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Brad Pitt’s Architects Give New Orleans Safer, Snazzier Homes

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Photographer: Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg News

Brad Pitt. Make It Right is a charity founded by Pitt that pledges to build a total of 150 houses for residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

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Photographer: Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg News

Brad Pitt. Make It Right is a charity founded by Pitt that pledges to build a total of 150 houses for residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Close

Brad Pitt. Make It Right is a charity founded by Pitt that pledges to build a total of 150 houses for residents... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

One of almost 50 houses built by the Make It Right charity is shown in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. 4,000 homes were destroyed in this area when a levee broke after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. The houses incorporate many green features and were designed to resist flooding and hurricanes. This design is by the Los Angeles Firm Pugh and Scarpa. Close

One of almost 50 houses built by the Make It Right charity is shown in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans,... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

One of almost 50 houses built by the Make It Right charity is shown in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. In floodwaters the house is designed and built to float like a houseboat. The Los Angeles architecture firm Morphosis designed the structure. Close

One of almost 50 houses built by the Make It Right charity is shown in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans,... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

One of almost 50 houses built by the Make It Right charity is shown in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. 4,000 homes were destroyed in this area when a levee broke after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. The houses incorporate many green features and was designed to resist flooding and hurricanes. This design is by the Ghanian architecture firm Constructs. Close

One of almost 50 houses built by the Make It Right charity is shown in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans,... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

A view along Tennessee Street in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. The houses shown have been designed by architects worldwide for Make It Right, a charity founded by Brad Pitt that pledges to build a total of 150 houses for residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina, in August, 2005. Close

A view along Tennessee Street in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. The houses shown have been designed... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

A view of a typical street in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. The charity Make It Right, founded by actor Brad Pitt, has raised millions to build 150 homes in this low-lying neighborhood devastated by a levee breach. Most streets in the Lower Ninth look much like this, where little rebuilding has occurred. Close

A view of a typical street in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. The charity Make It Right, founded by... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

A house designed by Steven Bingler, of Concordia. It is one of 50 houses completed or in construction by Make It Right, a charity that is building houses for residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. The upsloping roof aims solar panels toward the best sun angle; its deep porch is a tradition in New Orleans. Close

A house designed by Steven Bingler, of Concordia. It is one of 50 houses completed or in construction by Make It... Read More

As I strolled along Tennessee Street in New Orleans at dusk earlier this month, I saw neighbors chatting on shady porches and a few friends drinking at a picnic table under a house set high on stilts.

Five years ago, after Hurricane Katrina struck, a wall of water burst through the Industrial Canal levee just west of Tennessee Street in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, and blasted 4,000 homes into kindling. A barge tumbled through the breach and lay at a crazy tilt just yards away from where I walked.

Now, almost 50 colorful houses with bat-wing roofs and louver-trellised porches have been built or are in construction. They are the most cheering emblem of a city where hundreds of thousands have returned yet full recovery and drivers of future growth remain elusive.

Tennessee Street’s rebirth was made possible by Make It Right, the charity that actor Brad Pitt, appalled by how little had happened two years after the Lower Ninth’s inundation, founded in 2007. It has raised $31 million so far -- including $5 million of Pitt’s own money -- to build 150 houses in the Lower Ninth, which became the symbolic epicenter of the human failure that made Hurricane Katrina so senselessly devastating.

I met Steven Bingler on Tennessee Street the next morning. One of 21 architects brought in by Make It Right, he pointed to a boxy, one-story house with a cockeyed hip roof that he had designed.

Traditional in Spirit

In spirit, it’s a traditional New Orleans house, long and narrow, though the roof tips to orient solar panels to the best sun angle. Bingler supplied a deep front porch because people in this neighborhood need to talk to neighbors and wave at passersby. Indeed several people tracking the passing scene from their porches that morning looked a lot more comfortable than we were in the searing heat.

Tour buses passed constantly as we walked. Most of the houses perch 8 feet above future floods on sturdy concrete columns. I wondered if that height was too aloof, severing the amiable relationship to the street. People use the porches and the space under the house, which turns out to be perfect for a shaded card game, with easy access to a grill.

Pitt’s an architecture aficionado, and Make It Right has mixed insightful designs by local architects with adventurous work by rising stars and big names from around the world. The firm GRAFT cloaked a long box on high columns in angled origami folds. The inwardly sloping roof of a cubic red house by Adjaye Associates forms an upper-level porch as it collects rainwater in a cistern. A zigzag roof shelters a house by the firm Morphosis Architects Inc. that can float.

Modest Cost, Safety

All of the architects have rethought traditional architectural elements to fit the city’s post-Katrina reality: informal living accommodated at modest cost in houses that stand above possible floods yet are tied-down tightly against hurricane winds.

The roofs of Make It Right houses form upward-angled sheds and inverted Vs not just for the sake of invention but to harvest breezes and shade outdoor space. The houses ambitiously incorporate other green tactics: geothermal wells, high levels of insulation and rain gardens that slow the flow of rain into the city’s storm-water system. That system is often overwhelmed by rain torrents even with billions spent on the problem.

Some of the houses have been awkwardly stripped down from grander compositions, but Make It Right delivers a lot of house for $150,000 or less in construction costs. (Some of the designs cost more. Pitt’s charity and other sources bridge the funding gap.)

Survivor’s Tree

One man who could not save his mother and daughter when flood waters trapped them on their roof has moved back to the Lower Ninth. One house was built around a tree to which a survivor clung for three days. She moved into a house Bingler designed.

Make It Right has proven psychologically and symbolically invaluable, but I can’t help feeling that it would have done more for the city by shoring up a healthier neighborhood, and one less vulnerable to the failure of a levee system that isn’t designed to resist the worst storms. Despite the project’s enormous success, you don’t have to walk far in the Lower Ninth to find dozens of empty, weed-choked blocks.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: James S. Russell in New York at jamesrussell@earthlink.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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