Thursday, November 30, 2006

Bye-Bye Birdie

Hurricane season has officially ended. Only six months to go till next years hurricane season begins.

We can hardly wait.

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.

Take This Job And Shove It

The commander of the Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District is asking to be relieved of duty.

Col. Rich Wagenaar, who took the helm of the Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District the month before Hurricane Katrina toppled the corps-built levee system in August 2005, has requested to step down as district commander and retire from the Army.
His absence will surely not be missed.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Fiddlers On The Rooftops

Nero probably has a better reputation as a leader during times of disaster that many of our more notable architects in their (lack of) influence in the rebuilding. At least according to John Massengale at Veritas et Venustas. Unfortunately, these architects view themselves more as Pied Pipers.

The real heroes are the architects in the trenches doing the grunt of actually getting the renovations and repairs done without fanfare.
Those that are using the situation in New Orleans to promote themselves are only hindering our recovery and are leaches on society.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

No Easy Way Out

Photo by David Gregor via Squandered Heritage

FEMA has designated St. Francis Cabrina Catholic Church as a historic landmark.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has concluded that St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on Paris Avenue in Gentilly is historically significant, which could bring an effort to move the 147-year-old Holy Cross School there to a screeching halt.

In a Friday meeting, FEMA officials notified representatives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the school's board of directors of their decision, which they said would block use of FEMA grant dollars to pay a significant chunk of the $23 million cost of building a new school on the 17-acre Cabrini campus.

The FEMA decision was immediately attacked by Holy Cross officials and New Orleans City Council members, including Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, whose district includes the church and who was a parishioner of Cabrini.

But Holy Cross' objection the the church appears to be mostly aesthetic.

Chauvin said keeping the 1960s-era building on the campus would clash with plans to build a new Holy Cross that will reflect the 1800s architecture of the original school.

"That's not what Holy Cross is, not what our history is," he said.

However, Holy Cross has practical concerns as well.

And the church building has been described as a "money pit" by the archdiocese, Chauvin said, the result of long-deferred maintenance, inadequate heating and air-conditioning systems and a roof that has leaked since the church opened.

"How can we go to parents and say your tuition has to be this high because we had to add a component to pay for maintenance on this facility?" he said.

Unfortunately these types of problems are all too common in many of these modern buildings. But these may just be excuses by the owner as a third option has been proposed and rejected by Holy Cross.
(Stephen) Verderber said he has been unsuccessful in attempts to meet with Holy Cross officials to show them a site layout that would allow the church building to be used as part of the new school. He said the design would have little impact on the space school officials say is needed for football and baseball practice fields and for parking.
Maybe a fourth option is possible. Perhaps Holy Cross could apply to FEMA for a grant to make permanent repairs to the church in lieu of demolition. FEMA will probably reject this sort of compromise in that it might make all parties satisfied.

Monday, November 20, 2006

A Streetcar Names Rewire

The RTA is saying that a portion of the St. Charles streetcar line will be operational sometime by Christmas. The portion of the line expected to be repaired will extend from Canal St. to Lee Circle. The complete line will be up and running in about another year.

Seymour D. Fair has more at The Third Battle of New Orleans.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Sore Thumb

A politician once said that all politics is local. The same is true for good architecture. The redevelopment of the Jefferson Plaza Shopping Center is a good example of this axiom.

Conceptual renderings show a pair of curved glass-and-steel towers rising to points, with trees growing on rooftop terraces, fountains and pools on the grounds and intense lighting at the base of the structures, tapering toward the peaks. One tower might exceed 30 stories, far taller than any building for miles.

"It's going to be real dramatic lighting, along with dramatic water features," St. Raymond said.

The idea, however, is not receiving an entirely enthusiastic welcome in the neighborhood. Some nearby residents protest that it will exacerbate traffic problems, overshadow their houses and stick out, rather than stand out, among Old Jefferson's post-World War II wood frame houses.

So why is this design so unpopular? Seymour D. Fair offers his thoughts:
Architect Daniel Libeskind's above design was not what I had in mind--and I am not completely against multiple floored residential buildings at this site unlike many residents of the surrounding neighborhoods.
Daniel Libeskind is a great architect with soaring ideas for his designs, however like most starchitects, he is not in tune with the local vernacular and traditions. It is likely that the architectural firm was given a survey of the site along with some photos. With this information in hand, the design process begins. The architect may be able to come up with a design that will get noticed. But that is not always a good think. Severe birth defects get noticed too but no one wants one.

The developer and local residents would have been better served had a local architect been retained for the design. Perhaps the local architect's design wouldn't have been as radical but it probably would have been more contextual meaning more sensitive to the local environment and residents. This can't be done from a corner office in Manhattan.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

River Of Dreams

An earlier post related the agreement between the city and the Port of New Orleans to return part of the riverfront back to the citizens. Now five teams of designers have been chosen to plan the redevelopment.

Nine teams of architects and planners from New Orleans and cities around the world responded to a recent invitation to help plan the redevelopment of a 4.1-mile stretch of publicly owned land along the east bank riverfront.

Among them were at least two winners of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, considered the highest international honor in the field, and architects from London, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Mexico City, Edinburgh and other cities.

Famous names such as Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid, Reiser + Umemoto, TEN Arquitectos and Chan Krieger Sieniewicz adorn the list of applicants to lead what Sean Cummings calls "reinventing the crescent" that gave the Crescent City its nickname.

The foundation of the planning effort is a cooperative endeavor agreement recently agreed to by the city and the Port of New Orleans that spells out what east bank wharves the port will continue to need for maritime activities and what areas will be available for public, nonmaritime redevelopment.

Among other things, the agreement envisions "an uninterrupted and continuous linear green space or riverfront park" along the entire stretch between Jackson and Poland avenues, a "world-class performance venue" at the Louisa Street Wharf or another site, and a hotel and expanded cruise ship terminal at the Julia Street Wharf.

Other possibilities include more cruise ship terminals, hotels, parking garages, museums, an amphitheater, an opera house or a planetarium, according to the city-port document.

Rebirth on the batture

A major goal of the agreement is to expand the area of the riverfront, once devoted entirely to maritime uses, that is available for public use. City leaders have talked about "reclaiming the riverfront" since at least the 1970s, and the process already has resulted in French Quarter and Central Business District attractions such as the Moonwalk, Woldenberg Riverfront Park, the Aquarium of the Americas and the Riverwalk shopping mall.

And the finalists are:

  • Chan Krieger Sieniewicz (planning and urban design), Cambridge, Mass.; Hargreaves Associates (landscape architecture), Cambridge; TEN Arquitectos (architecture), New York; and Eskew + Dumez + Ripple (executive management and urban design), New Orleans.
  • EDAW (planning and landscape architecture), Alexandria, Va.; Frank Gehry (architecture and urban design), Los Angeles; and Marks Associates (landscape consultant), New Orleans.
  • Mathes Brierre Architects, New Orleans; HOK (planning), 23 offices worldwide; and Studio Daniel Libeskind (architecture), New York.
  • Reiser + Umemoto (architecture), New York; Olin Partnership (landscape architecture), Philadelphia; Studio Matrixx (architecture), New Orleans; and Alan Gordon (design consultant).
  • Zaha Hadid Architects, London; Trahan Architects, Baton Rouge; Billes Architecture, New Orleans; Bruce Mau Design, Toronto; and Gross Max Landscape Architects, Edinburgh.
This is a pretty heady group. What is more encouraging is the inclusion of local firms the all the design teams.

After reviewing the location map of the proposed revitalization, I have to ask the question, what will become of the existing wharves in the proposed development area? Don't get me wrong, the wharves are an eyesore and I will be glad to see them go but we cannot ignore economic contribution that the port provides for New Orleans. My guess is they will move either upstream of downstream of downtown New Orleans in either St. Bernard, Jefferson or maybe St. Charles Parish. Or will the Port simply reduce the number of wharves in the city.

The latter seems likely as the port now has more capacity than it needs. However lately, state and local officials have been making trips to Asia and the Persian Gulf to encourage more trade with Louisiana. In addition, Panamanian officials have been visiting Louisiana. This is possibly in conjunction with that country beginning to look at widening the Panama Canal to accommodate larger cargo ships traveling to and from the East/Gulf Coast and Asia. With New Orleans being the largest port in the region and the west coast ports at or near capacity, we are looking at the possibility that New Orleans will see a great up tick in shipping. I wonder if this is being taken into account when redeveloping the riverfront.

I'm not favoring more wharves versus less public access to the river but rather that future needs have to be taken into consideration during the design process.

So to quote Billy Joel:

In the middle of the night
I go walking in my sleep
Through the jungle of doubt
To the river so deep
I know I'm searching for something
Something so undefined
That it can only be seen
By the eyes of the blind
In the middle of the night