Design November 2009

Houses of the Future

Four years after the levee failures, New Orleans is seeing an unexpected boom in architectural experimentation. Small, independent developers are succeeding in getting houses built where the government has failed. And the city's unique challenges—among them environmental impediments, an entrenched culture of leisure, and a casual acquaintance with regulation—are spurring design innovations that may redefine American architecture for a generation.

Also see:

Map: "After the Flood"

An interactive guide to New Orleans’ coolest new homes

A sturdy bike is a good way to get around the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. The roads are still pretty rough, the distances between places tend to be too long to walk and too short to drive, and on a bike you can easily stop and chat with the residents who have returned. I moved to New Orleans about a year after Hurricane Katrina, and I’ve ridden my bike out here every month or two to see how the rebuilding has been faring. Also, I’ve heard that Brad Pitt likes to bike around when he’s in town. Folks tell me he’s a pretty regular guy. “Brad was here yesterday,” a woman sitting on the front steps of her new and very modern house told me one day last fall. “He was talking to everyone, just checking things out.”

He has a lot to check out, as it happens. Next to the levee along the Mississippi River sits the experimental “project house” of Global Green, a nonprofit Pitt has been working with that’s trying to replace homes lost in the flood with energy-efficient ones. From there, it takes about 10 minutes to bike to the northern edge of the Ninth Ward, where the Industrial Canal flood wall collapsed in August 2005. Along the way you pass shotgun houses in various stages of repair and disrepair; Fats Domino’s home, from which he was rescued; and a large sculpture of empty chairs commemorating the hundreds who died in the storm. As you get closer to the failed flood wall, the land becomes more open and rural-looking, and the blackbirds grow louder. Only concrete steps standing in front of concrete slabs suggest the community that existed before the rushing waters erased it.

And then, suddenly, amid heroically overgrown lawns, you see a cluster of modern, colorful, and modestly sized homes, looking like a farm where they grow houses for Dwell magazine. These are the fruits to date of Pitt’s other project, Make It Right New Orleans. New Orleanians refer to these homes collectively as “the Brad Pitt Houses,” which gives them the pleasing ring of an ambitious public-housing project from the post–World War II years. But Pitt’s ambitions are not merely utilitarian. He hopes to offer displaced residents affordable, cutting-edge, radically green homes designed by name-brand architects like Thom Mayne and Frank Gehry. And he seems to be succeeding.

Four years after Katrina, the rebuilding of New Orleans is not proceeding the way anyone envisioned, nor with the expected cast of characters. (If I may emphasize: Brad Pitt is the city’s most innovative and ambitious housing developer.) But it’s hard to say what people were expecting, given the magnitude of the disaster and the hopes raised in the weeks immediately following. Seventeen days after the storm, President George W. Bush stood in Jackson Square and promised: “We will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.”

The terms we, as long as it takes, and help turned out to be fairly elastic. The Federal Emergency Management Agency shuttered its long-term recovery office about six months later, after a squabble with the city over who would pay for the planning process. Since then, depending on whom you talk to, government at all levels has been passive and slow-moving at best, or belligerent and actively harmful at worst. Mayor Ray Nagin occasionally surfaces to advertise a big new scheme (a jazz park, a theater district), about which no one ever hears again. A new 20-year master plan and comprehensive zoning ordinance was being ironed out early this summer, but it remains subject to city-council approval. A post-Katrina master plan has been under discussion since before the floodwaters were pumped out.

In the absence of strong central leadership, the rebuilding has atomized into a series of independent neighborhood projects. And 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.

“If you look at the way ants behave when they’re gathering food, it looks like the stupidest, most irrational thing you’ve ever seen—they’re zigzagging all over the place, they’re bumping into other ants. You think, ‘What a mess! This is never going to amount to anything,’” says Michael Mehaffy, the head of the Sustasis Foundation, which studies urban life and sustainability and has worked with neighborhood organizations here. “So it’s easy to look at New Orleans at the grassroots level and wonder, What’s going on here?’ But if you step back and look at the big picture, in fact it’s the most efficient pattern possible, because all those random activities actually create a very efficient sort of discovery process.”

This process is unfolding in a city where the effects of environmental disregard—from disappearing wetlands to rising temperatures to encroaching seas—seem more palpable by the day, and where sustainability seems less like an annoying buzzword and more like a moral imperative. Add to this the sudden collapse of the credit and real-estate markets last year, and the fleeting yet unnerving flirtation with $5-a-gallon gasoline the year before, and one could be forgiven for seeing a cosmic convergence taking shape.

The architectural historian James Marston Fitch wrote more than a half century ago that great leaps forward in architecture occur when three factors—theory, material, and technique—come into alignment under the pressure of social change. Such “golden moments of equilibrium,” as he called them, are “brief in time, special in character, delicate in balance.” He noted that such moments produced the Crystal Palace, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Eiffel Tower.

We may be in one of those moments now, with notions of modern design, advances in green materials, and the technical imperatives of sustainability all converging toward a great leap in urban architecture. The architecture writer Andrew Blum has asked whether the Brad Pitt Houses could “become for the single-family green house what Seaside was for New Urbanism or Pacific Palisades was for California Modernism”—that is, a project that recasts the possible for the next generation of architects and developers. As seems fitting for such a moment, most of the construction projects under way in New Orleans are informed by seemingly conflicting strands of utopianism. But their designers are coming to some common, and edifying, conclusions.

This summer, I visited five of the new houses. I sat on their porches—New Orleans’s original green technology, offering shade in summer and shelter during deluges, connecting the home with the street—and I considered a city in flux.

409 Andry Street

The front porch of the Global Green project house has an agreeable geometric purity—it’s supported by two chopstick-thin columns angled outward on one side, and a shading screen of horizontal wood slats on the other. The porch roof slices at a slight downward angle into a narrow, two-story, pea-green shoebox, which looks as if its solar-paneled lid is being lifted by an unseen hand. Save for two nearly identical houses under construction next door, it resembles nothing else in the neighborhood, which consists of older shotguns and ranch houses.

Mike Lopez was sitting on the porch when I stopped by. He’s the construction manager for Global Green, and he’s been living in the house since it was completed more than a year ago. Today, it’s mostly used as an eco-housing laboratory and visitor center, but eventually a displaced Lower Ninth Ward resident will move in. Until then, Lopez is figuring out what works and what doesn’t. (Humidity-triggered bathroom fans, good; a grass roof in subtropical sun, not so good.) This knowledge has already come in handy for the houses next door, and will also inform some of the design when the group breaks ground on an 18-unit green apartment building later this year.

Shortly after Katrina, Matt Petersen, Global Green’s president and CEO, met Pitt at a Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York City. They got to talking about New Orleans. Pitt, as readers of celebrity profiles know, is nutty for architecture. He has tinkered with models in Frank Gehry’s studio, bought and restored Craftsman-style bungalows in Southern California, co-authored a book on a historic home, and been asked to help design an eco-hotel in Dubai. Regarding architecture, Pitt once told Oprah, “I’m really gay about the whole thing.” When he filmed Interview With the Vampire in New Orleans years ago, he developed an abiding fondness for the place. Peterson and Pitt came up with an idea to stage an architectural competition for a model green house. Pitt put up some money and agreed to serve as the jury chairman, and Global Green acquired a 1.2-acre tract in the Holy Cross neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward. The competition attracted 125 entries from around the world. A young architectural team from New York called Workshop/apd won, and Global Green set about building its design.

The resulting house is a fine example of what you might call the Better Living Through Modern Green Design strain of utopianism, whose adherents argue that contemporary design and technology will conspire to free us from our grim, polluted past and usher in an era of efficiency and cleanliness. And I have to say, it’s an appealing future. Several days a week, the Global Green house opens for tours, and it’s hard not to marvel at all the applied ingenuity, from the dual-flush toilets—number one gets a spritz, number two more hydraulic vigor—to the “green screen” of Carolina jasmine being trained to shade the south wall, to the thousand-gallon cistern intended to supply captured rainwater for toilet-flushing and plant care . The house is designed to be “net zero” energy-wise—that is, it produces as much electricity as it consumes each year. The utility closets are filled with the synapses that control the house’s hi-tech appendages, and downstairs near the door is a touch-screen panel—the “Lucid Building Dashboard”—that monitors its brain waves like an EKG. It seemed to me every bit as marvelous as Disney’s old House of the Future, but with reclaimed wood rather than white plastic.

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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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