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Irene Brisson

Interview by undergraduate student Julia Wang (2019). Major: History of Art; Minor: Museum Studies.

Irene Brisson, 2018-19 Sylvia "Duffy" Engle Graduate Fellow
Mock-up at a trade school demonstrating correct construction techniques for a typical concrete block house, Leogane, Haiti.

Can you tell us a little more about the project you are working on this year. Why do you choose this particular topic? Why does it interest you?

I am working on my dissertation which is about contemporary architecture practices in Haiti. I am looking very broadly at architecture as the activity of design, as it is being done by architects, and contractors, and even home builders. I found this project because I was working as an architect on post-disaster projects in 2010-2012, and I was really frustrated by the lack of information and the disinformation about architectural practices in Haiti.

What have you discovered so far? What are some key takeaways?

I am sorting through everything I gathered during fieldwork right now. Themes that I am looking include some real complexities in design like taste—what do people value and how do they choose to integrate that into their homes. There is a line of thinking that there are certain aesthetic choices that are more popular among the upper class versus the lower class. But I am more interested in an aesthetic of the middle classes. The quality of materials and house size varies with economics but certain tropes—say ornate columns, arched windows—are those little architectural gestures that show up across classes.

How does being in a collaborative environment with other fellows drive your project? What have you learned from other fellows?

The weekly conversations around a fellow’s work is nourishing intellectually. It has been really fascinating to see the diverse projects. There isn’t a shared topic but there is a shared attitude. A lot of people are working through multiple media and across a couple of disciplines, as I hope to. Seeing how other people are wrangling with really complicated questions and sources in their research, gives me new perspectives with which to consider my own work. And I can see that’s what I want to do. How can I get there?

What is one piece of advice that you would give to undergraduates?

In my undergraduate we had a very clear division between the sciences and humanities. Science took priority, but I felt like the humanities classes were really important. We had to take three courses in one topic and three courses in unrelated topics; I would recommend this to any undergraduates. I focused on Spanish; in retrospect French would have been more useful since I ended up working in Haitian Creole. But those unrelated classes were so interesting and have been useful in ways that I couldn’t know at the time. I took an introductory anthropology class, which has ended up being key to my research methodology. I took a baroque music class. It’s not super relevant to my daily activities, but having a deep knowledge of particular things, it pops up to serve you in unexpected moments. And I’d also think about curating your courses - such that a humanities course may offer a way to critique or question the absences in the case studies you may be using in an engineering course.