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New Orleans Architecture Firms Set Up Shop... Elsewhere

Weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the biggest issue for architects in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region is still communication.

“The feeling of being totally cut off from people has been the worst part,” says Jerry Billis, AIA, of Billis Architecture, a New Orleans firm of nine. “That is beginning to abate, but poor communications are just a big challenge.” Billis, like most New Orleans architects, has leased office space in Baton Rouge. He first borrowed office space and services from Baton Rouge-based Trahan Architects. He anticipates staying for six months or a year, but is looking forward to the rebuilding effort in the city he has called home for 30 years.

Steve Dumez, AIA, of New Orleans-based Eskew Dumez Ripple, has also leaned on Trahan’s office, and bemoans severe issues getting in touch. “It took us 10 days to find everyone,” he says. The firm’s partners worked quickly to set up in Baton Rouge, purchasing homes for themselves and staff and leasing office space. Their New Orleans office sustained little damage but many in the firm lost their homes and it will be some time before city utilities are functional. Many details remain uncertain, including which staff will stay on. Dumez estimates a 50 percent loss in terms of ongoing work, but realizes that not all firms have clients beyond the city. Every tally of damage is coupled by the “we-were-luckier-than-some” rejoinder, which is clearly on everyone’s mind.

Victor “Trey” Trahan, AIA, principal at Trahan Architects, says that Baton Rouge firms are doing what they can for their New Orleans colleagues. “The smallest thing—use of a computer, introduction to a banker—means everything to them right now,” he says. “As architects, we are very competitive with each other, and now that just does not matter in the same way.”

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Lynn Robertson, executive director of AIA Louisiana, says that a third of the state AIA membership is held by New Orleans-based architects, who number some 350 in 87 small- and medium-size firms. “The larger firms have relocated, many to Baton Rouge, and others to other Southern Louisiana communities. Many others still have not called us; many people are still in emergency mode.”

Angela O’Byrne, AIA, is president of the AIA New Orleans Chapter and of Perez Associates, which is setting up shop in Baton Rouge. “Our projects are under water, and our clients are scattered,” she says. “We are worried about payroll, but we were lucky to get our server out.”

Ron Blitch, FAIA, has been working from Post Architects’ Baton Rouge office. His 26-person firm, Blitch/Knevel Architects, was located in New Orleans’ downtown warehouse district and sustained only minor damage. They are setting up temporary offices in Abita Springs, Louisiana, for at least 15 people. He has been frustrated by lack of access to bank accounts, mail, and other basic communications (cell towers are up but require generators to run), but counts himself lucky that they saved servers and have clients outside of New Orleans. Blitch is looking forward to rebuilding and envisions an important role for local firms. He hopes that young talent now scattered will come back.

The office of eight at Ford/Dickinson are squeezing closer together to accommodate the firm of Wayne Troyer, AIA, which is a similar size. “As Baton Rouge has doubled in size practically overnight, so too has our office,” said Jack Ford, AIA. But Troyer wants to get back to New Orleans as quickly as possible. “We have clients who are pushing forward with local projects and we are responding. Beyond that, we are all trying to think about what positive, socially conscious revitalization can come from this.” Troyer, like others, worries for those less lucky than he, including the “many, many craftspeople” from hard-hit St. Bernard Parish.

Troyer, Dumez, and other New Orleans-area architects are frustrated by the television depiction of the city as destroyed. Many neighborhoods, they say, including the Central Business District and nearby parishes, are in good shape, and lack only utilities. Dumez points to the recovery as an opportunity, too. “We have to think about the big questions. How do we manage issues related to the urban core? Underpinning that is a conversation about the marginalized classes that live in cities. That has come to the fore in this tragedy.”

Kira L. Gould

 

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