Monday, May 01, 2006

Echo Chamber vs. Retail Architecture


Two interesting articles this weekend put the different camps of rebuilding New Orleans in stark relief. The Christian Science Monitor covers DPZ's charette in Gentilly last week and the Washington Post writes about a group of Modernists architects and their grand designs for the rebuilding process.

First the Modernists:

Six proposals -- shown through intricate models, renderings, blueprints, sketches and politically charged factoids -- offer ways in which innovative design can revive a sense of community and build a stronger connection with nature.

In the re-imagined city, mangrove trees flourish in a vast, welcoming park; levee embankments are recast as picnic grounds; and civic pride finds expression in a public library so wildly creative that it would supplant the Superdome as the city's most notorious architectural icon. And children get a safe haven for a school.

The exhibition was organized in six weeks by a transatlantic brain trust including Reed Kroloff, Tulane University's dean of architecture and a member of the New Orleans recovery team; Aaron Betsky, an American who heads the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam; and Tim Griffin, editor of Artforum magazine, the March issue of which serves as the exhibition catalogue.

Now the New Urbanists:

The Gentilly urban-planning method is called a "charrette," French for "cart," where architects, developers, environmentalists, sociologists, and transportation experts work directly with the people who will inhabit a community.

The idea is to design collectively a model that everyone can agree on, and it happens in a very short period - in this case, eight days.

The problem with the Modernists approach is that it's detached from the people affected by their proposals. On the other hand, the New Urbanists are meeting with residents, listening and offering practicle solutions to their situation. Putting a school under a hill and building zig-zag shaped building will not exactly pique the attention of the New Orleans citizenry.

But Andreas Duany has.

Residents with slab-on-grade homes were advised to covert their first floor into a garage and build a second floor with living quarters because the cost of raising the structure three feet is exorbitantly high.

Those with pier-and-beam homes were told to get started right away because the cost of raising a structure would rise with time. All were given architectural options that mimicked the many New Orleans styles.

"Do what you must do, but do it right," said Mr. Duany to the afternoon crowd assembled in a local church. "[City hall] will forgive anything if you do it right. You've got to get on with your lives."

But residents voiced concerns about building while the levees are still under repair. They are scheduled to be completed June 1, the start of the hurricane season, and should be able to handle Category 3 storms.

Duany assured residents that the levees would be excellent "because the honor of the nation depends on it. The levees are in better shape than they have ever been." But the reality, he said, is that rebuilding in New Orleans is a risk because the entire city is below sea level.

"We've been living with this risk all our lives so it's really a nonissue," said one resident.

"I just want people to know that they don't have to raise their homes at all," said another resident, referring to structures that are already three feet above the base flood elevation.

"Your flood insurance rates will be better if you do," added another resident.

"But they will go up rudely anyway," interjected Duany, as the designers buzzed in the background. "The simple fact is, a raised home looks better, has better curb appeal when it comes to resale."

Sure, slab-on-grade houses versus a raised-pier design and flood insurance is not the stuff of architecture school sketch problems but they are the kinds of things your average work-a-day architect deals with because it is what our clients deal with.

If we architects wish to play a positive role in rebuilding one of America's great cities, we need to be in the trenches, offering practical solutions for the rebuilding process, not trying to get the attention of design periodicals that most real people don't read.

1 comment:

Lady Morwen said...

The Modernist concept should definitely be flushed down the toilet. Won't work here unless it's in the CBD.

The Gentilly Charrette concepts I like. I've looked at all the proposals, and that's all they are: proposals. It's the feel of the concepts that I very much agree with, and this approach could be used in many of the city's neighborhoods.

Many of us are proud to have held this Charrette with Duany and his team, and like the results.

We also are happy with the efforts of Urban Planning and Engineering (UNO), departments of Urban Planning and Business (Dillard), departments of Architecture, and their department of Criminal Justice who are helping with our safety and crime prevention/criminal justice reform initiatives. The Baptist Seminary is working with us as well, especially in regard to CJ Reform and Safety/Crime Prevention.

GCIA applauds our local resources and our outside help for aiding all of us in rebuilding Gentilly and the city.