'Architecture by Moonlight' can inspire action

“Architecture by Moonlight: Rebuilding Haiti, Redrafting A Life," by Paul E. Fallon. University of Missouri Press, 2014. 224 pages, $29.95.

On Jan. 12, 2010, the island nation of Haiti and its inhabitants were devastated by a powerful earthquake and numerous aftershocks. More than 250,000 people were reported killed, and countless thousands were injured. Most of the others were left homeless with little access to food, water or medical care. Complicating the destruction and subsequent recovery efforts to rebuild this country, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest and most densely populated, was Haitian citizens' own image of self that has been forged during the past 300 years by the negative impact of colonialism, despot rulers, crippling reliance on foreign aid and the mystifying practice of Voodoo.

"Architecture by Moonlight" is the personal story of author Paul E. Fallon's significant efforts to share in the enormous burden and challenge of not only rebuilding, but enhancing, a country whose infrastructure was woefully inadequate before the quake. While the story is told in simple, conversational prose, its true poetry is found in Fallon’s own journey of discovery and the redrafting image of self. I found the essence of the book to be about connections and contrasts that serve to illuminate the author’s quest that was precipitated by his first visit to Haiti in the summer of 2009. The purpose of the seminal trip was to observe the construction of a new medical clinic for Forward in Health, the architectural design of which had been voluntarily developed by Fallon and the firm in Boston where he worked. This initial interaction established a profoundly humane connection to the people and the magical beauty of this island nation. Just six months later, the heartfelt emotions wrought by viewing the endless hours of television coverage portraying the earthquake’s inordinate devastation compelled Fallon into the humanitarian action that is illustrated by the book.

The opening chapter immediately connects the reader to the people, place and the life-altering occurrence through the eyes and other tactile senses of Renee Edme, who experiences the quake, and subsequently with her evangelist husband Lex, who plays a significant nurturing role in Fallon’s journey. The next integral connection of the story is the meeting of Fallon with Len and Cherylann Gengel, whose daughter Brittney was killed by the earthquake while serving on a mission trip to Haiti. The Gengels’ decision to commemorate their loss and memorialize Brittney’s life established their capital campaign and funding of an orphanage; "Be like Brit" becomes their mantra as well as the moniker of the new orphanage that Fallon volunteers to design and to subsequently oversee and participate in the construction.

Fallon’s commitment to serve and help his fellow humans provides the foundation on which this motivating story unfolds. Upon arrival in Grand Goave, an extremely poor village several hours from Haiti’s capital, Port au Prince, Fallon reconnects with Lex and Renee Edme. He had briefly met the Edmes in the 2009 trip, and their developing relationship is founded upon mutual benefit and reliance as the Edmes are Fallon’s connection to the local workforce, resources, cultural insight and language translation. The author, meanwhile, provides the capable expertise of designing and building superior structures to withstand the future and expected challenges of additional seismic activity and tropical storms.

Fallon foregoes the offer of air-conditioned accommodations and chooses to "go native" by living and eating with the locals. Over three years and 17 trips to Haiti, the book chronicles Fallon’s ‘"rebuilding Haiti" by creating and constructing the "Be like Brit" Orphanage and the Mission School. The ongoing saga illuminates the challenges posed by the extreme cultural contrasts and the base reality of extreme poverty. These forces were daily obstacles to overcome and were further complicated by the forces of nature and the challenging topography. The combined effect of tropical heat, humidity, weather aggravated by the impact of two developing hurricanes, Isaac and Sandy, plus the unpredictable volatility of the local workforce continuously hampered by limited access to building materials and equipment, continued to sap their energies but were unable to prevent the accomplishments of the determined Fallon, the grieving Gengels, the considerate donors or the participating Haitians to elevate their plight.

When we are confronted by the ravages of a natural disaster, one can choose to be thankful it occurred somewhere else, one can choose to write a check to assuage our conflicting emotions or one can do as Fallon chose: share your energy, talent, resources and compassion to actually make a real difference while discovering this action makes you better for your choice.

Conceptually, the act of giving is perceived as being very good and humane. Further scrutiny and experience reveal that the act of sharing is much more effective in truly helping one another. Fallon observed that each party must benefit or ultimately the benevolence leads to dependency, which is debilitating. Through the day-to-day toils and struggles to achieve his vision of "rebuilding Haiti," Fallon experienced the gratification of serving his fellow man through sharing while witnessing the unintended consequence of just giving by well-meaning aid groups. I sense his "redrafting a life" is even more valuable because the insight received through his efforts and gained introspection allows him to know himself better and thus increasing his capacity to share. I recommend you read "Architecture by Moonlight"; perhaps it will lead to revelations about yourself that deserve introspection and action.

— Reviewed by Neal Downing, architect and professor, Department of Architectural & Manufacturing Sciences, Western Kentucky University.

— Editor’s note: The author will speak as part of WKU Libraries’ Far Away Places Series at Barnes & Noble Booksellers at 7 p.m. Thursday.