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ARCHITECTURE

New Orleans must look back to move ahead

April 02, 2006|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

New Orleans — BY almost any measure, the rebuilding effort here stands in disarray. With a new hurricane season set to begin in June, the levees ringing the city have barely been restored to half their shaky pre-Katrina strength. The neighborhood planning sessions that were supposed to start Feb. 20 have been postponed while the city figures out how to pay for them. And 10 days ago the embattled mayor, C. Ray Nagin, officially endorsed the controversial idea that residents will be allowed to rebuild -- at their own risk, as he put it -- even in the most perennially flood-prone parts of town.

That continuing uncertainty suggests that the recovery, even with Congress having earmarked an additional $4.2 billion in housing aid, will be driven more by private initiative than coordinated public support. Lawrence Powell, a professor of history at Tulane University and a frequent commentator on civic life here, calls the emerging process "bootstrap redevelopment." It's one that inevitably will favor families with means over the poor -- which in New Orleans generally means whites over blacks -- and well-connected developers over planners.

Strictly from an architectural perspective, though, the larger confusion may yield a surprising benefit. Without Category 5 levees, wetlands restoration along the Gulf Coast or a forward-thinking planning strategy in place, homeowners who choose to rebuild will have to acknowledge the possibility of future flooding in every design decision. And if they approach the reconstruction process with that level of wariness -- with their eyes wide open -- they will be tapping into a rich architectural tradition in this city, odd as that may sound.

It's no coincidence that the most distinctive neighborhoods in New Orleans date from the decades when residents, architects and planners were most keenly aware of the city's vulnerability. Repairing that close connection between the natural and the built environments -- which was replaced in the 20th century by a blind, ultimately catastrophic faith in modern infrastructure -- may be the most direct way to recapture the vitality that once made residential neighborhoods in New Orleans among the most admired in the world. It also may help change how Americans in other cities threatened by natural disasters, Los Angeles chief among them, think about the relationship between architecture and risk.

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Respecting nature

IT'S a little difficult to imagine now, with tens of thousands of ruined houses still encased in dried mud and with even the birds continuing to avoid the most badly damaged neighborhoods, but New Orleans was the first green city in America. Not green as in leafy or sylvan, though residents enjoy two of the finest such areas in any American city with Audubon Park and City Park, along with several famously broad avenues lined with spreading oak trees. And not green as in sustainable, at least as we define that architectural movement these days. There aren't a lot of solar panels or straw-bale houses in the Garden District.

This was a green city simply because, from about 1750 to 1920, when its landmark buildings and neighborhoods were constructed, architecture in New Orleans showed both a healthy respect for nature and a demonstrable fear of it. Development in those decades clung closely to the natural levees along the river and a few isolated ridges running above sea level. It was that very same high ground that escaped the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina.

Indeed, professors, planners and critics have developed a kind of lecture-circuit parlor game in the months since the hurricane. They begin by showing audiences a map of New Orleans as it existed in the late 19th century, when the city still dared not expand much beyond the high ground stretching a couple of miles inland from the river. Then they superimpose a satellite photo showing the city at the height of Katrina's flooding. The built area in the first image matches, almost perfectly, the land that stayed dry in the second.

Individual houses also made visible allowances for the city's climate and precarious location. In the most dramatic example, fishermen hammered together temporary shacks each year along the banks of the Mississippi, knowing they'd be washed away when the river rose. Even many modest single-family homes here included broad, well-used front porches and effective natural ventilation, and were raised a few feet off the ground to help protect against flooding from hurricanes and heavy rains. Many 18th and 19th century buildings in New Orleans (as elsewhere in the South) were constructed with inner and outer brick walls separated by an air pocket, allowing floodwater to seep through the porous brick and drain away simply by gravity.

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