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Nancy Levinson on architecture

Thursday, September 22, 2005
    Unwatering New Orleans

    Is there a risk of national attention drifting away from the Gulf Coast? asked the host of an NPR talk show during a recent hour devoted to the post-Katrina recovery. A fair question, to say the least. Katrina was an epochal event, and we live in a momentary age.

    But now that what the Army Corps of Engineers refers to as the "unwatering" of New Orleans is proceeding apace (look here, for the Corps' detailed diagram of "New Orleans Vulnerabilities"), the long and grueling reconstruction will soon begin — less a news story than a history chapter. And as many have noted, we've got an opportunity — you might even say an obligation — to reconstruct it right. Or, in the case of New Orleans, as right as possible; I say this because (thanks to a link on the indispensable Archinect) I've just read a fantastically good article by John McPhee. Published eighteen years ago in the New Yorker — and still posted, I hope, on the magazine's archive page — "Atchafalaya" is an extraordinary piece of literary reportage, a fascinating account of the massive, heroic and hubristic efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent the Mississippi from moving its course westward, from being captured by the Atchafalaya River — a natural occurrence that would effectively have destroyed the economies of New Orleans and Baton Rouge. McPhee's article is in the old, rambling-elegant New Yorker manner — but at 28,449 words it seems to me not a comma too long; not when the author describes so powerfully and precisely the engineered unnaturalness of the delta:

    The Mississippi River, with its sand and silt, has created most of Louisiana, and it could not have done so by remaining in one channel. If it had, southern Louisiana would be a long narrow peninsula reaching into the Gulf of Mexico. Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand — frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions. Always it is the river’s purpose to get to the Gulf by the shortest and steepest gradient. As the mouth advances southward and the river lengthens, the gradient declines, the current slows, and sediment builds up the bed. Eventually, it builds up so much that the river spills to one side. Major shifts of that nature have tended to occur roughly once a millennium. The Mississippi’s main channel of three thousand years ago is now the quiet water of Bayou Teche, which mimics the shape of the Mississippi. Along Bayou Teche, on the high ground of ancient natural levees, are Jeanerette, Breaux Bridge, Broussard, Olivier — arcuate strings of Cajun towns. Eight hundred years before the birth of Christ, the channel was captured from the east. It shifted abruptly and flowed in that direction for about a thousand years. In the second century a.d., it was captured again, and taken south, by the now unprepossessing Bayou Lafourche, which, by the year 1000, was losing its hegemony to the river’s present course, through the region that would be known as Plaquemines. By the nineteen-fifties, the Mississippi River had advanced so far past New Orleans and out into the Gulf that it was about to shift again, and its offspring Atchafalaya was ready to receive it. By the route of the Atchafalaya, the distance across the delta plain was a hundred and forty-five miles — well under half the length of the route of the master stream.

    For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature. The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah. Moreover, there were so many big industries between the two cities that at night they made the river glow like a worm. As a result of settlement patterns, this reach of the Mississippi had long been known as “the German coast,” and now, with B. F. Goodrich, E. I. du Pont, Union Carbide, Reynolds Metals, Shell, Mobil, Texaco, Exxon, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Georgia-Pacific, Hydrocarbon Industries, Vulcan Materials, Nalco Chemical, Freeport Chemical, Dow Chemical, Allied Chemical, Stauffer Chemical, Hooker Chemicals, Rubicon Chemicals, American Petrofina — with an infrastructural concentration equalled in few other places — it was often called "the American Ruhr." The industries were there because of the river. They had come for its navigational convenience and its fresh water. They would not, and could not, linger beside a tidal creek. For nature to take its course was simply unthinkable. . . . Nature, in this place, had become an enemy of the state.

    Of course, our current state is an enemy of nature, and our oilman-in-chief has always been an ever-dependable crony of all those petrochemical corporations that "made the river glow like a worm." (No wonder that Molly Ivins, in a recent column on the big fat post-Katrina cleanup contract awarded to Halliburton, gets so exasperated: "Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.") Still, the reconstruction will outlast the current administration — and probably influence the choice of the next. Rebuilding cities and reviving economies, not to mention civil engineering and coastal hydrology — these aren't the readiest talking points. It's easier to editorialize about a tabula rasa. But that is sheer ahistorical fantasy, and it ignores the human dimension, what McPhee describes as "the powerful fabric of ambition that impelled people to build towns and cities where almost any camper would be loath to pitch a tent." That ambition will surely prove as powerful as ever. And so will something else, something that Richard Ford evoked when he wrote, in a moving op-ed in the New York Times earlier this month: "It is — New Orleans — the place where the firm ground ceases and the unsound footing begins. A certain kind of person likes such a place. A certain kind of person wants to go there and never leave."

    posted by nancylevinson @ 1:30 pm | Permanent link
Wednesday, September 7, 2005
    Summer's End

    Most of us haven't the fortune or flex-time to have whiled away the summer in one of those rambling coastal cottages built a century ago by merchant princes or eccentric industrialists; but last week, along with near-obsessive reading of the print and online post-Katrina reports, I spent a few hours happily lost in the beguiling pages of The Big House. Subtitled "A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home," the book is a memoir, by writer George Howe Colt, of the shingle-style house built by his proper Boston forebears in Buzzards Bay, on Cape Cod, in 1903, and of the five generations that gathered there to swim off the rocky coast, to sail in small wooden boats, to play tennis with wooden rackets on laboriously rolled-out clay courts — to pursue, in short, the Brahmin pleasures of upper-class austerity.

    With a graceful mix of familial pride and contemporary perspective, Colt describes the "peculiar combination of wealth and masochism" that for decades made the Big House so characteristic of its kind. Situated on a splendid waterfront promontory, and designed by William Atkinson, a gentleman-amateur architect and brother of the businessman ancestor who commissioned it, the four-story residence had nineteen rooms, seven fireplaces, and a generous encircling porch where the grownups would gather for cocktails in the late afternoon. But none of its seven bathrooms had a shower; only one of the three ancient stoves in the kitchen was even "semifunctional"; the eleven bedrooms were apt to be outfitted with unyielding horsehair mattresses and prickly straw pillows; and guests who might have hoped to find a TV or stereo were out of luck (although the place did have, says Colt "a battered portable radio, used primarily during hurricanes or Red Sox games").

    Clearly The Big House is not just a memoir but also an elegy. By the time the book begins, in the early '90s, the place had long since become an anachronism — a summer estate with a servants wing, a 10,000-square-foot gabled and dormered relic of an era when "summer" really was a verb — and the Colts had run short of the wherewithal to maintain it and had put it up for sale. Over the next few hundred pages the author manages to generate considerable suspense as to whether the property truly will be sold, and if so, whether to a subdividing developer or McMansionizing financier. Neither scenario comes to pass, and, although the house does not remain exactly as it was — comfortably tattered, reassuringly scruffy — the resolution is unexpectedly cheerful. But change was inevitable. The world that Colt is remembering is gone. And the world that Colt is remembering is more than the milieu of an anglo-yankee aristocracy; ultimately he is memorializing a certain idea about summer, an idea of summer as a season of permissible regression, of vacation times when we dress down, sleep late, leave the machines unplugged and the hours uncommitted, when we reinvigorate ourselves for the quickening of autumn.

    This idea of summer has hung on — certainly in the ad copy of resort realtors and Ralph Lauren collections — but as a practical matter it's become pretty tenuous. So too have the kinds of places and landscapes that it inspired. Colt imagines a room from the Big House preserved in a museum: a "New England Summer House Bedroom" that would capture the unselfconscious informality of a mid-20th-century summer vacation, right down to the iron bedstead, the painted pine furniture, and the lamp made from an old wine bottle filled with sea glass. But you needn't have ancestors who prepped at Groton to understand Colt's curatorial impulse. By now a lot of Cape Cod has earned its place in that archive of resort life of the recent past. Like George Colt, I spent childhood summers on the Cape; but since we were second- and third-generation middle-class Jews the place we returned to year after year wasn't a roomy shingle-style pile but a beach shack with a screen porch. It was part of a cottage colony developed in the '20s, and when we started renting there, in the '60s, not much had changed. The cottages shared a broad secluded beach and a dilapidated clay tennis court (the Colts would've approved). The landscape was beach grass and scrub pine. The architecture was no-frills: the house had an electric heater but no telephone — if you wanted to make a call, you could walk down the road to the pay phone. But who wanted to make a call anyway? That was part of the point of the time away: you could let the din die down.

    Today the cottage by the beach has got phone service. And a lot more: in the mid-'80s a developer bought the weathered old colony and poured a pot of money into de-rusticating the cottages and genericizing the environs. The houses were enlarged with second floors and poshed up with new appliances and cable connections. The beach grass and scrub pine were dug up and replaced with neat patches of grass. A familiar story, I know: Cape Cod has been suburbanizing for a generation, and much of what was once maritime is now manicured. But more has changed than the architecture and landscape. The well-appointed little villas by the beach, with their telecom links and high-maintenance lawns, seem less about getting away from it all than about carting it all along with you. No wonder that today's time-off is increasingly a matter of what a friend of mine calls "engaged retreat." You might be sitting on the porch gazing at the water, but you've got the iBook on your lap and the cell phone in your pocket, and you're calculating the relative stresses of checking email while on holiday or facing the inbox when you get back.

    So I understand George Colt's nostalgia. "For nearly a century," Colt says at the start of the book, "my family has thought of the Big House as an unchanging place in a changing world, a sanctuary we have assumed we would always be able to return to, as would our children and our children's children." Maybe it's a boomer predisposition, a natural emotional response to living in a time when change feels less evolutionarily organic than challengingly quick. You feel too young to feel so old — to see places that had endured and evolved, maybe even the scenes of your childhood, change so suddenly and irrevocably. The Big House is a moving tribute to the power of architecture to embody and evoke the past, and to make you feel, despite everything, that it isn't really past.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 10:15 am | Permanent link
Thursday, September 1, 2005
    Hurricane Season

    I had intended to post a brief essay about summer, and summer houses; but that can wait. I have learned from fellow Arts Journal blogger Terry Teachout that today is Blog for Relief Day, devoted to raising awareness of organizations helping in the recovery and rebuilding following Hurricane Katrina. Courtesy of TT, here and here are links to various humanitarian agencies. And here is the site of HurricAid, a new blog focused on Katrina's effects and aftermath.

    Also, from Forbes, I've learned of two new charities: the Hurricane Katrina Displaced Residents Fund and the Hurricane Katrina New Orleans Recovery Fund. The latter will focus on reconstructing infrastructure. So too will Architecture for Humanity, which is accepting donations "to support the work of local architects in the reconstruction and repair of the region's hardest hit areas."

    And speaking of architecture: I was moved by Robert Ivy's poignant personal memories, posted on the Architectural Record web site, of leaving the city three decades ago, as Hurricane Carmen threatened the delta and its gorgeous, fragile settlements. I've been impressed too with the resilience of blogger James Stamp, of New Orleans, who two days ago managed to post an entry in his Life Without Buildings from an exile in Houston that is likely to be, as he says, extended. (Was it just two weeks ago that he posted all those lovely images of modern architecture in New Orleans, taken on a bike ride through neighborhoods that may be no more?)

    I visited New Orleans only briefly, but you didn't need to spend much time there to agree with those who have called it the most beautiful — most strangely beautiful — city in the United States. Which perhaps explains at least in part why so many are optimistic that its citizens will regroup and reconstruct. As Bob Ivy puts it:

    While the Dream-Queen may be struck-down, she’s been mortally wounded before by disease and fire, by war and flood. Waters will recede; she’ll pull up and remake herself, not dead or dying, but ready for a fight and another dance. Like me, too many people love her. She cannot fail — only fade for a while. . . . We have to rebuild, and build better, avoiding cheap solutions, lowest bids, and graft. The vast history of the place (which looms like a form of interlocking human memory) demands it, and we are intent on restoring her to her splendid life.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 1:04 pm | Permanent link



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Prefab seems always to be the next big thing—the solution to our chronic shortage of middle-class housing, a means to making contemporary design affordable. It's been around for a while, of course, from the "Modern Homes" that Sears, Roebuck sold via catalogue to Buckminster Fuller's curvy Dymaxion prototype to recent experiments in shipping-container chic. But lately there's been a lot to look at, and much of it's good-looking.

The LV Home, by the Chilean-born, Missouri-based architect Rocio Romero, is an effort to make "high-end modern design" not only affordable but unintimidating too. The kit-of-parts—basically the exterior shell—starts at $32,900, and Romero's web site features testimonials like this, from a Wisconsin homebuyer: "the closest I could ever get to the aesthetics of the Mies van der Rohe Plano house."

For the manufacturer Kannustalo, Ltd., the Finnish firm Heikkinen-Komonen Architects have created the Touch House. First exhibited at a housing fair, the 2,000-square-foot house hasn't been yet been widely marketed, which seems a shame.

Austrian architect Oskar Leo Kaufmann designed the SU-SI House in the mid-'90s, for his sister Suzy. A couple of years ago, the 1,400-square-foot house was constructed—or rather, assembled—on a rural site in Sullivan County, New York, for about $300,000, for a Manhattan photographer and his family.

Marmol Radziner Prefab, a division of the Los Angeles firm, designs "factory-made modules shipped ready to occupy." The architects, known for design/build work, both manufacture the modules and supervise construction. So far one house has been built, in Palm Springs—near Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House, which the firm restored—and a few more are underway.


Some mostly recent books on houses, some posh, some not.

The Green House
Authors Alanna Stang and Christopher Hawthorne argue that green design is not just ecologically responsible but also high style— "camera ready." They make a good case, using projects like Georg Driendl's Solar Tube, in Vienna, Brian MacKay-Lyons's Howard House, in Nova Scotia, and Lahz Nimmo's Casuarina Beach House, in northern New South Wales.

Prefab Modern
A well illustrated and gracefully written survey by Jill Herbers showcasing some designers who are making prefab both affordable and stylish. Besides the projects listed elsewhere on this site, these include Adam Kalkin, Jennifer Siegal, Michelle Kaufmann, and Resolution: 4 Architecture

The Very Small Home
The subtitle says it: "Japanese Ideas for Living Well in Limited Space." Author Azby Brown has compiled a collection of houses most of which are so diminutive they'd fit into the master bath of a McMansion. These include Tadao Ando's austere 4 x 4 House, just 243 s.f., and Architecture Lab's White Box House, a comparatively roomy 559 s.f.

David Adjaye Houses
A handsome monograph featuring a dozen of the houses that have made Adjaye a rising star of London architecture. These include Elektra House and Dirty House, plus the residences he's designed for Ewan McGregor and Chris Ofili. More


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