Ten years ago this past weekend, Hurricane Katrina swept across the Gulf Coast, destroying over 300,000 homes, over 100,000 of which were in the long-beleaguered but even-longer proud city of New Orleans. The images of an iconic American city under water, which many of us revisited over the past week, still haunt. The rebuilding of New Orleans, it was apparent even then, would be more than a disaster-relief project; it would tell us how much we still understood of our traditions.
That’s when Brad Pitt decided that the birthplace of jazz needed a Hollywood soul infusion. As Peter Whorlskey recounted at the Washington Post Friday, Mr. Pitt founded the Make It Right Foundation to import the world’s greatest architects into New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward and bestow the hardest-hit victims of Katrina with world-class branded houses that incorporated LEED-platinum environmental consciousness. Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Shigeru Ban were all brought in to offer Lower Ninth Ward residents their visions for post-Katrina residential life. The only hitch? According to Whorlskey, “the designs proved to be too clever to be built on a budget—that is, in reality.”
Mayne proposed a house that could float, in case the levees gave way again. A useful contingency plan, but prohibitively expensive to implement. Ban required too-costly carpentry. The famed Gehry did manage to technically approach the budget by building a $350,000 duplex—but could not tempt any natives into actually wanting to live in it.
What’s more, the unbuilt budget-busting houses may have been some of the modernists’ best contributions to the recovery of the Lower Ninth Ward. For the houses that were built by other high-flying architectural artists relied on experimental materials that have proven very prone to molding and even severe rotting in the muggy New Orleans climate—less than 10 years after they were built. Many of the others showed off their sleek, flat rooves—to which the natives reportedly responded, “you know it rains a lot here, right?” Several of the architects seemed more taken with the hurricane than the residents, Justin Shubow recounts, as they designed one home with an aesthetically “damaged” roof, another “that looked like a trailer broken in two, and another one that looked like a house piled on top of a house.”
Responding to these modernist failures, “one of the 21st century’s architectural power brokers” Aaron Betsky wrote, “The fact that buildings look strange to some people, and that roofs sometimes leak, is part and parcel of the research and development aspect of the design discipline.”
Michael Mehaffy captured the modernist Make It Right ethos well in his recent, excellent essay, “What We Didn’t Learn From Katrina”:
Let us not learn from the successes and delights of New Orleans itself, they suggest. Let us not empower local people with local solutions. Instead, let us bring international architects to craft novelty inventions, and bestow them upon these lucky denizens. If these novelties happen to perform poorly—if they rot quickly, or have other problems—well, who knew?
Mehaffy goes on to note that “New Orleans has the embodied knowledge of how to make an exquisite street, a delightful house, a durable and enduring piece of the city. But we are in the bad habit of ignoring it.” New Orleans in fact has one of the most distinctive architectural identities of any city in the country, and a large part of that is due to it being specifically adapted to its environment. What’s more, the people of New Orleans are famously attached to their identity. You don’t stick around through “the hurricane before the hurricane” of urban dysfunction and decay because the climate is nice. You stay because the city has a soul, as Rod learned helping Crescent City native Wendell Pierce with his memoir.
Thankfully, Pitt included at least one local firm in his project, and the Billes Partners prototype is sure enough the most popular design ordered by the actual residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Elevated and LEED-certified, the house still draws on New Orleans style. What’s more, Billes himself notes, “We did actually listen to what the neighborhoods folks might like in a house… They were looking for a porch, and they were were looking for a protected area to drive their car into. And they wanted something that looked familiar.” Steven Bingler of Concordia, another involved local firm, notes that “A lot of features of our design come from our knowledge of the New Orleans community—for example, an eight-foot-deep front porch. The community has commented that four-foot-deep front porches aren’t big enough for their rocking chairs.”
The modernist marvels of Gehry and co., with their clean absence of context and experiments in high-speed housing decay unfortunately reflect the state of architecture more widely. As Bingler noted in a New York Times op-ed, “we’re trying to sell the public buildings they don’t want, in a language they don’t understand,” because “we’ve taught generation of architects to speak out as artists, but we haven’t taught them to listen.”
As Mehaffy reflects,
New Orleans is a marvel of informal order. Its older neighborhoods are loose jazzy improvisations of buildings and details and quirky outdoor spaces, all exquisitely human scale and aimed at pedestrian delight. A walk down one of its streets reveals the layers of human activity and change that have grown up there, re-organizing, and transforming neighborhoods bit by bit. It is a marvel of durable livability.
As New Orleans begins another decade of post-Katrina life, this massive project of reclamation and rebuilding is a strong lesson in localism. Watching his city come back to life around him, Bingler noted that “it was the citizens of New Orleans who saved New Orleans. If you ask around, there is no shortage of politicians and businesspeople who will take the credit. It’s interesting that, for the most part, those people tanked and failed. Some of them are in federal prison as we speak.”
New Orleans is still struggling to retain its character amid the hurricane-imposed population changes, but the city’s strength is built into its streets, into its buildings, and into its people. Where one of those components falters, the others can reinforce, but context-less modernism would cut another of the supports out from under the community.
We can hope that New Orleans has a clear enough sense of its own identity to fend off those threats. We might need to be more worried, however, about the creeping decay of our own neighborhoods and cities under the gradual pressure of an architecture without a soul.
Jonathan Coppage is an associate editor at The American Conservative.