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Architects fight for a role in rebuilding after Katrina and Rita

By David Sokol with Sam Lubell

November 2005

The architecture community has rallied for victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and in some ways its sympathy is easily quantified: As of mid-October, more than $100,000 had been pledged to the organization Architecture for Humanity (AFH), and the AIA Web site had registered offers of pro bono services from more than 600 architects.

 
 
  A kit-of-parts Habitat for Humanity house (above). Photo © Habitat for Humanity. Temporary trailers roll down to the hurricane-stricken region (below). Photo © AP Photo/Michael Conroy.
 
   
 

But the difference between offering to do the work and getting to do it can be frustrating. Many architects perceive the disasters as opportunities to implement good design principles throughout the Gulf Coast. However, several developments taking shape suggest that design professionals are being excluded from initial relief and planning efforts. New Orleans Mayor

C. Ray Nagin’s 17-person Bring New Orleans Back advisory committee does not include any representatives from the design fields. Rather, that committee has approved an Urban Land Institute proposal to advise the master visioning process for three months. Further, FEMA-contracted companies establishing temporary housing communities have not awarded subcontracts to architects and planners. A spokesperson for Bechtel, John Schlatter, confirms that “[Bechtel is] not engaged in any significant design or architectural work.” Bechtel has already installed more than 7,000 housing units in three Mississippi counties. CH2M Hill spokesperson Tessa Anderson says, “We’re just trying to move trailers and build necessary infrastructures.” Habitat for Humanity spokesman Joedy Isert says the goal “is to build as many homes as we can fund,” but says these will be “traditional Habitat homes” built from a kit of parts, precluding architectural services.

“Already I see the potentially valuable expertise of architects, especially local practitioners, going untapped,” says John Messina, a New Orleans–born architect now at the University of Arizona. “As a profession, we too often have had no input in the economic/political planning discussions that shape cities.”

The fear that architecture and design might go underutilized inspired Michael Barranco, founder of his eponymous architecture, interiors, and planning firm in Jackson, Mississippi, to introduce architect and planner Andres Duany to Mississippi Development Authority executive director Leland Speed and Governor Haley Barbour. That meeting led to a mid-October charrette in Biloxi for 11 Mississippi Gulf Coast communities, organized by the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) (see story, page 32). John Robert Smith, mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, notes, “Absent a process like this, I think you could be in real danger of making critical design and engineering mistakes that haunt you for the next 50 years.”

In a similar spirit of optimism, a constellation of independent efforts is under way to allow designers to lend their services. In September, the AIA held a building-assessment training course for 120 architects in Mississippi. Members will assess structures’ rebuilding potential free of charge. In Louisiana, local, state, and national AIA components are sponsoring a conference from November 10 to 12, probably in New Orleans, focusing on recovery in that state. The event, a goal of Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco’s 24-member Louisiana Recovery Authority, will bring together a wide array of players, including designers, business officials, politicians, school boards, realtors, engineers, planners, and local neighborhood groups to discuss rebuilding communities, historic preservation, infrastructure, economic development, and several other issues.

The World Monuments Fund and the National Trust for Historic Preservation have partnered to advocate for restoration and sensitive reconstruction measures that respect the historic assets of the region. The Mayors’ Institute on City Design will hold two special design institutes in Biloxi, Mississippi, and New Orleans to join design experts with mayors from the region. The Jackson, Mississippi, Community Design Center prepared homes for coastal evacuees and helped plan the CNU charrette.

Looking ahead to future plans, Architecture for Humanity cofounder Kate Stohr says that the group will work with the Heritage Conservation Network and the Foundation for Historical Louisiana on a design competition for a contemporary shotgun house. architectural record and Tulane University are planning a housing competition of their own for the region (see Editorial, page 17). Tulane’s Architecture dean, Reed Kroloff, also says that the school is considering an event to join community members with university and nonprofit design experts.

Interviewees agree that it is too early to determine whether architects will be able to significantly sway the course of rebuilding for the better. And in New Orleans, design is not necessarily the first priority: “There’s plenty of competition to give advice to New Orleans,” says CNU president John Norquist. Kroloff synopsizes the mixed outlook: “Architects are not at the center of the decision-making process, as usual. On the other hand, they haven’t been eliminated from the conversation entirely; they are taking part.”

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