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.)
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.)