In the November 2009 issue of The Atlantic, writer and New Orleans resident Wayne Curtis explored the ongoing efforts of architects, developers, and celebrities to rebuild the beleaguered city’s most devastated neighborhoods.
Four years after the levee failures, New Orleans is seeing an unexpected boom in architectural experimentation. Small, independent developers are succeeding in getting houses built where the government has failed. And the city’s unique challenges—among them environmental impediments, an entrenched culture of leisure, and a casual acquaintance with regulation—are spurring design innovations that may redefine American architecture for a generation.
Curtis points out that government at all levels has been conspicuously absent at best, but that that hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing.
In the absence of strong central leadership, the rebuilding has atomized into a series of independent neighborhood projects. And this has turned New Orleans—moist, hot, with a fecund substrate that seems to allow almost anything to propagate—into something of a petri dish for ideas about housing and urban life. An assortment of foundations, church groups, academics, corporate titans, Hollywood celebrities, young people with big ideas, and architects on a mission have been working independently to rebuild the city’s neighborhoods, all wholly unconcerned about the missing master plan. It’s at once exhilarating and frightening to behold.
“If you look at the way ants behave when they’re gathering food, it looks like the stupidest, most irrational thing you’ve ever seen—they’re zigzagging all over the place, they’re bumping into other ants. You think, ‘What a mess! This is never going to amount to anything,’” says Michael Mehaffy, the head of the Sustasis Foundation, which studies urban life and sustainability and has worked with neighborhood organizations here. “So it’s easy to look at New Orleans at the grassroots level and wonder, What’s going on here?’ But if you step back and look at the big picture, in fact it’s the most efficient pattern possible, because all those random activities actually create a very efficient sort of discovery process.”
What I find so fascinating about post-Katrina New Orleans is that a high-profile, high-powered cast of characters with wildly divergent aesthetic philosophies has independently and simultaneously descended on the city in order to rebuild it for the very same residents who were swept away by the deluge in the first place. Many people, myself included, assumed that the Ninth Ward and similarly devastated areas would be bought up and developed for maximum ROI, permanently altering the demographics and personality of N’awlins in the process. We were wrong.
It would be supremely cynical to suggest that those lending a hand are not being altruistic, but in addition to the warm and fuzzy feeling of genuine do-gooding New Orleans offers that rarest of opportunities for the life-size Lincoln Logs set: creative experimentation. New techniques, new applications, new contexts are being tested, and residents with no formal knowledge of architecture are at the table alongside the William McDonoughs, Kieran Timberlakes, and Thom Maynes. Historic literalists like Andres Duany are there, as are experimentation-prone Tulane architecture students. And, of course, there’s Brad Pitt. For the first time in a long time, something new is happening in New Orleans.
Curtis pedaled his bicycle past a handful of ballyhooed projects, stopping to see what all the fuss is about. His journey is excerpted below—my two cents follows. First stop: the project house and temporary HQ of Pitt’s Global Green nonprofit.
409 Andry Street
[This] house is a fine example of what you might call the Better Living Through Modern Green Design strain of utopianism, whose adherents argue that contemporary design and technology will conspire to free us from our grim, polluted past and usher in an era of efficiency and cleanliness…and it’s hard not to marvel at all the applied ingenuity, from the dual-flush toilets—number one gets a spritz, number two more hydraulic vigor—to the “green screen” of Carolina jasmine being trained to shade the south wall, to the thousand-gallon cistern intended to supply captured rainwater for toilet-flushing and plant care. The house is designed to be “net zero” energy-wise—that is, it produces as much electricity as it consumes each year. The utility closets are filled with the synapses that control the house’s hi-tech appendages, and downstairs near the door is a touch-screen panel—the “Lucid Building Dashboard”—that monitors its brain waves like an EKG. It seemed to me every bit as marvelous as Disney’s old House of the Future, but with reclaimed wood rather than white plastic…
“What we call historic design arose out of necessity,” said [Tom] Darden, [the project’s executive director,] “and that’s happening again.”
…The architects were given conditions hammered out in part during community meetings, some of which Pitt attended, where displaced residents described their vision of a new neighborhood. Among the criteria that emerged: use the city’s existing narrow lots; elevate houses out of the way of future flooding and include rooftop access to simplify rescue; feature prominent porches or front stoops for socializing; and use materials that are tough enough to survive hurricanes but that also approach “cradle to cradle” reusability. The standard house was to be 1,200 square feet, have three bedrooms and two baths, and cost no more than $150,000. Homeowners would pay what they could, and the foundation would help with the rest.
As the process unfolded—with designers bouncing their ideas off the people who would actually have to live in their creations—[Concordia architecture-and-planning firm founder Steven] Bingler sensed a welcome shift in his style-obsessed profession. “Community has to be the new titanium,” he said.
3428 Dauphine Street
Not everybody is so circumspect. “Oh, it’s all bullshit,” Andres Duany said to me last fall, when I brought up Make It Right. “The high design? That has nothing to do with reality. That’s just architectural self-indulgence.”
Duany, it may come as no surprise, subscribes to another utopian worldview. He is a co-founder of the Congress for New Urbanism, and a persistent advocate for traditional small-town design. A generation ago, Duany and his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, designed the landmark village at Seaside, Florida, and made a seemingly historic beach town suddenly materialize on an empty stretch of seacoast. He built his reputation in part on his porches; at Seaside, all houses were required to have them, to encourage community interaction.
The porch at 3428 Dauphine Street—in the historic Bywater neighborhood, just across the Industrial Canal from the Lower Ninth—is not very Duany-esque. It’s more like a small deck, accessible only from the living room and enclosed by a tall wood-plank fence. This is a bit odd, since Duany designed it, but in a historically blue-collar neighborhood of stoops rather than porches, it makes contextual sense.
[Duany’s] homes illuminate the Your Elders Knew Best strain of utopianism, whose adherents argue that historic neighborhoods are sacred texts from which one can learn, provided the language in which they were written is accurately translated. The future and its fancy technology distract from what’s really important: building human-scale environments with houses that quietly add to the conversation of the street, rather than yodeling and preening. Duany has largely succeeded in weaving his new homes into the block. One can bike past without noticing them, as I first did. As he explained in a neighborhood-association newsletter, “It is our hope that at least some parts of New Orleans can be rebuilt in the style to which its residents are accustomed—and not as a version of an Alabama trailer park or a suburb of Venice Beach, California.”
3105 Law Street
From his front porch, Mingko Aba can look across the street to the house where he was born 59 years ago…Aba’s new home, which he moved into earlier this year, is just 14 feet wide, but it has a restrained grandeur, like a miniature Greek temple on a mount. On the outside, with its rectangular columns and tall triangular pediment, it’s all but indistinguishable from the Greek Revival shotgun houses found on narrow lots throughout the city’s older neighborhoods.
The historic design is not by accident. William Monaghan, the architect and developer who founded Build Now, is another representative of the utopianism that sees salvation in the architectural grammar of a historic city. “There’s a place for everything, and it’s great that people are doing all kinds of design, but I wanted to fit in with the neighborhood character,” he said. “I didn’t want to try to get somebody to move back to New Orleans and make all those decisions and sink all that money into something, and then say, ‘Oh yes, and you also have to be challenged by unfamiliar architecture.’”
He explored the city with tape measure in hand, conducting a sort of architectural phrenology to figure out the proportions and details that make New Orleans houses so New Orleans—the depths of the porches, the sizes of the pediments, the angles of the hip roofs, the ratios of height to width. It turned out that while these measurements tended to be quirky and irregular, they made a lot of sense for the culture and climate of New Orleans. For instance, almost every old house has tall ceilings that allow residents to live below the worst of the summer heat. Single shotgun cottages lack hallways, allowing for efficient cross-ventilation in every room. And many center-hall cottages use transoms to make the walls porous and keep the air moving. “You sort of take this stuff for granted,” Monaghan said, “but it’s a tremendous environmental response.”
The great appeal of Build Now is its utter simplicity. Recreating a home from the past seems a needed balm for this wounded city. Where Duany seems to want to harness his projects to a broader crusade, Monaghan’s mission is more straightforward: build houses that New Orleanians have shown, through a process of architectural natural selection spanning more than a century, that they love.
“What we’re learning is that these traditions are not just fashions,” said Michael Mehaffy of Sustasis. “They’re rooted in the real adaptive evolution of a place.”
2036 Seventh Street
URBANbuild Prototype 04 in New Orleans’s Central City neighborhood was completed last spring. You might pass Duany’s or Monaghan’s homes without noticing them. Not this one…It looks like the package in which one of the Victorian shotguns nearby was delivered, and the sheer incongruity of the thing made me laugh when I first saw it. But loitering on the back porch—basically a deep rectangular cut taken out of one corner of the box—I found it impossible not to feel part of the neighborhood, perhaps more so than at any of the other new houses I’d visited.
This is one of four homes developed since Katrina by the URBANbuild studio at the Tulane School of Architecture. Some 25 students worked to design and build it; electrical, plumbing, HVAC, and drywall work were contracted out. Standing on a crime-racked block of the city, it has the feel of guerrilla architecture, built in defiance of its surroundings.
The students started with the concept of sliding plastic panels, which, in theory, will withstand the pummeling of a hurricane. They then took some of the common architectural vocabulary of New Orleans—shutters, porch, front stoop—and distilled them to their essential elements, adding exaggerations of scale and splashes of color (the segments of the box cut away for the stoop and porches are painted lime green). Even so, the house is practical, like a cabinet from IKEA—when not locked into position for hurricanes, the panels can be moved around for privacy, or to shade the porches from sun.
Scott Bernhard, director of the Tulane City Center, which has worked with URBANbuild and other community projects at Tulane, defended the style. “To me, it’s respectful of the old buildings to be attentive to scale or urban pattern, but it’s not respectful of those old buildings to imitate,” he said. “In some ways, imitation and mockery are too close together. To us, having a gabled roof at the front of the building is far less important than engaging the street.”
It Takes a Village to Make a Village
Vernacular architecture is a funny thing. Is the term purely stylistic? If Duany erects exact replicas of the houses of old New Orleans, does that make them authentically vernacular? Or does the term refer to a confluence of style, material, and method in a particular time and place? Something unreproducible? Is imitation, as Bernhard says, too close to mockery? Is the respectfulness of design manifested in aesthetic harmony? In context-sensitive functionality? In the inclusion of the technology and beliefs of its own era? If Pitt is right, does Monahan have to be wrong?
The Los Angeles neighborhood I lived in for a number of years is draped over the cliffs and canyons that separate Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades. Most lots are relatively narrow, most houses relatively similar in size. No two, however, are alike. Spanish villas rub shoulders with faux Victorian, Arts & Crafts, California Modern, ultramodern, Cape Cod, and Colonial styles. Aesthetic diversity creates something of its own vernacular, and nowhere else in Los Angeles feels quite like it. I’m not suggesting New Orleans imitate Los Angeles, nor anywhere else. I am suggesting that architectural diversity isn’t such a bad thing, and is entirely appropriate for cities of a global age.
The New Orleans that was swept away when the levees broke cannot be restored. A new New Orleans is rising—it cannot be otherwise. Isn’t it possible that in this new New Orleans there is room for Frank Gehry and Andres Duany? For the experimental and the traditional? For the future and the past? Can’t this new New Orleans be a city that retells the stories of its forebears while crafting new tales of its own? It has been a long time since New Orleans had anything new to add to the larger discussion of American urbanism. A long time since the national spotlight shone on it for reasons other than crime, poverty, catastrophe, or the musical achievements of the past.
History should never be forgotten, but neither should it be made into a golden calf. Cities need to breathe, they need to periodically remake themselves. As long as the people remaking New Orleans remain in service to the city’s most vulnerable residents, New Orleans wins. Architects win. Design wins. Creativity wins. Experimentation wins. A new vernacular arises alongside the old.
The architectural historian James Marston Fitch wrote more than a half century ago that great leaps forward in architecture occur when three factors—theory, material, and technique—come into alignment under the pressure of social change. Such “golden moments of equilibrium,” as he called them, are “brief in time, special in character, delicate in balance.” He noted that such moments produced the Crystal Palace, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Eiffel Tower.
We may be in one of those moments now, with notions of modern design, advances in green materials, and the technical imperatives of sustainability all converging toward a great leap in urban architecture. The architecture writer Andrew Blum has asked whether the Brad Pitt Houses could “become for the single-family green house what Seaside was for New Urbanism or Pacific Palisades was for California Modernism”—that is, a project that recasts the possible for the next generation of architects and developers. As seems fitting for such a moment, most of the construction projects under way in New Orleans are informed by seemingly conflicting strands of utopianism. But their designers are coming to some common, and edifying, conclusions…
…A community-driven, middle-out planning style has emerged, and the kind of housing it seems to favor fuses smart modern design with the city’s traditional notions of space, leisure, and community.
How extraordinary it will be if in the wake of utter destruction—in one of the poorest, most crime-ridden, most undereducated, most politically inept, most unique, most beloved cities in America—a model for planning, design, and building emerges that respects the needs of individuals, the character of neighborhoods, the dynamism of cities, the nuances of climate, and the impact of our actions on the larger environment. How interesting it will be if “golden moments of equilibrium” are increasingly found in such unexpected places.
note from planologie: Wayne Curtis’s article covers much more ground than I reference here. It’s a great read. Check out the whole thing at theatlantic.com