New architecture in an old city: Is resurgent New Orleans losing its soul?

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Kim Wendell Design

A rendering shows a portion of the South Market District development in the Central Business District.

A rendering shows a portion of the South Market District development in the Central Business District.

The major developments proposed along the riverfront in Holy Cross and in the so-called South Market District off the Loyola Avenue streetcar extension have one thing in common: terrible architecture.

Despite the involvement of prestigious architectural firms and hundreds of millions of investment dollars, the proposed developments look cheap, generic, and totally out-of-keeping with the historic styles of their neighborhoods. In a mesmerizingly beautiful city dependent on architectural tourism, this is worrisome. Building thoughtless structures and shunning the local pattern book of styles steadily diminishes the unique feel of the city, no matter how ardently we fight to preserve older buildings.

The projects’ aesthetic crimes are typical of architecture motivated by financial rather than artistic or humanistic values. Both follow the dead-end modern design precept that the arrangement and rearrangement of boxes is the consummation of human creativity.

In the four-block, $200 million South Market District development, each of the proposed structures is a cube, livened up with exactly one small differentiating touch: a cube with a column, a cube with a slice cut from it, a cube with some windows slightly different in size than others (plus the inevitable bright orange sculptural scribble out front). To make matters worse, gray is the color of the day, not the pastels and earthy cobblestone-browns that predominate in the CBD above Poydras.

The Holy Cross renderings are less detailed, but they also show the hand of shipping-container chic. Like a more banal version of the nearby Make It Right homes, which are at least eye-catching, the stark geometric forms proposed in Holy Cross clash with our garden-like city, rather than blending in.

Bad designs come from bad design philosophies, and the philosophy behind the South Market District development is dangerously bad. In its statement of principles, the Eskew+Dumez+Ripple architecture firm boasts that “[o]ur work prioritizes the experience of a place over formal aesthetic concerns.” Look beyond the jargon and what you’ve got is an open defense of ugliness, a mantra that also ignores the extent to which we experience places aesthetically.

Think of walking into Grand Central Station, or St. Paul’s Cathedral. Think of nearly every inch of our own city. The aesthetics of places cannot be separated from the experiences people have in them.

EDR disavows historically-grounded architecture, saying that “mimicking” centuries-old techniques is misguided, because architecture must “be representative of the particular time in which it was built.” This is a shopworn rationale for following the herd. Architect Mac Ball, in deciding that the Sophie B. Wright Charter School’s new gymnasium would not be built in keeping with the rest of the school’s style, also argued that additions to historical buildings should reflect the time in which they are added.

Intellectually empty and logically circular, it amounts to saying that “we must build in the style of the era because it is the style that people of the era build in.”  But styles are contemporary only because architects make them so. If Mac Ball’s gym doesn’t reflect the flavor of our city, or the South, or the school, and disrupts the feel of the city, nothing prevents him from designing something that does.

New Orleans’s aura and allure doesn’t lie in a collection of individual buildings. It’s a cohesive quilt of character and beauty — a tout ensemble, as was realized by the heroes who saved the French Quarter from the wrecking ball. The brick-and-mortar structures are crucial, but more so is the sense of place that the buildings  create by speaking to one another harmoniously.

EDR pays lip service to this philosophy. The firm professes to believe in “weaving new and different threads into the urban fabric.” But would anyone trust an artist claiming that a carefully restored tapestry could use slicing up and modernizing? What if that artist was proudly ignorant of the tapestry’s history and meaning? Should he be let loose with needle and thread? EDR claims to “celebrate local conditions while transcending local convention.” Decoded, this is an endorsement of unimaginative eyesores that don’t fit in.

Does this make me a curmudgeonly anti-modernist, a Prince Charles decrying plans to update Britain’s National Gallery as a “monstrous carbuncle” on the face of an old friend?

No. It’s possible to create architecture that both incorporates historical styles and experiments with new ones.

The new Iberville development has been designed to “evoke the Storyville era.” The renderings have suggested it will look like an updated Vieux Carré, with plenty of shutters and balconies, but airier and more glassy.

Loyola University’s Monroe library, constructed in 1999, similarly echoes the Collegiate Gothic of the surrounding campus while being unmistakably contemporary. And our oft-forgotten postmodern treasure, the Piazza d’Italia, looks both forward and backward as it plays with the cultures of Italy and New Orleans, respectfully reproducing traditions and rearranging them to say something new.

In developing better design standards, simple questions will do. Would ordinary people find this beautiful? Does it seem to fit in with the landscape? Does it follow our established notion of what works here?

These criteria may appear highly subjective, but the architect Christopher Alexander, in The Timeless Way of Building, has made a strong case that they are not. The styles that have stayed with us over time, and that we appreciate, do so because they appeal to universal human qualities. Alexander points out that there’s more to historic architecture than simple nostalgia. For the same reason that Plato and Shakespeare have become classics, we venerate our old buildings not because they are old, but because they are timeless. And there should be no shame in continuing a timeless tradition.

This is not to say that all new places should look like the Garden District (though would that be so bad?) But if proposals like South Market and Holy Cross keep going forward, then no matter how many older buildings we keep standing, New Orleans won’t resemble New Orleans.

Lifeless architecture is also bad for business. The flattening of styles, the creation of a visual monoculture — these may be economically efficient elsewhere. But here, local character is money, and people do not come to New Orleans to see the same buildings that they see everywhere else. Nobody is going to travel from Jackson, let alone Japan, to see the South Market District.

We should insist that large development projects are distinctive and follow New Orleans architectural styles. Aesthetic criteria must be a mandatory part of project approval. There’s a key question the city must ask itself in weighing every proposed development: “Could this be anywhere but New Orleans?” New threads should be added to the urban fabric with the respect and care that would be accorded any great tapestry.

A recent graduate of Yale Law School and a doctoral candidate in sociology and social policy at Harvard University, Nathan Robinson is the author of a children’s book set in New Orleans,  The Man Who Accidentally Wore His Cravat to a Gymnasium.
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