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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