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Architects and planners weigh in on rebuilding New Orleans

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New Orleans is, by American standards, an ancient city with a declining economy. The population shrank by 150,000 from 1960 to 2000, and 28 percent lived below the poverty level. Many energy-corporation headquarters have moved away. Its location below sea level raises the possibility that another catastrophic flood could hit the city. Yet the suggestion among some that New Orleans should be abandoned has met with fierce opposition. Most who cherish it for its cultural legacy and its place in the nation’s economy, especially due to its ports, want to concentrate instead on effective rebuilding. Many questions remain unanswered, not least being how reconstruction can help turn around the city’s economic fortunes, and how important architecture can be saved. Here’s what several designers have to say.

“Rebuilding New Orleans can prove that America has values instead of just weapons. Mayor Ray Nagin and others need to form a housing committee to assess the situation. Residential buildings in the CBD [Central Business District] that can house a lot of people should be built first. I think a lot of the neighborhood housing can be salvaged. There’s so much of it, and the wood is 150 years old in some cases; it’s not going to warp like modern framing.” —Hugh Hardy, FAIA, partner, H3; member, New York New Visions, a coalition of design professionals for rebuilding Lower Manhattan

“Given everything that New Orleans means to so many people—the mythology, the culture, the architecture, the spirit of the place—it’s shocking to think of not rebuilding. We’re casting about now, trying to establish groups, looking at 9/11 and other models. After Hugo hit Charleston in 1989, Mayor Joseph P. Riley was able to establish a design task force. He was a leader with a vision of what was possible; he established clear priorities.” —Steve Dumez, AIA, Eskew+Dumez+Ripple; past president, AIA Louisiana and AIA New Orleans

“There’s a massive amount that will have to be rebuilt. It may be that many neighborhoods won’t come back. Haste will create a tendency to build back below current building codes. That’s a disaster waiting to happen. There will have to be planning to get easy access in and out of town. There will be political pressure to rebuild right, and I think there’ll be money for planning. Nobody’s going to want to go through this agony again. Hurricanes are two, three times as frequent as in the ’70s.” —Terrance Brown, FAIA, ASCG Incorporated, Albuquerque, N.Mex.; cochair, AIA Disaster Assistance program

“You need a broad-based planning process, with neighborhood input, even while infrastructure is being rebuilt. Transit- oriented development could mitigate some of the problems we saw in the disaster.” —Ernest Hutton, Assoc. AIA, Hutton Associates; cochair, New York New Visions

“I think it will be a smaller city. It’s a very important port city, and that is something that should be preserved. My concern is that New Orleans doesn’t become a Disney World. I hope we don’t try to replicate what was there with new technology and products. Rebuilding is going to take a huge workforce, and I worry about where the workers can live. So little livable housing remains. The west side of the Mississippi is all marshes and bayous and lakes; there are so few buildable areas. —Skipper Post, FAIA, Post Architects; past president, AIA New Orleans

“I’m halfway between skeptical and cynical. In New Orleans there’s no city left, no public to get involved in the rebuilding, and at the end of the day, it’s all about process. What we learned from Lower Manhattan is follow the money. Politics trumps good intentions. With the number of property owners and insurance issues in New Orleans, there will be an infinite number of hoops to jump through if you hope to improve on what was there before.” —Margaret Helfand, FAIA, Margaret Helfand Architects; founder, New York New Visions

“We should take a regional approach, preconditioning what we do with New Orleans on what we do with Baton Rouge and Morgan City. The physical, social, and economic conditions have to be looked at as a system. You can’t bring back a single district, like the French Quarter, without homes and communities for workers. There will need to be a system of housing subsidies to make homeownership affordable. After disasters, modest opportunities typically are seized upon, but visionary schemes are ignored.” —Lance Brown, FAIA, Lance Jay Brown Architecture + Urban Design; cochair, Disaster Preparedness Task Force, AIA N.Y.

“In a place as polarized as New Orleans, it will be important to open the design process. The tragedy is that unless you change the fundamentals, you’re going to end up with something worse than before. Today’s temporary housing will be the substandard housing of tomorrow.” —Robert Yaro, president, Regional Plan Association, New York

“We want to fight for quality decision making, based on best practices and a planning ethic stressing social justice … this is the loss of our community, our culture, our music. It would be a continuation of tragedy if Katrina ends in decanting poor people out of New Orleans and disconnecting them from their roots. There’s already a surge to rebuild by the heavy engineering companies. We’re afraid that by the time people catch their breath and look up, we might have already lost the golden moment to put triage in place and make the right moves.” —Allen Eskew, FAIA, Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, New Orleans

“Like many, I fear the insurance company penchant for demolition. Perhaps write-offs will save paperwork and clerical labor, but what is at stake is an urban model that is unique to our country that should not be lost. These narrow, fragile buildings are tougher than they look and are the residential fabric of a city, which is alone in our country in the type of city life it contains and nurtures. Let’s rebuild, anew, if necessary, but for the most part by simply drying out and moving in. We should not worry about the clean up; patina is a given in this humid climate.” —Errol Barron, FAIA, Errol Barron/Michael Toups Architects, New Orleans; Favrot Professor of Architecture, Tulane University

"When I read Daniel Libeskind saying that New Orleans can be rebuilt more beautiful than it was, that’s b.s. We have a beautiful street pattern and a continuous, eclectic, and unique architectural tradition. People come here because there’s character, and there’s little of that left anywhere else. First there has to be analysis; how can you know what to do when you don’t know where you are?

I don’t think we want to go back to segregating our housing by class. President Clinton’s HOPE 6 program of mixed-use, mixed-class developments might be a model. We also need a good model for a reconstruction authority.

Success will depend on sufficient study, good leadership, and finding balanced solutions. " —David Waggonner, AIA, Waggonner & Ball Architects, New Orleans

"There are so many questions. What should our role be in restoring historic properties in the Gulf? Do we need to revisit our codes, rethinking them for historic buildings? And maybe we need to rethink facilities like hospitals, so that if people can’t escape they’re safe above flood levels. We can put cars, for example, on lower floors. How do we not end up with houses resembling bunkers that are able to withstand a category 5 hurricane but lacking in so many important ways? On a more cosmic scale, what happens when the architectural soul of the South is affected, and to some extent destroyed?" –Trey Trahan, AIA, Trahan Architects, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

"I think it’s hard for people to understand the staggering extent of the damage. My office is five hours from New Orleans, and we have damage. Even people who weren’t displaced have a lot of work to do.

I worry that the architectural character of the area will change, that people coming in won’t care about community and what our architecture says about our region and our cultural identity. I worry about becoming a cookie cutter region. Whoever takes charge will need to determine needs and what’s important before proceeding. The problems with the relief effort so far make me worry how people can be given back a home with identity.

There’s a big population shift occurring. In our town of 2,500, we already have people coming in wanting to buy, and in Oxford, I hear, there are many more ready to buy at any price. It’s interesting to see how the south will change. Anytime you have populations moving, there’s opportunity. We’re talking about our town’s most historic, not-yet-restored neighborhood becoming a place for people to relocate. The disaster might be an opportunity to turn around some languishing small towns that step up to the plate and fill a need." —Belinda Stewart, AIA, Eupora, Mississippi, Belinda Stewart Architects

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