Kaid Benfield Archive


Rebuilding the Ninth Ward: does architecture matter?

Kaid Benfield

Posted October 14, 2009 at 1:01PM

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    Ninth Ward houses (courtesy of Steve Mouzon) 

As I'm sure most readers know, Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation has been constructing houses in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, so that residents who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina can return.  That's an undeniably noble endeavor.  But some of my new urbanist friends believe that the architecture of the new houses (Pitt is himself an avid architecture buff) is undermining the mission, because it does not respect New Orleans vernacular architecture and is not conducive to community-building.

They may have a point: 

    Ninth Ward house (courtesy of Steve Mouzon) 

  Ninth Ward house (courtesy of Steve Mouzon)  Ninth Ward house (courtesy of Steve Mouzon)

  Ninth Ward house (courtesy of Steve Mouzon)  Ninth Ward house (courtesy of Steve Mouzon)

Here's how my friend and Congress for the New Urbanism board member Victor Dover put it on Facebook:

"Looks like there was a windstorm... This reflects the sad philosophy that architecture should express the violence, chaos, fragmentation and disorder "of our time" (a damaged, damaging phrase, especially after Katrina). Instead, we should be establishing order that produces harmony and peace in human souls, and creating beauty that drowns out the threatening aspects of storm and culture, and seeking timelessness - and this will inevitably lead us to designs that are more genuinely resource-efficient and enduring."

All photos are courtesy of Steve Mouzon, whose Original Green website and blog are recommended.

To be fair, it should be noted that Steve and uber-new-urbanist Andres Duany also designed homes for the Katrina recovery, which they call Katrina Cottages.  It should also be noted that, whatever one thinks of the architecture, Pitt's houses are all LEED-platinum, and the fact that he and his foundation have taken on the task of helping rebuild is a very good thing.

The counter-argument to Victor's position was posted in the same Facebook thread by Curt Rohner:

"I would proffer that a neighborhood only functions as well as the people who live there, it is a learned skill. The people returning to Lower Nine have these skills and just because the architecture may not be your cup of tea doesn't mean the neighborhood will not succeed.

"In the end we need to not only rebuild great neighborhoods in America but work to create better neighbors to fill them."

The Make It Right Foundation has somewhat more flattering photos of their houses here.