Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Balancing Act

Elizabeth Mossop, Dean of the LSU School of Landscape Architecture, is interviewed by the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report discussing the impact of New Urbanism and urban planning in New Orleans.

One bit of dialogue that piqued my interest is this:

You and others have criticized the New Urbanist impulse toward historicist aesthetics, particularly for post-Katrina New Orleans. The concern is that would create an artificial city, where everything looks--

Mossop: Like Disneyland.

OK. But if you do not take inspiration from the French Quarter or the Garden District or Gentilly, what does the actual built environment look like? Does everyone have an avant-garde house?

Mossop: New Orleans is very different from most North American cities because it has this really powerful past. But the urban structure is more significant than the actual architectural fabric. These neighborhoods are so distinctive, and the urban pattern is quite dense. That gives your streets a certain feel and a critical mass of population so you end up with centers, shopping streets and certain types of public spaces. These places feel different from other urban areas. We should be using that. And in the same way, it has a fantastic architectural tradition, and there's no reason why contemporary housing can't respond to that. But that's not to say that new housing has to be of those old types. We might be looking to provide very different types of housing--more affordable, higher density. They might look completely different. There are instances where you would look to using sympathetic materials, looking at the way those building envelopes work and looking at the forms. But you don't have to recreate the same details--or do the same things with cheaper materials, which is what I think is on the cards.

I agree that, while it is important for new housing to maintain some semblance of the original context, historic homes do not have to be copied. It is important that those elements of the vernacular remain; such as front porches, roof overhangs, exposed raters tails are a nice detail, as well as some of the local adaptatations to the hot-humid climit of south Louisiana. These incude high ceilings, operable windows, cross ventilation and raised pier construction to address the persistant local flooding.

The other consideration that designers need to keep in mind is that New Orleans is not like many other cities where its architecture can be swapped with that of other cities. Can Seattle's Space Needle be swapped with the Chrysler Building in New York? Would St. Louis' Gateway Arch befit Los Angeles' skyline? Would Philip Johnson's Glass House feel welcome in New Orleans? I don't think so.

Case in point. Was the twin towers of the World Trade Center really compatatible with Manhatten's skyline? No. It stood out like a sore thumb. It drew attention to itself instead of enhancing the skyline as a whole.

So when designers contemplate new housing for rebuilding New Orleans, it behoves them to study and understand the local vernacular and why residents like it so much.

New Orleans has charm. Let's not loose it.

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