Build, Rebuild, Build Anew

One of the best articles written about New Orleans' progress (or lack thereof) two years after its tango with Katrina has come from within the Crecent City, itself. Nola.com's article by Doug MacCash, entitled Architectural Soul of the City at Stake, discusses in great detail the efforts of preservationists to save the city's pre-hurricane architecture; and that label is very deliberate, as there is a general push to save anything, be it from the 1800s or the 1960s, that survived Katrina and the resulting floods.

MacCash's article has particular resonance because it so very subtly ties New Orleans' architectural soul to its overall civic soul; indeed, the city's identity, now in crisis, is intrinsically tied to its built environment. New Orleans faces the intractable problem of having to build, to rebuild, and to build anew. That is to say, NOLA must replace destroyed buildings (build) without further damaging -- and trying to maintain -- its legendary sense of place (rebuild) in a way that avoids painful, regressive kitsch (build anew). This explains the desire to save everything -- no matter the architectural style -- that wasn't truly irreparably damaged.

John Magill, a historian with The Historic New Orleans Collection, is quoted in the Nola.com article as saying "There are so many houses lost. Nobody can comprehend what's gone." This quote is particularly telling because it refers not to Garden District mansions or classic Victorian shotguns, but to the so-called "slab city" neighborhoods built in the post-war era. Magill's lamentation is for the brick-veneer bungalows that can be found blanketing suburban tracts from Seattle to Atlanta, but that "meant a great deal to the people who lived in them." The point being made here is that what has been decimated in New Orleans is not just a physical vernacular, but an emotional one as well. A page of the city's cultural story has been savagely ripped from the binding.

But the name of the game on the bayou is Resilience, and the destruction of New Orleans has presented a dream scenario for architects and urban designers. Visions for the city's future have not been scarce, though traction with public officials, unfortunately, has been. Still, they continue to come pouring in. Most recently, Thom Mayne's National Jazz Center and TEN Arquitectos, Hargreaves Associates, and Chan Krieger Sieniewicz's reimagining of the downtown riverfront have added some lustre to the city's architectural news roster.

Of course, the reality is that these projects could quite possibly fizzle out like their predecessors. "Still," a NY Times article on the proposals points out, "the scope and creative ambition of these projects suggest how architecture could someday be vital to the city’s physical and social healing. Both seek to transform dead urban areas into lively public forums, employing powerful architectural expressions of a democratic ideal."

New Orleans hasn't been a center of contemporary design since "contemporary" refered to the kind of flowery aesthetic that makes today's historicists salivate. In the wake of an event that has changed the very way in which the city thinks about itself, there is a chance that this could change. In fact, while the artistic merits of modern architecture (as with any style) will forever be argued, with its clean lines and frank honesty modernism is (metaphorically speaking) exactly what the city needs

Trahan Architects have come up with what may be the most enticing endorsement of modernism in the new New Orleans with their impossibly sleek update of the city's most beloved piece of vernacular: the shotgun house (pictured above). If built, this house would be a new, flood-conscious building that could easily nestle into a newly cleared lot (build) that draws from the city's architectural and cultural tradition (rebuild) in a way that is neither chintzy nor dishonest (build new). This is democratic architecture at its best.

People will always be wary of buildings built in newer styles of architecture because they suggest, whether it's true or not, that the places around them are changing. But New Orleans is a city that can not afford to deny change, and it can likely be agreed that, after Katrina, it would be particularly bullheaded to do so. Modernism is certainly not the answer to every problem facing this city, and shouldn't even necessarily be the primary architectural mode in the city's reconstruction. But embracing innovative and progressive architectural values, in a place where architecture is so vital to the civic character, can help to bring about important changes in a city desperate for a new raison d'être. The people of New Orleans cannot rebuild simply for the sake of doing so; the hurricane has given them an incredibly rare chance to create a built environment and a community that together form something greater and stronger than the insular, stagnant city that they had before.

It's time to consider building change into the vernacular.

Architectural soul of the city at stake (Nola.com) (found via Life Without Buildings)

Two Infusions of Vision to Bolster New Orleans (NY Times)

Trahan Architects (Photo credit)

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