by Errol Barron
Since World War II, a good deal of ink has been spilled about fitting modem architecture within the historic core of older American cities. New Orleans is unique in this debate, being the only 18th-century French colonial city remaining with most of its original plan and buildings intact, with cities like Detroit, Mobile, Quebec and Montreal all having been radically changed. New Orleans has thus presented a tricky problem for contemporary architects and planners because there is so much of historic importance here and so much of it is so good. This is not to say there are row upon row of masterpieces here. There aren’t, but there is an ensemble of buildings from the French Quarter along and out from the Mississippi riverfront that is unrivaled in America.
Why so much of this 19th-century built environment remains is a combination of its remarkable quality and a particular New Orleans phenomenon — inertia. The Crescent City never got around to demolition and thereby avoided the widespread urban planning disasters that wrecked so many cities in the 1950s and ‘60s. Also, the imperative for drive-in commerce and sprawl made possible by cheap gas was confined to outlying areas once thought uninhabitable — low, flood-prone terrain that in the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina proved to be just that.
In the wake of such widespread destruction, the issue of new architecture in the historic city is more pertinent in New Orleans now than ever before. The catastrophe unleashed a torrent of pent-up architectural desire, fueled by a promise of European-inspired design and support for new architecture, not historical pastiche.
The flood of proposals for “rebuilding” New Orleans in a way modeled after post- war European examples was extraordinary; more than 1,000 schemes were put forth in competitions, commercial proposals and in schools of architecture, where countless studio projects tackled the problem of the damaged city. This activity — partly altruistic and partly opportunistic — was primarily conducted in the federally- required but largely-theatrical style of populist planning sessions where idealistic “New Urbanism” proposals were put forth for a city where grass was growing wild in the neutral grounds.
While few of the proposals have been acted on (so far fewer than 200 new buildings have been built), most have reflected contemporary architecture. Traditionalists have argued for reproductions of traditional buildings, but by a large margin, architects have sought to break from the older styles — often to the bafflement of the public at large where opinion is deeply conservative.
Though the number of actual post- Katrina construction sites has thus far been minimal, there is one area of New Orleans where something has happened — the suddenly famous Lower Ninth Ward, site of film actor Brad Pitt’s “Make It Right” rebuilding initiative.
Pitt’s generosity and leadership in the devastated neighborhood has made it possible, against great odds, to erect several houses on lots wiped clean by the levee failure at the Industrial Canal. It is unfair to judge these projects too quickly before New Orleans’ climate does its work to provide the aggressive vegetation and patina that is a feature of our own built world or until, and if, the depopulated neighborhood fills out.
In the “Make It Right” houses one can see how the belief in originality and cleverness affect projects which are so much in the spotlight. From the vantage point of the Claiborne Avenue bridge, the houses look like colorful yachts as one descends into the sea of grass where a dense neighborhood once stood. The new homes have a kind of humorous demeanor suggesting salesmen in bright jackets promoting a product. The result is predictable because the direction was wrong. “Make It Right” encouraged individual performances rather than a choral work. Pitt and his developers did not understand the need for a repetitive prototype that would capitalize on that particular New Orleans aspect of urbanity, “ensembleness” — not “mini villas” for the indigent.
This alternative was tried at Habitat for Humanity’s Musician’s Village in the Upper Ninth Ward, but here the results are also mixed. The Musician’s Village does contribute to an ensemble at the scale of the street, but it is ruined by unrelieved repetition. One is sadly reminded of the great developments of Edinburgh and of Georgian England, not to mention our own city, where development was based on established rules for action with variety. In the case of New Orleans, the ensemble was accomplished by 19th-century speculators who, through the use of repetitive prototypes, managed to build up whole precincts with uniformity, leavened by individual details. These builders knew their clientele (they were counting on sales) and they knew what the buildings were supposed to look like, plus they had a ready industry to supply the lumber and fancy work which gives these buildings their charm. They also knew people did not need lots of space to have privacy.
This may all sound like an argument for New Urbanism, which it is not. To most architects and many others, the self- assured design guidelines of the New Urbanists make sense in general but are chilling when taken whole or applied universally. When New Orleans began to regroup after Katrina, there was a fear that New Urbanist experts would come marching in with canned solutions for a complex historic city. The fear was that they would miss that we did not need new planning as much as restoration and infill.
When given a chance to rebuild in areas where nothing was left. New Orleans is best suited to the ensemble model, not the villa model. But the reality of individual property rights, combined with our famous inertia and — let’s face it— an abiding poverty and lack of good leadership has dashed our hopes so far.
What is needed is a sophisticated model for background buildings reflecting the city’s signature shotgun and double houses, but the likelihood of such a well- thought, refined model will be hard to come by if grander gestures are in the minds of the architects and planners.
Errol Barron is a New Orleans architect in the firm of Errol Barron/Michael Toups Architects and teaches architecture and drawing at Tulane University. In 1994 he was made a fellow in the American Institute of Architects.