New Orleans differs significantly from San Francisco in its historical and political context. While San Francisco at the turn of the century was struggling to find an identity, New Orleans boasted a long and diverse history manifest in its built environment. Katrina’s aftermath showcased the shortcomings of the central government, from delayed humanitarian responses to the formaldehyde of FEMA temporary trailers turned permanent housing. On the local level, there is a continued lack of guidance for a coherent rebuilding strategy. While Mayor Ray Nagin unveiled various grand project proposals for the city that never came to fruition or funding , the city planning department drafted a master plan that has not been fully funded or implemented in a meaningful way.
Consequently, the rebuilding efforts have been slow and has led to decentralized dispersed strategies of independent NGOs, non profits, community based organizations and companies. These uncoordinated projects often attempt to engage with local architectural traditions, and thus lead to a variety of interpretations of what “real” or “authentic” New Orleans traditions are. The Atlantic describes the effect of this distributed rebuilding approach:
This has turned New Orleans—moist, hot, with a fecund substrate that seems to allow almost anything to propagate—into something of a petri dish for ideas about housing and urban life. An assortment of foundations, church groups, academics, corporate titans, Hollywood celebrities, young people with big ideas, and architects on a mission have been working independently to rebuild the city’s neighborhoods, all wholly unconcerned about the missing master plan. It’s at once exhilarating and frightening to behold.
Two case studies will be used to illustrate the diverse issues at play in this search for authenticity: the first case study is the New Urbanist inspired River Garden development in the Lower Garden District; the second case study is Brad Pitt’s Make It Right houses in the Lower 9th Ward.
DOMINANT ARCHITECTURAL DISCOURSE PRE-DISASTER
New Orleans maintained a strong pride for its local traditions where the concrete manifestations of these traditions were of little disagreement: gumbo, jambalaya, jazz, and pre-WWII architecture. The precise articulation of “traditional” architectural typologies differs and includes a wide variety of exogenous influences (French, Spanish, American, Caribbean, etc) mixed with distinctly local flair. However, they are (with rare exception) always pre-modernist, pre-WWII styles typified by the Vieux Carre: Creole Cottage, Creole Townhouse, Shotgun House, American Townhouse, Greek Revival, Italianate, etc.
New Orleans has even been an example of “authenticity” and rich history in critical academic literature, like Umberto Eco’s depiction of the city in “Travels in Hyperreality.” Local academic discourse on architectural traditions before Katrina predominantly centered around preservation programs; questioning which areas were chosen for renovation and what affect that has on their cultural diversity.
DOMINANT ARCHITECTURAL DISCOURSE POST-DISASTER
While the vast majority of destruction from Katrina occurred in more recent housing developments that garnered little architectural merit before the storm, the discourse on architectural traditions was that of imminent doom and devastation, a severe concern for how the city would be reconstructed and in what style. This sense of looming disaster is witnessed from a variety of perspectives: New Orleans’ Times-Picayune arts columnist Doug McCash and Michelle Krupa title their article, “Architectural Soul of the City at Stake;” or as the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans explain in their mission statement that, “we at the PRC believe that preserving a city’s architecture is tantamount to preserving its soul… In post-Katrina New Orleans, it is particularly crucial that we rebuild in a way that is sensitive to our past, or we risk losing everything that makes our city unique;” or New York Times architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff states that “as people begin to sift through the wreckage left by Hurricane Katrina, there is a creeping sense that the final blow has yet to be struck — one that will irrevocably blot out the city’s past.”
Most of this distress focuses on the icons of pre-WWII architectural heritage, despite the fact that the most badly destroyed neighborhoods, like the Lower 9th Ward, are constructed of modern suburban tract housing. Many modern architectural icons have been left to literally rot, or even been torn down even if structurally sound, with the obvious exception of the Super Dome – the backdrop for many media images from the aftermath of Katrina.
Regardless of the viewpoint taken on what is considered, “true” New Orleans’ tradition, many cite a concern with the need to rebuild with “authenticity.” For example, while local architect Allen Eskew appreciates the heritage of modern buildings in New Orleans, he also suggests that “as we repair the city, we need to repair with integrity, and as we build, we need to do it in its own time with authenticity.” However, what elements constitute this “authenticity” is much debated and manifests differently in each one of the plethora of reconstruction projects of New Orleans.
CASE STUDY 1: RIVER GARDEN
One of the first housing developments to be built after Katrina was the New Urbanist style River Garden in the Lower Garden and Warehouse District. The development demonstrates Jean Baudrillard’s notions of the simulacra – the simulation becoming the original.
The development rests on high ground next to the Mississippi and is situated in a historic district, with most surrounding buildings comprised of Greek Revival and Italianate homes or old warehouses. The developers, HRI Properties, aimed to create a walkable community (the WalMart fails to achieve the New Urbanist mandate for small scale mixed use) that blended into the historic building stock. HRI’s website claims that “River Garden is old New Orleans living at its best and its newest.” The website also advertises its alignment with New Urbanist trends: “Embracing ‘New Urbanism’ concepts, River Garden incorporates mixed use developments with a pedestrian and an historic preservation friendly atmosphere;” or an independent apartment guide boasts its “Nationally Recognized ‘New Urbanism’ Concept.” However, this development immediately sticks out as too polished, too finished, and incongruent with much of the surrounding neighborhood. While the academic community and preservationists were wary of the development, Mayor Ray Nagin praised it and promoted it as a model for reconstruction, in particular for its public housing.
The founder of the New Urbanist movement, Andres Duany, while not involved directly with River Garden, was very active after Katrina, attending multiple design charrettes and writing several articles on how the city should be reconstructed. He explained his great love for New Orleans and of the great model of architecture and urbanism that it used to be; he even purchased a historic home in the Marigny. Duany explains that: “I have long been a visitor to New Orleans. In my case, the first visit was 1979, when we studied the city to influence the design of the new town of Seaside. I have been back often – for New Orleans is one of the best places to learn architecture and urbanism in the United States.” He notes that the city was a model for the original New Urbanist development of Seaside Florida and that the city has continued to be an inspiration for his evolving New Urbanist ideas. Even the architecture typologies of New Orleans’ Vieux Carre and Jackson Square were directly translated to Seaside.
As River Garden is predicated on its “old New Orleans” character, is this development more a reflection of traditional New Orleans or of New Urbanism? Has it become a simulacrum – a simulation of the ideas that had originally referenced New Orleans’ urbanism? I would suggest that while the facades of individual homes do resemble the Italianate and Greek Revival styles of the surrounding Lower Garden District, their quality and proportions are informed more by New Urbanism. The wide lots and clean and polished exteriors more closely resemble Seaside than the Lower Garden District. Local residents have reacted to this development by describing it as “theme-park recreation lacking the charm of old neighborhood patterns” or as
“not as good as the original it copies (Lower Garden District).”
Even Duany recognizes that New Orleans’ ‘authenticity’ and charm derive from its historic adhoc manner of financing and construction, developed out of necessity. In his article entitled “Restoring the Real New Orleans,” he suggests that “the building culture that created the original New Orleans must be reinstated. The hurdle of drawings, permitting, contractors, inspections – the professionalism of it all – eliminates grassroots ‘bottom up’ rebuilding.” What River Garden creates is not this “real” New Orleans, but rather a neoliberal and top-down rebuilding, the finished, developed parcels ready to be bought or rented, just like the model of Seaside.
River Garden is indeed a simulacrum by these standards. As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, a simulacrum has “merely the form or appearance of a certain thing, without possessing its substance or proper qualities.” Baudrillard expands this concept to suggest that this simulation replaces the original by appropriating its significance and prominence in culture. River Garden, while attempting to simultaneously recreate New Urbanism and New Orleans historic neighborhoods, ultimately lacks either’s substance. However, it continues to gain legitimacy as a success model. As both Mayor Nagin and US Housing and Urban Development Secretary propose that River Garden be the reconstruction model in New Orleans, what role will these developments play in formulating New Orleans culture? New York Times architecture critic Ourossoff describes the implications in reference to River Garden:
To suggest, meanwhile, that the city’s neatly compartmentalized historical styles – shotgun house, Camelback, Creole cottage – can be reconstituted in wholly rebuilt neighborhoods is to endorse a theme park version of the past. It reflects a reductive historical narrative, one that ignores the reality that conflicting historical strands are what give great cities their vitality.
CASE STUDY 2: MAKE IT RIGHT
Brad Pitt’s Make It Right (MIR) organization was founded in 2007 and has built 32 homes in the Lower 9th Ward, with a total of 150 planned. Pitt invited the most renowned architects – globally, nationally, and locally – to design locally-appropriate and affordable houses through a collaboration with local community representatives.
While the Lower 9th Ward was previously comprised primarily of post-WWII modern suburban houses, each MIR home claims inspiration from the “traditional” New Orleans architecture such as the shotgun house. They are unapologetically reinventing architectural traditions, but this hybridization process references the housing stock of the Marigny rather than the ranch houses of the Lower 9th Ward. This reflects the general disregard for more modern architecture styles; or as explained by McCash’s summary of Tulane’s Geographer Campanella’s words:
“Generally speaking, the higher the ground, the older and more architecturally precious the house. Creole, Spanish Colonial, Greek Revival and Italianate styles dominate the highest ground closest to the river and along the high ridges that the river left behind. . . Victorian shotguns, early 20th century bungalows, Spanish Revival villas from the roaring ’20s, and between-the-wars English cottages ‘straddle sea level’ . . . ubiquitous ranch houses, split levels, and the classic modern American suburban house are 3 to 12 feet below sea level.”
The Lower 9th Ward rests several feet below sea level and is comprised precisely of these “ubiquitous” suburban houses. Yet when reinventing the architectural traditions through MIR, the community representatives look toward the more “architecturally precious” styles: the Creole Cottage; the Creole Townhouse; the shotgun house; the same typologies catalogued by the Preservation Resource Center and guidebooks of New Orleans. The model for reinvention in the Lower 9th Ward is the ‘virtual’ New Orleans – the city and architecture that exists in guidebooks, in preservation literature and in movies.
Despite what the typological model is, perhaps what is most important is the process in which these new traditions are being formulated. I would argue that the MIR homes represent a process of “traditioning” similar to Abu-Lughod’s proposal. Her participatory and active process is demonstrated through MIR’s design process. Although the architects are chosen not by the community but by Pitt, they begin with a background of local architectural “traditions” and a set of design priorities set by the community – front porches for socializing, high ceilings, emergency egress to the roof for evacuation, etc. While these star architects are an exogenous factor in this local culture, they propose designs and meet and talk with community representatives every week. Thus the design evolves through compromise and collaboration. The final product is shockingly different to the previous housing stock of the Lower 9th Ward, but reflects local opinions and basic design principles of New Orleans’ “traditional” typologies (massing, layout, function). As the Executive Director of MIR Tom Darden explains: “I would never try to make the argument that these homes look like traditional New Orleans houses by any stretch. I simply mean that the forms and the function of the houses were inspired by traditional New Orleans design.”
While there is a concern for maintaining “authentic” New Orleans character, it is not through slavish loyalty to pre-defined architectural details, but rather through a participatory process where local residents articulate which central characteristics of their culture should be reincorporated in a new aesthetic. Indeed, like Dell Upton’s ideas in “Traditions of Change,” this process and these homes challenge the common notion that traditions are static and insular.
Hurricane Katrina has challenged commonly conceived notions on tradition In New Orleans. While the city possesses a strong architectural and cultural heritage, the scale of rebuilding necessitated that new forms of interpreting this tradition be implemented. The model of River Garden demonstrates an effort to simulate or recreate the city’s more historic architecture through the model of New Urbanism. The Make It Right homes demonstrate the process of traditioning, where outside star architects and local community leaders collaborate to create new models of architecture for the Lower 9th Ward. In both cases, the inspiration for traditional architecture is the older shotgun houses and Creole cottages rather than the architecture of the actual neighborhoods that were destroyed and that are being rebuilt.
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