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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Rebuilding the Ninth Ward: does architecture matter?

Kaid Benfield

Posted October 14, 2009

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    Ninth Ward houses (courtesy of Steve Mouzon) 

As I'm sure most readers know, Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation has been constructing houses in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, so that residents who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina can return.  That's an undeniably noble endeavor.  But some of my new urbanist friends believe that the architecture of the new houses (Pitt is himself an avid architecture buff) is undermining the mission, because it does not respect New Orleans vernacular architecture and is not conducive to community-building.

They may have a point: 

    Ninth Ward house (courtesy of Steve Mouzon) 

  Ninth Ward house (courtesy of Steve Mouzon)  Ninth Ward house (courtesy of Steve Mouzon)

  Ninth Ward house (courtesy of Steve Mouzon)  Ninth Ward house (courtesy of Steve Mouzon)

Here's how my friend and Congress for the New Urbanism board member Victor Dover put it on Facebook:

"Looks like there was a windstorm... This reflects the sad philosophy that architecture should express the violence, chaos, fragmentation and disorder "of our time" (a damaged, damaging phrase, especially after Katrina). Instead, we should be establishing order that produces harmony and peace in human souls, and creating beauty that drowns out the threatening aspects of storm and culture, and seeking timelessness - and this will inevitably lead us to designs that are more genuinely resource-efficient and enduring."

All photos are courtesy of Steve Mouzon, whose Original Green website and blog are recommended.

To be fair, it should be noted that Steve and uber-new-urbanist Andres Duany also designed homes for the Katrina recovery, which they call Katrina Cottages.  It should also be noted that, whatever one thinks of the architecture, Pitt's houses are all LEED-platinum, and the fact that he and his foundation have taken on the task of helping rebuild is a very good thing.

The counter-argument to Victor's position was posted in the same Facebook thread by Curt Rohner:

"I would proffer that a neighborhood only functions as well as the people who live there, it is a learned skill. The people returning to Lower Nine have these skills and just because the architecture may not be your cup of tea doesn't mean the neighborhood will not succeed.

"In the end we need to not only rebuild great neighborhoods in America but work to create better neighbors to fill them."

The Make It Right Foundation has somewhat more flattering photos of their houses here.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.


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ScottOct 14 2009 09:09 AM

Assessments of the architecture are nice, and I have my opinions like anyone else (which fall in the Mouzon camp, if anyone cares), but they seem removed in part from the discourse immediately following Katrina. Namely, how do we confront the reality of so many homes, owned outright for perhaps generations, and largely underinsured to meet replacement costs? How do we provide dignified replacement housing at a market price point accessible to real people -- in the face of, but also outside of, extraordinary circumstances?

The Katrina Cottages have been the manifestation of the principles that fueled such questions. Are the Pitt houses? I don't know because no one seems to be talking about it. Not discounting the dedication and perseverance of those involved, or the admirable low environmental impacts of their design and construction, but could such homes really proliferate in the absence of celebrity or practitioner benevolence?

If they can't, then any suggestion of sustainability is suspect. But perhaps they can. I don't know because style wars seem to dominate the conversation.

Tony ChaviraOct 14 2009 03:31 PM

It's sort of funny that 50 years have passed since Arts & Architecture's Case Study Homes project and we can see exactly how staritects like Frank Gehry (in mentoring Brad Pit) have geared the design and discussion of large-scale modular workforce developments. In some ways worse, this reflects the longer-standing attitude of Le Corbusier fans who always felt that the structure should singularly trigger infusive urbanism by design.

I would argue against Curt Rohner's point citing the infamous Pruitt Igoe development in St. Louis: large modernist developments which were nice architecturally but quickly slipped to slum structures, since they weren't planned to infuse well into the surrounding area... just to be 'the living space of the future!' Le Corbusier himself had a visionary plan to lay central Paris flat (north of the Seine) and install rows of six-story cruciform towers. Honestly, I can't imagine how much different walking through Paris would be today if he got what he wanted.

Anyway, the point here is that people can live anywhere if they have to, but will they want to?

T. CaineOct 16 2009 03:14 PM

I would say that both sides of the fence have something to offer in this particular case. Modern architecture that explores new means of representation and construction is a good thing. It leads to innovation and evolution. However, neighborhoods are defined by some level of connection not only on the social level, but the built environment as well.

New Urbanism has a lot of great talking points and its foundations are positive. Walkable communities, scale and program allotment, pedestrian focus with reorientation towards cars. All great stuff. Their sticking point comes with the insistence of being glued to a historical depiction of architecture that is arguably outmoded. While that it sometimes be appropriate, it is not always the solution and should not be considered doctrine. The safe solution is not always the right one.

At the end of the day Brad Pitt is getting homes built and that in itself is admirable, but it's true that eventually community strength is affected by its ability to be "seen" as a community as well as felt.

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