Sunday, January 27, 2008

Residential Architecture

Recently Scout Prime posted a link to The Journal of American History special issue on Through the Eye of Katrina. Everything in it is interesting but one of the articles, New Orleans Architecture: Building Renewal especially caught my eye.

The article points out our collective ambivalence to anything built since about 1900. It mentions Cabrini Church. It doesn't mention the loss of the Rivergate nor the prospects of 2400 Canal, a fine example of SOM mid-century modern, which will likely be demolished instead of being adapted to a new use. The Ogden Museum has noticed the and is sponsoring a discussion "At Risk: 20th-Century New Orleans Urban Design and Architecture" February 7 3-5 PM. The museum has previously sponsored exhibitions ReBuilding New Orleans and New Orleans 2oth Century Architecture.

Since Katrina a large number of architects have devoted a lot of talent to developing new housing ideas incorporating the social context and realities of modern life. These ideas have only been built in a few places. One house if being built on the Gulf Coast, Bard Pitt is proposing to build some in his project and Tulane students have built one. Other than that people seem to be content to reproduce the past, poorly.

I am not an architectural historian, nor a New Orleans historian. I am a practicing Architect and long time resident of New Orleans.

New Orleans best architecture has to me, always been the architecture of the people.

The French Quarter is largely French/Spanish colonial forms. Similar to buildings is found throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. The Old Town of San Juan Puerto Rico looks remarkably like New Orleans except for the hills.

The antebellum wood frame Greek Revival houses in the Lower Garden District are local responses, not really seen much anywhere else, except perhaps Charleston, South Carolina where climate and economics were similar..

Creole Cottages, the Katrina Cottages of their day are citified versions of the country homes of small Acadian farmers. Shotguns in single, double and camel back varieties, where the low cost modular housing of the day, designed primarily to achieve the highest density possible. They primarily housed the working class including the waves of post Civil War immigrants.

Even the dominant commercial structures of the CBD often incorporate mass produced elements, such as standardized granite or case iron storefronts.

As New Orleans' economy wound down in the second half of the twentieth century and as outside influence increased building became more individualized and less distinctive.

The last interesting vernacular I can identify is what I call the New Orleans Gentilly bungalow. These houses were usually either built by or for Italian families moving up the economic ladder. They are usually characterized by a buff brick, similar to Italian brick. They often include arches and columns, often serpentine. The interiors frequently incorporated similar architectural features, often ornamental plaster with faux marble finishes.

The last major building wave in seventies and later, when much of the East was built, is generally undistinguished with most of the building imitative of either local historic styles, other historic styles or imitations of contemporary commercial buildings. Little of value was produced.

We are now in the in the greatest building wave since the post war building boom. This wave will set the tone for future construction for years, perhaps decades to come. Unfortunately the initial results are not good. Habitat for Humanity is one of the most prolific builders and they are building to the least common denominator. The other major influence seems to be the modular builders who also seem to be building derivative designs, based on teh preconceptions of the shelter press and the real estate industry.

I have great respect for any Architect who can build a practice on single family houses. I have enormous respect for Architects who can build a practice on relatively modest single family houses. Unfortunately the economic reality is that a single modest house can rarely be both innovative and economically practical for the Architects perspective. It simply takes too much time to develop, document and oversee the constructions of unfamiliar concepts, forms or materials.

There is a apocryphal quote attributed to several well known architects that goes,
Q: What would you do if you had a million dollars?

A: Practice Architecture until it was gone.
I have a friend who is a business consultant to architects. Several years ago he told me that a certain well known Starchitect will only accept a residential commission if the Owner agrees;
  1. The fee will be 22%
  2. The Architect will select and the Owner will purchase all of the furniture.
  3. The Owner should anticipate a construction cost of $700.00 per square foot, but no limit is imposed by contract.
If you do the math that works out to a fee of $152.00 per square foot. It's probably much more now.


rickngentilly said...

me and my wife live in a gentilly terrace cottage.

can you point me to some resources about our neighborhood and our house?

we bought it in 2002 . it was a rental for at least 15 years but it has really good bones.

we had done most of the infra-structure work by katrina and were ready to start the paint and polish work.

instead we had to rewire the house and work two jobs each just to get by.

finally we are back on schedule to start the paint and polish phase.

we are interested in bringing this old gal back to her glory instead of making her look like she belongs in the burbs.

she was born in 1932.


mominem said...

Sorry, I can't help much.

I'd try the PRC, and your neighborhood organization, but I'm not aware of any specific resources.

Most of these houses were built by builders without too much formal planning.