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.
1631 Tennessee Street

Rosemary and Lloyd Griffin’s front porch is low and broad, wrapping around two sides of their house and giving it a contemporary Creole-Caribbean feel. Their roof, a shiny steel pyramid lined with solar panels, looks slightly askew, like the Tin Man’s hat. Rental cars roll slowly down the street, car windows descend, cameras emerge. A sign reading Private Residence has been hammered into the front lawn to keep the curious at bay—visitors occasionally mistake the house for a pavilion at some sort of world’s fair and walk right in. Mrs. Griffin tells me she doesn’t mind all the gawkers and the picture-taking. “I thank God for this,” she said, nodding at her new house. “This is something to be excited about.”

The Global Green project, it turned out, was just the beginning for Pitt. After Katrina he moved his family to New Orleans to film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (and bought an 1830s mansion in the French Quarter). He saw the slow progress of the city’s rebuilding firsthand and, looking to do more, picked up the phone.

“I got a call one day out of the blue from Brad Pitt,” says architect Bill McDonough. McDonough is the co-author, with the chemist Michael Braungart, of Cradle to Cradle, an influential manifesto calling for manufactured products and building materials that can be fully reused when they no longer serve their initial purpose. Pitt liked his thinking. “He’d read Cradle to Cradle and asked me if I wanted to do something together in New Orleans.”

McDonough said yes. So did others who got the call, including Graft, an architecture firm based in Los Angeles, and Cherokee Gives Back, a North Carolina–based foundation. Together, they established Make It Right, with the goal of constructing 150 new houses in the hard-hit area near the ruptured Industrial Canal flood wall—enough housing to feel like a neighborhood, they figured, as well as to entice additional investment along nearby streets. Pitt put up $5million, as did the philanthropist and movie producer Steve Bing. They’ve since raised enough to build about a hundred houses. Pitt contacted a group of noted architectural firms and asked them to contribute designs. Thirteen did, including Kieran Timberlake, Pugh + Scarpa, Adjaye Associates, MVRDV, and Morphosis. (Seven more firms have since signed on.)

The architects were given conditions hammered out in part during community meetings, some of which Pitt attended, where displaced residents described their vision of a new neighborhood. Among the criteria that emerged: use the city’s existing narrow lots (that is, no aggregating lots and building large complexes—rumors had circulated after Katrina that Donald Trump wanted to buy the whole Lower Ninth); elevate houses out of the way of future flooding and include rooftop access to simplify rescue; feature prominent porches or front stoops for socializing; and use materials that are tough enough to survive hurricanes but that also approach “cradle to cradle” reusability. The standard house was to be 1,200 square feet, have three bedrooms and two baths, and cost no more than $150,000. Homeowners would pay what they could, and the foundation would help with the rest. In the meantime, Make It Right started working with Lower Ninth families to clear up property-title issues (historically, many New Orleanians have acquired houses without paperwork showing a clean line of ownership), and to help with insurance settlements, payments from the federally funded Road Home program, and new financing.

The firms presented their preliminary designs for feedback. The people of the Lower Ninth voiced some displeasure—in particular, they didn’t care for the flat roofs favored by modern designers. “A lot of residents said they looked like FEMA trailers,” said Steven Bingler, the founder of Concordia, a New Orleans architecture-and-planning firm, which designed the house selected by the Griffins. “Don’t get me wrong—they were really hip. But the residents said: ‘A house has a sloped roof.’”

As the process unfolded—with designers bouncing their ideas off the people who would actually have to live in their creations—Bingler sensed a welcome shift in his style-obsessed profession. “Community has to be the new titanium,” he said.

Two houses drew extra attention. Thom Mayne’s house was designed to float out of harm’s way in a flood. (Mayne’s prototype was built by architecture students at UCLA, then trucked to New Orleans and reassembled.) And the Dutch firm MVRDV proposed a high-concept V-shaped house that looked not unlike the houses that had collapsed after Katrina. It’s the only design not yet selected by a homebuyer.

Green high-design utopianism is virulent at Make It Right, as at Global Green, and all the houses feature sophisticated systems to achieve net-zero energy use. At an open house last year, a Make It Right organizer insisted that I go down and watch the electric meter running backward as solar energy coursed back into the grid. I stood around with a few others, murmuring appreciatively, as if witnessing a high-tech voodoo ceremony.

New residents undergo training on the operation of their homes, and receive a thick technical notebook and a smaller user’s manual. They also get a dedicated phone number to call with problems; at the other end, a staffer will troubleshoot or send out a technician. I suggested to Tom Darden, the project’s executive director, that this didn’t seem to have much in the way of real-world application. But he shrugged and said it was part of the plan. Make It Right’s mission includes testing new approaches and discarding those that fail, a luxury few for-profit developers can afford.

Biking through the neighborhood recently, I was heartened to hear all the hammering and sawing along Tennessee Street—the raspy calls of blackbirds in the overgrown lots of the Lower Ninth are woeful and melancholy. With nearly 20 Make It Right houses occupied or under construction, a certain critical mass was forming. But I had to wonder: Why the need to cluster so many boisterous structures side by side? Any one of these homes would make for a striking neighborhood landmark, but together they just make noise, like an orchestra of timpani. But I suppose it’s churlish to raise aesthetic concerns. Brad Pitt for Mayor T-shirts are not uncommon around town. And people marvel at what Pitt has accomplished where so many others have failed, even if they admit, in a footnote, that the houses aren’t their style.

“What we call historic design arose out of necessity,” said Darden, “and that’s happening again.”

3428 Dauphine Street

Not everybody is so circumspect. “Oh, it’s all bullshit,” Andres Duany said to me last fall, when I brought up Make It Right. “The high design? That has nothing to do with reality. That’s just architectural self-indulgence.”

Duany, it may come as no surprise, subscribes to another utopian worldview. He is a co-founder of the Congress for New Urbanism, and a persistent advocate for traditional small-town design. A generation ago, Duany and his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, designed the landmark village at Seaside, Florida, and made a seemingly historic beach town suddenly materialize on an empty stretch of seacoast. (It was the setting for the movie The Truman Show.) He built his reputation in part on his porches; at Seaside, all houses were required to have them, to encourage community interaction.

The porch at 3428 Dauphine Street—in the historic Bywater neighborhood, just across the Industrial Canal from the Lower Ninth—is not very Duany-esque. It’s more like a small deck, accessible only from the living room and enclosed by a tall wood-plank fence. This is a bit odd, since Duany designed it, but in a historically blue-collar neighborhood of stoops rather than porches, it makes contextual sense.

Duany has been involved with the rebuilding since just days after Katrina, most recently as part of Cypress Cottage Partners, a group that was awarded $74.5million by the state to come up with alternatives to the much-loathed FEMA trailer. The idea was to build prototype villages in communities along the Gulf Coast and see how they work. But the search for sufficiently large building lots has been fraught with headaches, so in the meantime Duany went ahead and built the Bywater houses on an empty corner lot with the help of an investor, in part to learn about how to build quickly and efficiently in New Orleans.

What resulted was a pair of duplexes, variations of what are locally called shotgun doubles. The houses, painted champagne yellow and olive khaki, have gables facing the street and, across the facade, an overhang that shields doors and windows against rain and sun. Duany’s overhangs, compared with the ones on older houses in the neighborhood, are placed a bit too high, like someone wearing pants cinched near his chest. But they add a touch of grace to the streetscape, and without them the houses would look as if they were wearing no pants at all.

These homes illuminate the Your Elders Knew Best strain of utopianism, whose adherents argue that historic neighborhoods are sacred texts from which one can learn, provided the language in which they were written is accurately translated. The future and its fancy technology distract from what’s really important: building human-scale environments with houses that quietly add to the conversation of the street, rather than yodeling and preening. Duany has largely succeeded in weaving his new homes into the block. One can bike past without noticing them, as I first did. As he explained in a neighborhood-association newsletter, “It is our hope that at least some parts of New Orleans can be rebuilt in the style to which its residents are accustomed—and not as a version of an Alabama trailer park or a suburb of Venice Beach, California.”

Duany is sometimes (and unfairly) likened to a monk laboriously transcribing the texts of the ancients without contributing new ideas for a new time. But style wasn’t what irked him when I brought up the Make It Right project. It was the whole way New Orleans was approaching rebuilding.

“When I originally thought of New Orleans, I was conditioned by the press to think of it as an extremely ill-governed city, full of ill-educated people, with a great deal of crime, a great deal of dirt, a great deal of poverty,” said Duany, who grew up in Cuba. “And when I arrived, I did indeed find it to be all those things. Then one day I was walking down the street and I had this kind of brain thing, and I thought I was in Cuba. Weird! And then I realized at that moment that New Orleans was not an American city, it was a Caribbean city. Once you recalibrate, it becomes the best-governed, cleanest, most efficient, and best-educated city in the Caribbean. New Orleans is actually the Geneva of the Caribbean.”

Duany said that many of the shotgun houses in New Orleans were built by the fathers and grandfathers of people living in them today, and few of them meet building codes. But no one worries about paying mortgages or insurance. “The situation is that the housing is essentially paid off, and it allows people to accumulate leisure,” he said. “What’s special about New Orleans is that it’s the only place in the United States where you can have a first-rate urban life for very little money.” What happened after Katrina, Duany said, was that FEMA and others came to town with detailed requirements for record-keeping and property titles, then insisted on stringent building codes that would make all the houses hurricane-proof. This might seem like common sense, he said, but it’s “essentially unworkable for a Caribbean city.”

So the central problem, according to Duany: “All the do-goody people attempting to preserve the culture are the same do-gooders who are raising the standards for the building of houses, and are the same do-gooders who are giving people partial mortgages and putting them in debt,” he said. “They have such a profound misunderstanding of the culture of the Caribbean that they’re destroying it. The heart of the tragedy is that New Orleans is not being measured by Caribbean standards. It’s being measured by Minnesota standards.”

As an alternative, Duany argues for “opt-out zones” for some of the hardest-hit areas, including the Lower Ninth. Within these zones, residents could rebuild their homes the way the city was originally constructed: by hand, incrementally, and unencumbered by what Duany calls “gold-plated” building regulations or bank requirements. Such zones exist in rural areas, he says, but haven’t been tested in an urban context. He suggested that the money spent on the Better Living Through Modern Green Design homes would be far better spent on a widespread, low-cost self-building program. “The deal is, you can hammer something together any old way, but you won’t have debt. That should be an option. Carrying debt requires a great deal of employment, which undermines a culture of leisure. The key is self-building,” he told me, and added that it might arise somewhere else in the city, perhaps among the Latino construction workers who arrived on the heels of the storm. “It always emerges.”

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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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