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Baton Rouge

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA, Editor-in-Chief

I went to Baton Rouge this past week to join a group of architects at a lunch celebrating their registration. The group was twice as large, two years’ worth of registrants, since Katrina had spoiled last year’s ceremony. We met at the recently renovated old Heidelberg hotel (now a Hilton) favored by the Kingfish, Huey Long. I fell asleep in a room so new the paint smelled fresh then woke up to a cup of Louisiana coffee. You foget how Louisiana feels—how it completely swallows you up, until you walk out the door. Then, boom!,your senses drink it all in: the humidity, the odors (sweet, loamy, wet, growing), the feeling on your skin. You’re back.

The view from the 10th floor of the Capitol Hilton expanded the perspective, giving a 270-degree view out to the river silently roaring past, a jaw-dropping display of explicit and submerged power. Water and silt from the center of the country flowing past, pushing against the protective levees.

Just to the south, the new South confronts the old: the new Shaw Center for the Arts faces the river adjacent to Louisiana’s old Capitol. The two structures couldn’t be more different and each speaks to its moment, but isn’t that what architecture does best?  The Shaw, a glowing modernist structure sheathed in channel glass and stainless steel exostructure, brings a kind of comfortable informal encounter with the arts, theater and museums, for everyone, complete with a variety of social spaces—two levels have big decks that seem to hang over the river, a restaurant on the top floor offers piped-in jazz and modern funk. Student work mingles with LSU’s museum of fine art. A Louisiana mélange.

Across the street, Dakin’s great old Gothic revival state house from the 1850s stands like a stylistic wonderment. The central interior spiral stairwell glows with an explosion of stained glass that no true Gothic builder ever dreamed of—a kind of glazed fountain crowning the bluffs, and a testament to inventiveness. What state would dream of such a high-styled, radical structure to house its government today?

I met the architects, who had made their way through the gantlet of school, first jobs, internships, new families, and hanging out there in the untethered ether, all the way through examinations and, finally, registration.  We ate together, talked, shared Kingfish’s space, and split, one small post-Katrina rift healing up in the aftermath, and new professional lives already underway.