In the cascade of catastrophes occurring in 2005, none struck Americans more forcefully than Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In response to the images of drowned cities and blasted coastlines, architects throughout the country have asked, “What can I do?” Architects are trained to plan and to build, and many have faced disasters in their own communities. The scope of these natural disasters has provoked an unprecedented flurry of ideas and goodwill, from a directory of relocated Louisiana architects and large-scale voluntary damage assessment by professionals coordinated by the American Institute of Architects to a variety of public forums and unsolicited designs.
The most focused and carefully organized thus far was the “Rebuild Mississippi” forum, held from October 10 to 17. Commissioned by that state’s governor and abetted by his director of economic development, the entire program was financially underwritten by former Netscape C.E.O. Jim Barksdale and the Knight Foundation. For an intense week, local architects teamed with representatives of the Congress of New Urbanism (CNU), led by the indefatigable Andres Duany (and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk), together with engineers, planners, and representatives of local government, who met at the still-standing Isle of Capri hotel in Biloxi, Mississippi. Their efforts spread far beyond the tender imaginings of Seaside, to rethinking an 80-mile stretch of prime coastline, now laid waste.
This rethinking had nothing to do with style per se, and everything to do with planning. In a crowded ballroom, devout local modernists shared the table with historicists and preservationists. In fact, the CNU was superbly positioned to tackle a broad geographic area that had comprised a necklace of small towns: from Bay St. Louis and Waveland in the west, past Gulfport and Biloxi, to Pascagoula on the eastern extremes. None ranked among the country’s largest cites; all retained small-town character, and each contained unique personality and historic culture. Ocean Springs, for example, had served as the original capital of French Louisiana in the early 18th century and today contains a treasury of cottage architecture. Who better to delve into the local milieu, to seek the fine-grained facts that constituted home for several hundred thousand people than these emphatically mixed teams?
They came prepared. For 20 years, Duany and his devotees have conducted charrettes throughout the country, sometimes two per month. In Biloxi, they rolled up their sleeves for a difficult week ending on Monday, October 17, when they presented their findings and ambitious suggestions to the municipalities. Their proposals extended beyond the immediate to the festering. The Gulfport team tackled its problematic public docks, whose traffic had bisected a vital highway and the downtown, proposing a viaduct that could be infilled with habitable spaces for commerce. The Biloxi team envisioned a gambling precinct, meant to rival Las Vegas, that would stand above flood stage. Roads would have to be raised; engineering would have to be commensurate with hurricane force winds. The scale of such multidimensional planning in a short time was daunting. The designers’ optimism and energy, which represented all of us working in a collaborative effort, embodies the architectural spirit at its best—they were our hands and eyes.
The bitter truth
However, another, darker face shadowed this task: The scope of Katrina’s destruction can be described as apocalyptic. Traveling by helicopter down the length of the Mississippi coast, the devastating view stretches as far as the eye can see. No single image, on television or in print, conveys the magnitude of the tidal surge’s destructive power, which rolled ashore more than 28 feet high in some places (at least 50 feet at tiny Link, Mississippi), pulverizing all in its path. At the town of Waveland, nothing (nothing!) remains standing: The wind, wave, and water action combined to reduce any remnant of human construction to dust and washed it all away. None of us, save those few who witnessed Dresden or Hiroshima, perhaps, can relate to the total ruin there.
What should happen in the face of the disaster? FEMA and the federal government have already provided a partial answer by mapping zones in which structures must rise to a certain height to avoid future calamity. In the most stringent, the “V” zone, the preliminary beginning point for any new building rises up to 21 feet above sea level. That means that for a single-family residence, the floor plate effectively commences at tree-house height, an untenable and expensive demand, effectively killing the prospect of the private residence. While municipalities are free to accept or decline the designations, commercial lending and insurance depend on meeting FEMA expectations.
While FEMA’s demands may seem onerous, in a sense, this federal authority is doing what no polity could do: setting guidelines recognizing that devastating storms have blasted the coast twice in 35 years, and that private property sometimes has to bend to the social contract. None of us would wish another Katrina, but strong storms have killed hundreds here and will return, costing billions of dollars, for Mississippians and for other U.S. citizens. The Coast is the entire nation’s problem.
As an alternative to such guidelines, we might consider turning the lowest land—most subject to flooding, tidal surge, and destruction—to linear parkland along the Gulf. Passersby would travel long distances to soak up the silky air and drink in sunsets, enjoying miles of live oaks and green parks on land formerly characterized as a privileged residential enclave. Dense urban nodes, constructed of properly engineered, hurricane-resistant construction would punctuate the strand, culminating in the casino districts that provide the economic base of the Coast and the state. All of the Rebuild Mississippi team’s work remains valid and valuable in this scenario. The only modifications involve how far back from the waterline that intensive development would occur.
And for New Orleans?
The challenges surrounding New Orleans seem more metaphysical. While Mississippi’s ravaged coastline presents itself clearly, the city of New Orleans faces economic, social, and even spiritual dilemmas: What defines this city’s soul, and what will New Orleans become? In tackling such esoteric questions, the answers will not come easily or quickly. As a partial answer, the governor of Louisiana and the American Institute of Architects are organizing a conference, to be held November 10 to 12, to address questions overarching any rebuilding in New Orleans (see News, page 29). Planners, architects, artists, poets, and ordinary citizens, including those Orleanians in the diaspora, must weigh in to the discussions, before boundaries become fixed and the limits of the city are set. We at architectural record support the discussions and plan to assist.
No single aspect commands our collective attention more immediately than housing for storm victims. Estimates range upwards of 200,000 housing units, either totally lost or unsalvageable. What will replace them? Are there that many trees and nails available for the massive rebuilding effort? That much concrete? And with so many demands made on resources, how can the sheer numbers of housing units required be realized?
Architectural Record and McGraw-Hill Construction are focusing our resources on housing for New Orleans, joined in partnership with the Tulane University School of Architecture. Together we are holding an international competition, announced through this editorial, for two types of houses—single-family and multifamily residences—on a real lot in the Marigny section of New Orleans adjacent to the French Quarter. Entrants, who may be architects located throughout the world, should consider the unique character of New Orleans, as well as affordability, sustainability, mixed-use urban character, and manufacturing method, including prefabrication. The process of construction will be of equal importance to the resulting building.
A detailed set of competition guidelines can be found on our Web site, at www.archrecord.construction.com. All submissions will be due on March 1, and winners will be published in the May issue of Architectural Record. Other worthy projects will appear on our Web site.
What can architects do? We can contribute money and time to well-known charities. We can sign up for actual labor, assessing structures throughout the Gulf South. We can participate in the ongoing debate that will define the character and the future of an important quadrant of America. And explicitly, we can enter the competition to find new ways to house displaced New Orleanians.
As difficult as these months have proved, we must think beyond the events to the people and communities that will occupy the landscape again, recognizing that the forces that came ashore may wash over us again. At the time of this writing, Hurricane Wilma is consolidating into a massive storm headed, once again, into the Gulf of Mexico. Ian McHarg issued the challenge in the title of his iconic book: Design with Nature. To his renowned dictum, we add another: “And go to work.”