Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Creoles, Camelback and Shotguns

I have been trying to research models for rebuilding historical cities, especially on the European experience in the post-WW2 period. I have come up with almost nothing.

I have, however, found a wealth of articles written by prominent architects and others about what Katrina means to the incredibly rich historical housing stock of New Orleans.

As a son of both New Orleans and an architect, I find these must read work.

Forty years ago the architects of New Orleans (including a young AIA president, Sidney J. Folse, Jr., my father, and the professors and students of the Tulane University School of Architecture), stood up to the 1960s equivalent of the New Orleans Business Council, and blocked a disasterous plan for a river front expressway.

I hope that their heirs in New Orleans, and all over the country, are ready for the task of standing up for a vibrantly rebuilt New Orleans, filled with the people who made it their home before Katrina.

Here is a sampling of the best I've found on the subjet so far.

First, is New Orleans Between The Storms, by B.J. Novitski, managing editor of Architecture Week.

His survey of what Katrina means to the city's architecture is disheartening.

Forensics architect and registered disaster services worker Dean Vlahos cautions about the long term dangers to buildings caused by standing floodwaters. He warns that mold, foundation erosion, and environmental contamination can not only create serious health risks, but also compromise the structures and systems of those buildings left standing.

While mold, a potentially toxic fungus that thrives on decaying matter, will be a serious health and construction problem, Vlahos says, it is only the tip of the iceberg. He worries there will be many buildings for which remediation is impossible and demolition is the only recourse.

A SAD TIME FOR ARCHITECTURE TOO from the San Francisco Chronicle is a wonderful read about Bywater, and offers a model for how the city should be repopulated.

Gradually crime declined, and housing prices soared, at least by the modest standards of New Orleans real estate. Happily, most of the old inhabitants stayed on. I recall more than a few cases of the newcomers helping their older neighbors paint their houses. As this happened, a wonderfully textured community emerged, embodying the best of new and old. Bywater even developed its own neighborhood celebration, the annual Mirliton Festival, named not for the dance in the second act of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" but for the locally grown squash that Creole cooks like Miss Marie transform into a spicy treat.

Bywater was a model of humane and organic urban revitalization. (It even acquired a motto, emblazoned on signs painted by a local artist: "Be nice or leave.") Until Aug. 29.

Finally, two calls for the preservation of a recognizable New Orleans. The first, Reimagining a ravaged city, was cited Novitski in his article.

But some architects cautioned that the historic quarters should not be the only focus. "New Orleans - along with San Francisco - is the greatest collection of 18th-, 19th- and early-20th-century residential architecture in the United States," said Reed Kroloff, the dean of the School of Architecture at Tulane University in New Orleans.

"But saving the historic context does not mean necessarily rebuilding everything in it," he added. "I don't think you build a bad 21st-century copy of a brilliant 19th-century building."

Architects and planners worry that developers might try to recreate some fairy-tale version of the city, compromising its 300-year-old character. "My big concern is that it will become a Disneyland," said Raymond Post Jr., a Baton Rouge architect. "If we come up with a plastic New Orleans, then you've got a plastic New Orleans. You lose the charm and the quaintness and the crooked walls and the old shutters."

And, finally, a column from Newsday by Justin Davidson titled Rebuilding New Orleans: We must not get this wrong.

New Orleans is quickly becoming a battleground for competing ideologies about how Americans should live. Advocates of federal housing, enemies of sprawl, champions of preservation, defenders of big business, community activists, environmentalists, oil lobbyists are all chiming in with a vision.

If the poor are not welcomed back to New Orleans - if the diaspora is never reversed - then a plagued but vibrant metropolis will become what author Joel Kotkin calls an "ephemeral city." Kotkin's term describes the hollowed-out relic cities for the rich, whose economies rest on the tottering tripod of glitz, cool and history.

It is not hard to imagine a contained, pristine New Orleans whittled down to its pretty showcase center, a few quiet office blocks and some gleaming new subdivisions on higher ground. The Smaller Easy would have less crime, less misery and less unemployment. But a healthy city cannot be a segmented, segregated place where the rich navigate around the poor but never see them. "The more you mix functions, the more you mix ages, the more you mix income," Lerner said, "the more human the city becomes."

The best and oldest parts of New Orleans already exemplify those values. "This is a diverse city and many of the aspects that allow it to be so are inherent in the strategies of the 18th- and 19th-century planning," said Steve Dumez, a New Orleans architect. "It's a lot of the 20th-century planning that was a recipe for disaster."

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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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