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Nancy Levinson on architecture

Monday, December 5, 2005
    The Post-disaster Disaster

    In recent weeks I've been logging travel miles, sans laptop, which hasn't left much time for weblogging. I've been to San Francisco, where I saw the brand-new De Young, and to Dallas/Fort Worth, where I saw the now-classic Kimbell; both of which museums, so extraordinary in their very different ways, raise intriguing issues about the evolution of the art-building as icon, issues I'd like to delve into sometime soon.

    But first I want to persist with the ongoing story of post-Katrina reconstruction, and to respond to readers who felt that my last post, on the Mississippi Renewal Forum, was a bit rough on the New Urbanists and their design ideas for rebuilding a dozen or so Gulf Coast towns. David Sucher, in particular, of City Comforts, argued that I failed "to separate urban site plan—which is the core of New Urbanism—from architectural style"; and then wondered whether I and other critics would "really prefer to have Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry—as opposed to Andres Duany et al.—taking lead roles in helping Mississippians in their rebuilding." Perhaps I was too hard on the New Urbanists' efforts to advocate pedestrian-oriented communities; though I'd still argue that the popular appeal of the movement is based less on its planning principles than on its neotraditional pattern books; which means that developers often forsake the principles—the emphasis on regional planning, mixed uses, multi-family housing, transit corridors, et al.—and focus on the period decor, on the porches and porticoes, the gables and gambrels.

    But certainly I wasn't suggesting that the better strategy would be to round up Koolhaas and Gehry, or any of the usual stars, to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. (Although here the intrepid follower of Koolhaas's oeuvre, built and unbuilt, might recall that his Office for Metropolitan Architecture has not shied away from the grand geo-hydrological gesture: in the plump and prodigal late '90s, OMA proposed that in order to accommodate the expansion of Harvard University, the cities of Boston and Cambridge, Mass., should redirect the course of the Charles River). No, what the reconstruction needs right now is not celebrity aura or iconic buildings; given that hundreds of thousands of people remain homeless and displaced, that insurance claims and mortgage payments are bollixed up in bureaucracies, that electric and gas service are spotty, and that essential infrastructure requires large-scale repair and region-wide redesign, it seems still too soon to be debating matters of architectural style. (The Mississippi Renewal Forum and the Congress for New Urbanism have just co-produced a "A Pattern Book for Gulf Coast Neighborhoods"; but considering that many coastal residents were uninsured, who exactly will be rebuilding, and with what resources?) Today, three months after Katrina, it's appallingly plain that what the Gulf Coast needs is strong and unswerving federal commitment—commitment to developing interim and permanent housing, to paying insurance claims and helping the uninsured, and, most of all, to reconstructing the infrastructure, the levees and dams and wetlands, that most agree are vital to ensuring the future of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

    But in recent weeks the leading story of the reconstruction has become the story of the lack of such commitment: what some are already calling "the disaster after the disaster." Here, for instance, is New Orleans writer John Biguenet, in an op-ed in the New York Times on Thanksgiving eve: "New Orleans is on the verge of death, but still, just as in the days after our levees crumbled, the government dithers, refusing to offer an unequivocal commitment to provide protection against Category 5 hurricanes. Why is this so crucial an issue? After what we have been through in the last three months and face in the coming year, there is not a homeowner or a business executive who will invest insurance proceeds in rebuilding if we are to remain vulnerable to a similar catastrophe every hurricane season. Anything short of protection against Category 5 hurricanes will condemn the city to a slow death."

    Here is New Orleans Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss, in a Nov. 27 op-ed in the Washington Post: "At the site of the worst urban disaster in American history, we are a city obsessed. Rebuilding New Orleans is our breakfast-table conversation, our lunchtime chatter, our pillow talk. But while we talk, we also wait. . . . Above all we are waiting for Congress and the federal government to decide that New Orleans deserves strong levees—stronger than the sorry system, designed and built by the Army Corps of Engineers, that collapsed, wrecking our neighborhoods. We want word from Washington that a great American city will not be left to die. . . . New Orleans has become two cities—an enclave of survivors clustered along the Mississippi River’s crescent and a vast and sprawling shadow city where the water stood, devoid of power and people. The ancient heart—the French Quarter and Uptown—is throbbing with commerce and signs of life from the hardiest returnees. But cross Freret Street, and you enter a dim realm. The neighborhoods that extend from there to the lake are comatose. At night, I drive through darkened and abandoned streets, past acres of housing that marinated in polluted floodwater for weeks, past blocks where I know people died, unable to escape the storm, past the homes of poor, middle-class and affluent New Orleanians—all devastated alike. . . . The vastness of this destruction is almost impossible to fathom. . . . "

    And here—alas—is a report from the Nov. 30 Times-Picayune, with the understandably exasperated headline "Recovery Chief Coy on Levee Overhaul": "President Bush's hand-picked federal coordinator for Hurricane Katrina recovery hinted a stronger levee system is in order for the New Orleans area, but he offered no specific commitments or timetable for meeting that goal. . . . Donald Powell, a former Texas banker and chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., who stepped into the role this month as the president's front man leading Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts, met with Gov. Kathleen Blanco in Baton Rouge and later toured the hurricane-ravaged state in a Blackhawk helicopter. . . . Although Powell was noncommittal when pressed about whether he would recommend the White House support a levee system designed to withstand a hit by a Category 5 storm, he did say he 'anticipated upgrading' the area's flood protection. . . . Powell said he does not see himself as a chief executive of the recovery effort, but rather a listener and facilitator to carry a message back to Washington. . . ."

    Well, as the always wise and quotable Molly Ivins slyly asks in her Nov. 17 column: "Which Bush crony will be the next Brownie?" For the "message" would seem to be blaring through loud and clear, in print and online. In addition to publishing Biguenet's pre-holiday cri de coeur, the New York Times has followed the story tenaciously, with substantial articles on the inadequacy of the levees and on the logistical and financial difficulties of restoring power to New Orleans, and with editorials on the "post-Katrina housing debacle." The web site of the Times-Picayune, NoLA.com: Everything New Orleans, publishes in-depth news on recovery and rebuilding, with stories that range from the straightforward (a report on New Orleanians who are homesick in Houston) to the mordant (a lifestyle piece on the FEMA Cantina, a weekly potluck supper-cum-survivors' support group, with dishes like "Katrina Cauliflower au Rotten," "Levee 'Leak' Soup," and "'You're Doing a Heckuva Job' Brownies"). It also features a photo gallery, with images that offer more information—more message—than the aerial view from a Blackhawk. And the Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch, sponsored by the Institute for Southern Studies, features original reporting as well as articles from diverse print and web sources, with the goal of promoting a "democratic and accountable reconstruction of the South." Recent stories probe the administration's contracting priorities (e.g., "Of some $3.1 billion in business awarded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency alone, only 12 percent has gone to contractors based in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana . . .") and describe the growing political activism of citizens of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.

    And these are just a few of the sources documenting the post-disaster disaster: today when you Google “post-Katrina,” you get more than a million and a half hits, and tomorrow it’ll surely be more. That the recovery is moving so slowly, that so much time is being lost, is shaping up to be not just a huge political-economic issue but also the most extraordinary infrastructure-architecture challenge of our era.

    But of course there are signs of hope and optimism. How could one not, after all, be impressed by the gallows-humor resilience of a city where, at a festival a month ago, people were sporting tee-shirts asking “Got Mold?” And when the rebuilding begins, it's a good bet that there'll be no shortage of inventive architectural solutions, solutions variously prefab, green, and sustainable. More on all that, very soon. . . .

    posted by nancylevinson @ 11:30 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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