Friday, July 07, 2006

Rafts and Rabbit Cages: What the Brightest Architectural Minds Have in Store for New Orleans

Like all members of the AIA (the American Institute of Architects), I receive my monthly complementary issue of Architectural Record, the official professional magazine of the organization. Along with the numerous glossy pictures of recently completed projects typical of architectural journals, the magazine focuses on the current events affecting the public image of the profession. Thus, constant concerns about climate change among many in the profession leads to copious articles about environmentally sensitive technologies and buildings, not to mention editorials excoriating architects for their failure to be ecologically minded enough. Naturally 9/11 and the rebuilding of the World Trade Center received lots of column-inches, with large numbers of elite architects handing down their own verdict on the submitted designs and related changes. Soon after hurricane Katrina flew over New Orleans and the Gulf Coast wreaking havoc along its path, contributors to the magazine were quick to lend their expert insights on what is to be done next.

As a profession innately desirous of the building for the future, the mood among the editors of the magazine was optimistic, since the storm had left a large scale opportunity to reinvent a major American city. Mindful of New Orleans’ chronic social and economic troubles during the last several decades, the columnists promoted progressive solutions that gave cleverly concealed nods to the local context and traditions while proposing abstract building volumes with high-tech and environmentally sensitive systems. Somehow the idea that much of the existing urban fabric of New Orleans could serve to inspire new proposals didn’t seem to get much attention in the magazine, except for a few scathing editorials against more historicist schemes of the New Urbanists, who sought to extend the local vernaculars to proposed areas for rebuilding. Reed Kroloff, the Tulane University architecture dean and the city’s eminent champion for the Modernist movement, helped organize an architecture exhibit in the Netherlands that featured schemes from avant-garde designers around the world. Each of these schemes is an attempt to remake the New Orleans, or at least to add and enliven the city’s sense of identity. None of the schemes actually show any reverence to the older architectural gems that characterize New Orleans. None of them seem to have ever consulted with New Orleanians. The exhibit wasn’t about actually building something as it was to stimulate the public’s imagination on what New Orleans could be.

And even then, some of the schemes are unintentionally patronizing. Several of the schemes made its most monumental function that of being a shelter in case of massive flooding. The Dutch firm MVRDV suggested the idea of a big hill in the middle of the city which would be tall enough so that people could seek refuge on it in emergencies. I could only imagine how inhabitant of New Orleans would enjoy seeing a big mound reminding them of the utter futility of even living in it, since the real essence of the city itself is about seeking shelter from the storm. So much for letting the good times roll if all you're really supposed to worry about is how to survive the next big one. Another much-discussed scheme by the dutch firm U.N. Studio features a green glass zigurrat that contains a media library and administrative offices for the city. Other than the form adding a bit of bold visual interest, the program itself is in my opinion quite irrelevant to the needs of New Orleans. Think about it: a massive hurricane wipes out a major American city and the best thing one can build to revive the morale of the city is to build a massive media library?

The architects wished to give New Orleans a new 'urban icon', as if of all things that the city needs a new symbol for progress is of the highest order. I seem to remember the largest indoor stadium in the world, the Superdome, filling that role quite nicely. Somehow, giving New Orleans a cool new ziggurat was going to have the same positive effect as Frank Gehry's masterpiece in Bilbao, Spain. The problem with that kind of thinking is that one shouldn't compare the uninviting Basque port that few wanted to visit to one of the U.S.'s top tourist destinations. Besides visitors come to the Big Easy not only for its quirky architecture as for its cultural ambiance, its food, its festivals, and as a welcome setting for debauchery and fun. A self-absorbed media library or hill with a school and buch of emergency shelters don't mesh with New Orleans' existing urban identity.

In the latest issue of Architectural Record, the magazine sponsored a design competition (co-hosted by Mr. Kroloff, again) for new housing prototypes for New Orleans. The best submissions were published, each accompanied by comments from the select members of the jury, each nationally respected architects. Browsing at the proposals made me shake my head at the arrogant naiveté conveyed by these schemes. Although the drawings, renderings, and forms were attractive, the absolute disregard for the on-the-ground reality of New Orleans was obvious. Maybe it was beyond the scope of the competition, but little was mentioned on what daily life is actually like, what people in the afflicted communities actually aspire to, what actually matters as important to New Orleanians. And although each of the schemes tried to resolve a problem by clever design, I really hope that the designers have the humility in knowing that the destructive social pathologies that afflict New Orleans are far more complex in nature than the simple elegance of their logical-looking drawings.

The submissions reminded me of a contant tendency that has helped generate public disgust against much of modern architecture. Most of the high-density housing schemes presented show little contextual response to the uniqueness that is New Orleans. They could be built in any other city around the globe, often exhibiting a look more in keeping with Dutch housing prototypes, which to me can look a stack of elegant rabbit cages. There is also a clear revisiting of LeCorbusier's Unite d'Habitation in Marseilles, from the design of the apartment units to the way they are related to the high-rise structure. And similar to Le Corbusier's tendency to design high-density dwellings that were so generous so as to be more fitting for wealthy bachelors than the 'masses', the schemes in the magazine propose units more generous and better built than the priciest uptown condominiums. Certainly the cost for housing a significant portion of the population that lost their dwellings in the ninth ward would be exhorbitant if built to the luxurious standards of the proposed schemes.

Among the entries for a single-family housing prototype, there was at least a bit of respect for the traditional housing typology of the shotgun home. And yet some of the designs harken back to the tendency to design with a patronizing air of pity. One scheme demonstrates how modular housing units no different from shipping containers on stilts could prove to be a quick solution to rapid and economic reconstruction. The most absurd scheme in my eyes was an entry by Harvard students, no less. It describes how many of the city's inhabitants would live inside a two-story cube to dwell in, and designed to float on water in case of massive flooding. The area where these units would be would in times of high water act as a large village of glorified life rafts. When the waters recede, the units would sit back on the ground, changed in location from before the storm, thus reconfiguring the order of the neighborhood. You know, I've always thought of humans being naturally terrestrial creatures, and I can't think of one place where people happily live on the sea in private life rafts. There are very good reasons why human settlement has gravitated toward drier land instead of embracing naturally flood-prone areas.

It is obvious that none of the projects submitted ever had the intent of being built. Competitions and exhibitions of theoretical work serve not only to stimulate new debate on the future of a place but also to enhance the prestige of those who submit the schemes (since preparing an entry takes lots of unpaid man-hours and deferred earnings doing 'real' projects). And although I'm all for promoting a lively philosophical discussion and fruitful brainstorming, it is not clear why the participants of these exhibitions and competitions believed it was necessary to complete re-envision the city of New Orleans. The Crescent City is blessed to have inherited the most picturesque urban landscapes anywhere, its architectural identity solid and beloved by everyone who lives there. In terms of pedestrian scale, the distribution of density, and its organic relationship with the landscape, New Orleans has much to recommend itself as an example of good urban design. Looking back, Katrina was more of a technical problem for the city, having little to do with the quality of its planning and urban monuments. Faultily constructed levees, poor evacuation planning and mobilization, and ill-conceived strategies for drainage of the Mississippi delta all contributed to tragedy following the hurricane. Fancy media libraries, man-made hills, or floating cubes in the water don't offer much in the way of helpful solutions to the technical dilemmas that face New Orleans. Such typically inadequate responses from these elite designers lead me sometimes to doubt the utility of even enlisting their ideas in the first place.

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