Thursday, November 30, 2006

Snake Oil Salesmen

John Massengale has another post regarding the arrogance of our elite architects propose that they know what is best for New Orleans despite the wishes of New Orleaneans. Marianne Cusato writes about her encounter with one of these architects (academically speaking).

Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY hosted a symposium this weekend on rebuilding and the future of New Orleans. The speakers included the winner of Brad Pitt's Global Green Competition, representatives from Acorn Housing, several others involved with planning efforts and a few displaced residents who had relocated to this area.

I was on a panel with the winner of the Global Green Competition, Matthew Berman from Workshop/APD. I presented the Katrina Cottages as well as a house I designed at the UDA Treme/LaFitte charrette. In my talk I discussed the feedback we'd received from the residents of Treme/LaFitte. We heard from them that they liked the look of the Shotguns, but wanted the plans be adapted to modern living and they had to be practical and affordable.

After we each presented our work we had a Q&A with the audience. The members of the audience that were from New Orleans, passionately attacked the "award winning" Global Green design. They were outraged that this project had been selected. They were upset that it had no resemblance to the existing neighborhood, either with the architecture or the plan. One woman stood up and explained to the architect that the "Historic" buildings weren't old and out dated. They were REALLY well designed, NOT because of the balustrades, brackets and architectural details, but because of the tall ceilings, cross ventilation and the materials. She was great because she elevated the conversation away from style to practical common sense.

The residents in the room were disgusted that modern designs were being imposed on them. The architect admitted that the residents that he had spoken to didn't like the modern designs, but that didn't stop him from proceeding with his work. It seemed more about his personal design exploration, rather than a project based in reality or any form of practicality. The amazing thing about the day was that no one in the room, NOLA residents or even the SLC students, were buying it - or cutting him any slack.

One resident pointed out that the architecture could either support or destroy a community. From the planning of where buildings go to the interior plans of where the kitchen is located. He went on to tell the architect of the GG Design that his building would destroy the community and probably cause people to kill themselves.

The professor at the school that was moderating our panel tried to let the guy off the hook by asking the audience if they could set aside the site plan, which he admitted was really bad, but looked only at the buildings, would they be happier with the designs, the room spontaneously yelled out NO.

Then he went on to try and talk about the theory and academic approach of the modern design, I interrupted and challenged that this was a real world problem not an academic experiment, that it was the wrong approach to ignore the existing context and the desires of the people. Instead we needed to listen to what people are asking for and through design, build communities. The room erupted in applause. The professor went on to dismiss me by saying "Well yes, that might be the populous view, but...."

We have so many struggles in the work we are doing down on the coast, politics at every level, but after a day like today, hearing the passion in the voices of these residents, it was so clear how important it is that we are down there and working so hard. The people want what we are doing.

I've said all along that the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast must have the involvement of its residents because they know what is best for their community and they know what works down here. That is why I have commended the work of Adreas Duany and his urban planning charettes in many small communities and New Orleans. Not because I'm an adherent of his style of architecture but because he offers his expertise to the residents to help them realize THEIR dreams of what their neighborhood/town should be, not what he thinks it should be. And when it comes right down to it, that is what all real architects do. We are not here to impose our vision of someones home should be like at roadside salesman urging passers by to try their elixir, its good for them. Somewhere along the line, these academic architects lost site of that, if they ever had it at all.

The Classicist Blog has more input on Marianne Cusato.


student said...

As a student attendee of this conference at Sarah Lawrence, I can tell you that as much as the style of Cusato's home were in accordance with resident's wishes, her presentation was highly misleading. What she did not tell the audience was that her design was not a temporary replacement for FEMA trailers, but a PERMANENT replacement for public housing.
She failed to note that the construction of Katrina Cottages meant the continued exclusion of many low-income residents from the city, all those that had been enabled to live in New Orleans by subsidized public housing.
The Katrina Cottage is a frightening blanket of homogeneity on the city, and while Cusato was effective at selling the design to the audience, it was only because she was either ignorant of or silent about the actual effect the Cottages would have on the community and culture of New Orleans.

Puddinhead said...

Couldn't agree any more if I tried. The most impressive thing in my book about Duany when he was here for the Gentilly Charrette was that he insisted that he and the group of experts he'd assembled from across the country weren't here to design out neighborhood--they were here to give us the benefit of their expertise as WE designed our neighborhood. He made it clear that ideas that were generated by him or his team were "suggestions", not "edicts". During one of the public presentations he slipped in one of his own designs, that he said was his own take at modernizing the New Orleans shotgun. It was very minimalist, and starkly modern. Everyone in the audience sort of groaned at once, and then a widespread sort of mumbling broke out. Duany sort of grinned and said "Wait--you don't see the high ceilings? No? It's a raised cottege, just kind of a 21st century approach, right? Fits on the narrow New Orleans lots?" By this time the audience was grumbling audibly...and Duany was laughing. "Well, maybe not, huh? I took a shot."

But that all architects could have a sense of humor about criticism of their design opinions.

Kinch said...

I think student makes a good point about the homogeneity of the Katrina Cottages but that criticism goes only skin deep. As anyone who has lived in NOLA for any amount of time knows that different neighborhoods have different styles of vernacular.

It's the basic concept of the Katrina Cottage that I find favorable. Creating different styles of the cottage to blend in with the context of the particular neighborhood can easily be created to maintain that context.