) still applicable? Is it an appropriate attitude? If not, how should we consider our Haitian neighbors?
- There have been many commentaries about whether the international aid that flowed into Haiti after the 2010 earthquake was appropriate or effective. The book raises these issues in only a tangential way. (“All this aid is making someone rich.” page 163). Is this story enhanced or compromised by remaining apart from the details of politics and policy?
- Architecture by Moonlight does not provide a blueprint for how to improve Haiti. It extrapolates from two specific projects to suggest broad approaches to enhancing Haiti’s participation in the 21st century. Would the book be more successful by offering more concrete suggestions? Does reading this book give you have specific ideas of how Haitians could improve their conditions?
Paul E. Fallon is an architect whose career focused on design of hospitals and medical institutions. Architecture by Moonlight, a memoir of reconstruction in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, addresses design and construction at a more intimate scale. The book evolved from blog posts (www.theawkwardpose.com) written as a means to comprehend his experience on the Magic Island. Paul has written for The Boston Globe Magazine and Christian Science Monitor and is a regular contributor to WBUR Cognoscenti. He is an MIT alumnus, father of two grown children, and lives in Cambridge, MA.