No Place Like Home: Design and Architecture in post-Katrina New Orleans
I am very eager to respond to Eric Heiman’s observations and experience so far at Project M and The Rural Studio which he discussed in his June 20th post “Dispatch from Alabama #1: Cynics Need Not Apply.” The issues of housing, the ownership of space, and the role that artists play within sustainable and community based projects are all very dear to my heart.
There is an endless amount of housing issues in the Bay Area from foreclosures, to redevelopment, to tenants rights violations—issues I have become more familiar with recently through my work with the San Francisco Housing Rights Committee. However after reading Eric’s post my thoughts immediately turned to the rebuilding efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, specifically Brad Pitt’s project called the Make It Right Foundation (MIR). This comes as no surprise as I spent the past two years researching and writing about housing politics and the concept of home in New Orleans through my graduate thesis project entitled, “Homesick: The Search for Belonging in New Orleans’ Landscape of Loss.” This project was inspired by my experience as a volunteer with the organization Common Ground Relief and focused on the presence of the non-local volunteers in post-Katrina New Orleans, the majority of whom are young, white activists from middle-class backgrounds and whose long-term presence in the city, while hopeful, contributes to New Orleans’ changing racial demographic.
While the issue of non-local people, particularly students, working within economically disadvantaged areas is relevant both to New Orleans and Greensboro, Alabama, what I’d like to consider here is the relationship of MIR to Eric’s discussion of beauty and utility within architecture and design. Pitt developed MIR after observing the damage of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood and meeting with local residents to hear their concerns and assess their housing needs. MIR aims to build hurricane-safe homes with “an emphasis on a high quality of design, while preserving the spirit of the community’s culture.” MIR has completed eight homes, however it is unclear to me if the residents who now live in these homes owned the property they were built on before the storm, nor is the affordability of the homes apparent. What MIR does make clear is that their homes are green and designed to withstand storms through elevation, roof access, hurricane proof windows, and durable materials.
When I returned to New Orleans last September, it was disheartening to realize that the houses in the Lower Ninth Ward where I worked in 2006 had been leveled—the once densely populated neighborhood was almost entirely vacant with high grasses covering the foundations where homes once stood. The only contrast to this seemingly open space were the houses built by MIR that line Tennessee Street and sit just in front of the Industrial Canal Levee. Now, I am not well-versed in the formal aspects of architecture or design but I do know that the MIR homes look more like model homes in a prefab modern suburb of Los Angeles than they do part of the unique landscape of New Orleans. Anyone who has traveled to the Big Easy knows that New Orleans is known for its dynamic architecture that includes Creole cottages, shot-gun houses, front porches, iron-cast lace balconies, and hanging baskets—architecture that is deeply rooted to the city’s French and Spanish colonial influences.
This is where the conversation of beauty and utility arises. Utility is covered—MIR homes are clearly environmentally sustainable and designed to function within hurricane country (however, it is not clear how they function in respect to economic status). Whether or not the homes are beautiful is subjective and not all that productive to consider. However, I am curious about the mission of MIR to “preserve the spirit of the community’s culture” through design and architecture. Our relationship to place and home has much to do with the familiarity of the material and visual landscape around us and indeed, for those long-time residents of the Lower Ninth Ward (a neighborhood with a high 48% of homeownership) the structure and contents of their house and the appearance of their residential block (not to mention their families and neighbors) provided a strong sense of belonging. I wonder if it is naive to think that design or architecture can recreate this, whether or not this is the role of MIR, and whether or not, in the context of repatriating New Orleans residents, this matters at all. One thing is certain, for a neighborhood with a history of neglect by the local government and a slow development of civil infrastructure, the MIR homes give the Lower Ninth Ward a steady push into the world of 21st century of design.
Of course there is also the issue of whether or not people should move back to the Lower Ninth Ward in the first place; an issue that I believe Pitt and those at MIR attempt to address. Hurricane Katrina proved just how vulnerable this part of the city is to flooding due in part to the failed levee system but also due to the Lower Ninth Ward’s geographical position downhill from the natural ridges built up by sediment along the Mississippi River. Yet, this is a nearly impossible conversation. Scott Bernhard, Chair of Architecture at Tulane University, summed this up in a meeting with me last September when he said, “How do you look someone in the eye and say, ‘We’re not going to rebuild your house, you can’t come home.'” The answer, I think, is that you don’t. And in this sense, then, perhaps Pitt and MIR do make it right irregardless of the disconnect between aesthetic choices and the visuality of New Orleans before the storm.
A project that is interesting to consider alongside MIR is “The Musicians Village” initiated by New Orleans natives, Harry Connick Jr. and Brandford Marsalis and sponsored by Habitat for Humanity. The Musicians Village restored an eight acre portion of New Orleans’ Upper Ninth Ward neighborhood including 72 single family homes, as well as duplex facilities for the elderly. The idea is that the designation of space for musicians will help preserve and cultivate the tradition of music that has shaped the city of New Orleans. Aesthetically speaking, these few city blocks in the Upper Ninth Ward keep intact the traditional New Orleans architecture of this neighborhood before the storm; one story ranch homes with front porches and occasional Creole cottages. The difference between the damage to the neighborhoods is important to consider. Since the Upper Ninth Ward was not as severely damaged by Katrina, The Musicians Village can be thought of as a rebuilding project, whereas the total obliteration of the Lower Ninth Ward allowed for a clean slate and building entirely from the ground up. Additionally, Habitat for Humanity volunteers rebuilt the homes in the Musician’s Village while Pitt, in all his humanitarian, rock-star status, hired designers, architects, and construction workers to make MIR homes a reality. Even considering the difference in scope and context of these two projects, I must say that there is something reassuring about the design of The Musicians Village coming from two New Orleans natives and being folded within the pre-existing architecture of the city.
The question of the visual seems to be both complicated and incredibly pertinent within the rebuilding projects in New Orleans, as well as for Eric and his students at Project M. As Eric said in his post, “The visual still matters, but ceases to become the work’s main purpose for being.” As the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches this August and the effects of the storm have, for the most part, been removed from our collective consciousness, the main objective remains to bring displaced residents home. In this context, the issue of the visual does seem trivial and makes me wonder whether or not concerns for the visual are privileged. Regardless, the experience of shifting from concern for the conceptual and visual to what our work as artists can do and facilitate, as Eric mentioned, is an incredibly generative experience—one that has the possibility of dislodging us from our own self-prescribed roles, allowing us to constantly question and reaffirm why we do what we do and for whom.