Aug 30, 2020

Haiti’s Ancient Architectural Marvels

In the wake of the devastation caused by the 2010 earthquake, there have been numerous on-going efforts to restore the historically significant buildings dotted across Haiti’s island landscape. We’ve talked about Haiti’s unique vernacular architecture once before, specifically about the turn-of-the-century “Gingerbread Houses” of Port-au-Prince. This time, however, we’ll be going back to the very beginning of the 19th century, to take a look at the Palais Sans Souci and the Citadelle Laferrière.


Built between 1810 and 1813 to function as the royal residence of King Henri I and Queen Marie-Louise Coidavid, the Palais Sans Souci stands as the first example of African-derived colonial architecture. At its height, the palace featured a number of elaborate gardens and intricate waterworks systems. Sans-souci means “carefree” in French and the palace, whose grounds were the site of numerous royal gatherings and decadent feasts, certainly lived up to that name. It was aptly known as the Carribean equivalent of the Palace of Versailles by its many visitors.

In 1842 a severe earthquake destroyed part of the structure, but the majority of the massive building still stands today, and was described by UNESCO as “one of the most remarkable attractions in the Western Hemisphere” when it was designated a world heritage site in 1982, along with the Citadelle Laferrière.

The Citadelle, which is located just a few miles from the Palais Sans Souci atop the Bonnet à l’Evêque mountains, was commissioned by King Henri I in 1805 as a fortification against a potential French invasion. The fortress housed 365 cannons and multiple cisterns large enough to hold a year’s worth of supplies for 5,000 soldiers. The Citadelle Laferrière is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Haiti, and even appears as a national symbol on its currency and stamps. Like the Palais Sans Souci, the Citadelle stands not only as the first example of African-derived colonial architecture, but also as the only African-derived military fortification in the New World.


In 1979, a Haitian architect by the name of Albert Mangonès founded the Institut de Sauvegarde du Patrimoine National or ISPAN with the aim of preserving the precious architectural heritage of Haiti. Mangonès himself took part in the restoration of both the Citadelle Laferrière and Palais Sans Souci before his death in 2002.


A quote from “An Essay on the Causes of the Revolution and Civil Wars of Hayti ” by Haitian writer Pompée Valentin Vastey, when referring to the palace, states – “erected by descendants of Africans, [to] show that we have not lost the architectural taste and genius of our ancestors who covered Ethiopia, Egypt, Carthage, and old Spain with their superb monuments.”



Both of these historical monuments withstood the devastating events of 2010 remarkably and can (and should) still be visited today. They will ever remain as grand testaments to the resilience and historical significance of Haitian architecture.

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