Local Architecture Firms and Schools
Weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the biggest issue for architects in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region was still communication.
"Being totally cut off from people has been the worst part," says Jerry Billis, AIA, of Billis Architecture, a New Orleans firm of nine. Billis, who first borrowed office space from Baton Rouge–based Trahan Architects, has now leased space in Baton Rouge. He anticipates staying for six months to a year.
The impact on firms ranges from tiny to catastrophic. Angela O'Byrne, AIA, president of the AIA New Orleans Chapter and Perez Associates, which is setting up shop in Baton Rouge, notes, "Our projects are underwater, and our clients are scattered." Blitch Knevel's offices in New Orleans were undamaged, but firm principal Ron Blitch, FAIA, has been frustrated by lack of access to bank accounts, mail, and basic communications.
Steve Dumez, AIA, of New Orleans–based Eskew Dumez Ripple, has also leaned on Trahan's office, and notes it took his firm 10 days to find everyone. The partners quickly set up in Baton Rouge, purchasing homes for themselves and their staff and leasing office space. Their New Orleans office sustained little damage, but many lost their homes, and it will be some time before others can move back. Many details remain uncertain, including which staff will stay on. Dumez estimates a 50 percent loss in terms of ongoing work, but realizes that not all local firms have clients beyond New Orleans. Every tally of damage, it seems, is coupled by the "we-were-luckier-than-some" rejoinder.
Lynn Robertson, executive director of AIA Louisiana, says that a third of the state's AIA membership is New Orleans based, with some 350 architects in 87 firms. Most large firms, she says, have relocated to Baton Rouge and elsewhere in the state, but "many others still have not called us."
Victor "Trey" Trahan, AIA, principal at Trahan Architects, says that Baton Rouge firms are doing what they can for their New Orleans colleagues. "The smallest thing—use of a computer, introduction to a banker—means everything to them right now," he says. "As architects, we are very competitive with each other, and now that just does not matter in the same way." Other local firms hosting New Orleans counterparts include Post Architects (hosting Blitch Knevel Architects) and Ford/ Dickinson (hosting Wayne Troyer, AIA's firm). Nationally, the AIA has established the "Displaced Architects Fund" to accept donations for architects; it has created an online registry for architects to request tools; and it is providing an online service to link local architects with those offering positions or space.
Most firms are eager to get back to New Orleans. "We have clients who are pushing forward with local projects, and we are responding," says Troyer. "Beyond that, we are all trying to think about what socially conscious revitalization can come from this."
For Dean Reed Kroloff, the first challenge was finding them. With student and faculty records lists down, he and Associate Dean Ila Berman used e-mail, the Web, and telephones to track down students. Kroloff's thoughts then turned to keeping fifth-year students together for the first semester of their last year. In what is likely the largest block of students relocated to a single institution, more than 30 fifth-year students are enrolling at Arizona State University (ASU), where five Tulane faculty members will teach. ASU Dean Wellington "Duke" Reiter earned his bachelor's degree at Tulane, and Kroloff has long had a close relationship with ASU. Local architecture and construction firms—including Architekton, Gould Evans, and McCarthy Building Companies—donated time and materials to get studio space at the ASU Foundation building (pictured) ready. Kroloff is enthusiastic about the Tulane-in-exile experiment. "This presents an opportunity for true pedagogical innovation," he says. "We have been planning curricular changes, and this will ramp up that transformation. We are looking at how to recast architecture as a significant force in public service and leadership."
Schools throughout the country have offered to host displaced students from Tulane and other New Orleans–area universities. Students are enrolled as visiting students rather than as transfers, and will pay tuition to their home institutions, where they are expected to return in the spring. Nearby, several undergraduates have registered at Mississippi State University and Louisiana State University. Students have also found their way to the University of Texas-Arlington, Georgia Tech, Cornell, Pratt, Columbia, Syracuse, Cooper Union, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California, Sci-Arc, Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, and others.
Still, challenges remain. Holly Latter, one of several students enrolled at Parsons School of Design in New York, knows Tulane wants her back for the spring semester, but she is skeptical about the shuffle in her last year, and about whether Tulane will be operational. More immediately, a single-semester stint presents a housing challenge, especially in New York City. But amid uncertainty, she's digging into course work. Adam Porter, a fourth-year Tulane student from Warrenton, Virginia, started classes at the University of Virginia without his supplies and computer, the conditions of which he is uncertain. But he is sure that he will return to Tulane. "I'll definitely be back in the spring," he says. "There are going to be a lot of opportunities for our trade in the coming years in New Orleans, so now I'm considering staying in the city after graduation."