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Katrina's Aftermath | The Job Ahead

For Architects, No Blueprints for Recovery

Many New Orleans firms that will help rebuild their city set up in Baton Rouge, where they struggle to salvage their practices and plot uncertain futures.

September 11, 2005|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

BATON ROUGE, La. — Just past noon Saturday, with the humid air getting soupier by the minute, Mark Ripple, a partner in the New Orleans architecture firm Eskew Dumez Ripple, was hauling heavy wooden doors from the back of a pickup with his 20-year-old son, Michael. Donated by a Baton Rouge contractor, the doors will be propped up on sawhorses to be used as desks in the ground floor space that the firm, uprooted by Hurricane Katrina, is moving into eight blocks from the Capitol.

Ripple and his partners, who signed a six-month lease last week, are among the scores of New Orleans architects who have landed in Baton Rouge.

"It's been a tough 10 days," said Mark Ripple, whose firm is among the half-dozen largest in New Orleans. "I'd say we're not even at 20% capacity right now, and we've only got one phone line. But we're happy to be here."

The displaced architects, who come from established corporate firms and modest boutique offices, are doing their best to piece their practices back together. They are dialing and redialing balky cellphones to reach clients and figure out which of their New Orleans projects will move forward and which will remain on hold.

And over pints of beer and bowls of crawfish etouffee at restaurants near the Capitol or on the edge of the Louisiana State University campus, they are beginning to have conversations about how a rebuilt New Orleans might look.

The discussions swing wildly between hopeful musings -- about the opportunity to design architecturally progressive, mixed-use buildings in the place of isolated slums, for example -- and litanies about the corruption of Louisiana politics and the stunning percentage of the city's housing stock that remains submerged more than 10 days after the storm.

Still, even the most despairing talks are a balm, the architects say.

"If you're from New Orleans, what you need now is other people," said Wayne Troyer, who has been staying and sharing office space with Jack Ford, a Baton Rouge architect. "It's when I'm in isolation that I get depressed."

Their exile, for the most part, is an anxious and uncomfortable one. Many have had only secondhand reports on the state of their offices and houses; they eagerly trade the addresses of websites with up-to-date satellite images of the flooding.

Some have backs that are beginning to throb after five or six nights on living room couches.

Others find Baton Rouge, compared with New Orleans, altogether too slow and buttoned-up. Searching for a reference that would make sense to a visitor from California, one New Orleans architect now working here, Kenneth Gowland, paused and said, "It's a little like Sacramento."

Gowland grew up in New Orleans and graduated from LSU before heading north for an advanced degree from Yale. He returned to the city two months ago to start his own practice after working for several firms on the East Coast, most recently Cesar Pelli's office in New Haven, Conn. He and his wife have twin 5-month-old daughters.

"Just before the storm, things were starting to go well," he said, echoing the observation by other New Orleans architects that the pace of construction in the city had been picking up noticeably this year. "We were getting work and I thought, 'We're really going to have a practice down here.' "

Now he finds himself 80 miles upriver from New Orleans, using a spare desk and computer in the LSU office of David Baird, a Baton Rouge architect and member of the university's architecture faculty. On Friday, Gowland was working intently on a residential design for a lot in New Orleans, sketching a preliminary plan for the house on yellow tracing paper.

The clients, he said, are eager to move forward with the house and to see his latest ideas. "I think this is going to be good therapy for them, just to get excited about doing something new."

As New Orleans floodwater continues to be pumped back into Lake Pontchartrain, Gowland is trying to remain upbeat about the city's prospects -- but not always succeeding.

"All the architects I talk to are struggling just with the scale of this disaster," he said. "We keep trying to think of precedents for this, but the ones that come to mind are so much smaller. I mean, how do you design and build hundreds of thousands of houses in a short period of time without sacrificing what made New Orleans one of the unique cities in the world architecturally?"

Still, there are some tentative signs of optimism here.

A large audience crowded into a classroom at LSU on Friday afternoon to hear a lecture on New Orleans by Craig Colten, a professor of geography and author of "An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature."

Colten confidently suggested the loose outlines of a plan to bring the city back to life: turn the lowest-lying residential areas into protected wetlands, increase the density of housing in other areas to take up the slack and push for enough federal aid to make the levees that ring the city significantly stronger.

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