August 29, 2009

Rebuilding New Orleans: An Architects View

Posted: 01:34 AM ET

1834_Billes1Byron Mouton was born and raised in New Orleans, and is now a practicing architect in the city.  He is also a professor at Tulane University, and a contributing architect for the Make It Right Foundation.  Byron's commentary is an LKL Web Exclusive.

To watch video of the progress in the Lower 9th Ward, CLICK HERE.

The rebuilding of New Orleans is coming along, but it's progressing in a way unique to New Orleans.  The culture of this city depends on strong, independent communities, each with its own identity.  It’s at the grass roots level that New Orleans is being reborn.

Our city has a unique blend.  It's not at all uncommon to see an impoverished neighborhood on one side of the street, and a wealthy neighborhood on the other.  But we have learned to accept this discrepancy, and I believe it gives the city a strength and closeness that is hard to find elsewhere.

One of the most publicized rebuilding efforts, and one I'm proud to be a part of, is Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation.

I have to admit, I haven't worked very closely with Brad.  But he’s always present in meetings, asking questions.  When he comes into the room, he's very comfortable with the project leaders, the builders, and the Make It Right staff.

art.brad.pitt.lklHe's still very enthusiastic and involved with the project.  He clearly loves the Lower 9th, and the people who call it home.  The amazing thing to me about Brad is, despite his fame and status, there is no pretense.  He’s a very comfortable, laid-back person to be around.  Maybe that's why he's so comfortable in New Orleans.

Beyond Pitt's involvement, Make It Right is a unique experiment.  They invite numerous architects to work independently.  The approach yields some great results, and some not so great.

The fun thing about the Make It Right properties is everyone pushes the limits architecturally.  We're asked to build houses that achieve the highest environmental ratings.  There is a cost associated with this, yet Make It Right tells us to keep the costs down.  One one hand, we are asked to be creative and use cutting edge technologies, at the same time we’re asked to make houses affordable.

Fortunately, Make It Right has realized they can use public awareness and mass production to lower costs.  Prototypes are not always affordable, but they can be made affordable with mass production, and that's the direction Make It Right is headed.

One of the problems Make It Right is struggling with though is the lack of harmony among the houses.  Because all the architects are working independently, there’s not a lot of consistency in design.  They are trying to recreate a community, but it’s hard with so many different products side by side.

BillesArchitects1Make It Right realized the problem after phase 1.  Now a group is working on a macro scale to harmonize the community.  They are achieving this by uniform landscaping and other neighborhood touches, such as sidewalks.  Architectural critics have an easy target right now, but as the community settles down it will develop a more homogeneous, unified look.

The Make It Right Foundation is also thinking now about what will happen when community reaches the edges.  How does it encroach upon the surrounding environment?  The program could expand beyond its current neighborhood, but if it doesn't, how will it blend into the Lower 9th as a whole?  There will be some success stories and some problems, but the effort is worth it.

When I returned to New Orleans after Katrina, my first response was we should treat the below sea-level sectors as retention areas.  But my opinion has since changed.  Fact is, many parts of the city are further below sea-level than the Lower 9th.

shingerubanThere's also a great deal of poverty in New Orleans.  Impoverished neighborhoods are generally occupied by renters, but in the Lower 9th, about 80% of the land is owned by the occupants.  These people just want to go home.  In many cases, they have lived there for generations.  It's not uncommon for a family to live in a two or three block area for generations.  The architect in me says it makes more sense to build in other locations.  But if the people want to stay, we have to figure out a different way to build.  That’s what Make It Right is doing.

There are several other programs around the city doing good work like Make It Right.  I also work on a program run by Tulane University that focuses on rebuilding the areas that weren't as devastated, but in as much need of attention.  The program is called Urban Build, and the focus is to rebuild the and revitalize the city center of New Orleans.

In a way, Katrina was a blessing.  It has given us the chance to deal with many of our pre-Katrina problems, from poverty to urban infrastructure.  Four years after we were devastated, we're coming back.  However it's done, New Orleans is worth rebuilding.

To learn more about the Make It Right Foundation, go to

To learn more about Tulane's Urban Build program, go to


Filed under: Brad Pitt • Hurricane Katrina • LKL Web Exclusive • New Orleans

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Vitoria   August 29th, 2009 1:52 am ET

Besides Brad been a handsome good actor a lovely husband to Angeline a devoted t dad for his beautiful children , Brad share his fame for various positive projects and New Orleans for sure needs
any help they could get since George Bush administration wasn't so helpful towards This region needs , hopefully Obama's administration will support people like Brad and its habit ants needs to rebuild such a important part of the USA cultural historical region .

Wobblyone2   August 29th, 2009 7:53 am ET

Why the hell are my comments "awaiting moderation", when I go out of my way not to use bad language and speak only the truth? Why?

eJay   August 29th, 2009 5:07 pm ET

New Orleans was built in a bowl, every new home should be built above sea level.

vallary   August 29th, 2009 10:55 pm ET

what happen to the money? there were hospitals and fire dept ,schools that didn't rebuild. I know that there were a lot of insurances companies that went under. But where is the money.

Wobblyone2   August 30th, 2009 1:57 am ET

What's the use...
I made a truthful comment about the lunacy of rebuilding below sea level and it was apparently "moderated out".... what a joke.l
Just be sure to issue all residents with flippers and goggles. At least give them the chance to swim out of the next one.
But no compensation.

Joe G. (Illinois)   August 30th, 2009 4:00 pm ET

Architecture.. Architecture.. America is only what? 200 years old? So what if you got some evil mojo’ down South in New Orleans.. Forget about it..! Let it go.. It should be a capital crime for parents to put asleep their children in those lands prone to fatal flooding any way! And that to say the least.. The fact is that New Orleans is a Liberal as a Liberal State can be and America doesn’t want to let go of its evil pride and joy.. Flair, taste, music as you would all say. Fear God I'll say.. And don’t lie through your teeth and then complain about flooding and hurricanes like you really mean what you say.

Sean M.   September 3rd, 2009 12:06 am ET

The absolute lunatics show their colors in the comment section. To state that "all houses must be built above sea level" disregards the social fabric of the city and the cultural reality. Let's give you a hypothetical situation: an earthquake hits your hometown, and 80% of the city is leveled. Must you not rebuild your house just because it is an earthquake prone area? Of course not! Nearly every single location has some quantifiable risk– just look at the wild fires in Los Angeles, and droughts in Arizona. You cannot force relocation because it is a "risk zone." I'm a Tulane architecture student from California, and i'll admit I was skeptical about New Orleanians moving back into high risk areas after the storm. It's reality: you have a home for generations, passed down from family to family, you'll return regardless of the risk. To force relocation is nothing short of fascism.

gabe p   August 28th, 2010 1:01 am ET

something is very wrong in our response to emergencies in our country. I witnessed the destruction of Cancun by Wilma. six months later, i went back and i found a vibrant and dynamic tourist spot, SIX MONTHS LATER!!! 18 months later, it was like nothing happened, It was rebuilt. All of the infrastructure. How is it possible that after 5 years, with our resources and wealth, we had not been able to rebuild New Orleans?

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