PRINT December 2005


AFTER THE GREAT FIRE OF 1666, England’s leading architect, Sir Christopher Wren, made a plan for rebuilding London. Adopting a style fashionable in Europe, he proposed cutting across the city’s medieval fabric with broad diagonal avenues that would meet at Rond-Points—a pattern already found on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles and used again in L’Enfant’s Washington. Architects ever since have expressed outrage that Wren’s plan was not undertaken, but historians point out that the English monarch at the time lacked the power of a Louis XIV and could not stand against the vested interests of property owners and trade institutions—against the “stakeholders,” as we would call them now. After all, Wren’s plan would have been vastly out of character with both the London of his day and the city squares and town houses of the Georgian era, which provide perhaps our most pervasive image of the city today. This London was built largely by developers.

Is London’s response to urban disaster worth studying as we consider the options for New Orleans? Even if this example and others from history can provide no concrete solutions, they may speed our discovery of the right questions. And time is of the essence because billions of dollars are being spent on disaster relief. With some thought, this money, while addressing present emergencies, could be turned toward the future as well. The need now is for good ideas—for proposals more realistic than Wren’s yet strong enough to confront an unprecedented disaster. For in the wake of Katrina, New Orleans faces problems that challenge all our ideas of urbanism, from the tragic destruction of life and expectations to social dissolution and the breakdown of government control. Planners, who understand the city as a set of systems, have seen those systems come apart: Topography went first, as the flood produced a new water datum, in places ten feet and more above the former ground level; then the infrastructure of transportation and utilities, the local and regional economy, the uniquely vibrant culture, and the myriad patterns and associations of citizens were drowned or dispersed. After Katrina, architects who knew the city for its Vieux Carré and Jackson Square saw only broken building parts, overturned autos, uprooted trees, shards, driftwood, and mounds of splintered planks. And four months later, the urgent requirements of resettlement still collide with ongoing measures for cleanup and danger from the natural environment remains. Stopgap mending of levees has left the flood peril far from contained. It’s as if the fire in London could at any moment flare up again.

“Vision versus expediency?” should be an early question to ask in the rebuilding of New Orleans. In London after the fire, it was expediency that took over. To take another example, as World War II concluded, but well before the last bombs fell, plans were again initiated to rebuild the city: Official or unofficial, these were high on vision. For instance, the M.A.R.S. Plan for London (1942)—proposed by a team of architectural visionaries that included Berthold Lubetkin, Arthur Korn, Erno Goldfinger, FRS Yorke, Maxwell Fry, Denys Lasdun, and, briefly, Walter Gropius—revolved around a concept that was, like Wren’s, in line with avant-garde thinking on the continent: London was to become a “linear city,” built tightly along new lines of transit strung out from a central urban spine along the River Thames. This effort, no more realistic than Wren’s, ultimately had no effect on the city’s reconstruction (though it probably influenced the postwar rail-based suburbanism of Scandinavia). Implemented instead was the Greater London Plan, the outcome of work by lawyers and regional planners who were, variously, consultants to the London County Council, members of government-appointed commissions, or civil servants in government agencies and development corporations. Their proposals were based on the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century idea of the garden city, which was originally conceived to counter the massive urbanization of the Industrial Revolution. Postwar legislation would move bombed-out citizens to a ring of satellite cities built beyond a mandatory greenbelt encircling London. By intention, these communities were located too far from the “Big Wen” (a nickname for the London conurbation) to become its dormitory suburbs, and each city was planned to have its own economic base. The results would have to be parsed over decades: The displaced East Enders who were moved to the countryside suffered hardship, their social and support patterns broken by this intrusion of middle-class values about green space. At the same time, the visionary greenbelt sent rents in London skyrocketing and kept them there. (If, within the city today, a pound behaves like a dollar but costs two dollars, one reason is the greenbelt.) Significantly, this planners’ vision of what urban life should be was backed by the fiat of a socialist government. While the vision was probably shared by a majority of English people, and they perhaps happily paid higher prices to keep their countryside green, I don’t believe the question was put to the vote. Yet subsequent generations were served well by the new cities. Why shouldn’t they have been? The garden-city pattern is enjoyed by suburbanites everywhere; and how different, in the end, were the new English towns from that archetype of suburbia, Levittown?

As for the inner city, its architecture was no better than a society still suffering from austerity and the hardships of war could manage. Within London itself, proposals ranged from thoughtful ideas for housing on irregular bomb sites to wholesale urban renewal similar to that found in American downtowns in the 1950s and ’60s. The general run of London public housing (“council housing”), built to resettle the bombed areas, was ordinary, sensible, and honorable. But here, as after the fire, existing patterns and interests restricted wild-eyed visions: The first rebuilding took place largely within the existing street pattern. Medieval property rights—including such concepts as ancient lights and rights-of-way—were preserved, sometimes over cleared bomb sites, and, pushed by urgent need, private developers swung into action and gross commercial projects quickly ensued. Where architects prevailed—for example, in the bombed areas around St. Paul’s Cathedral—high-design urban renewal projects were constructed. However, these too were built only as the times afforded, and they were ill-received (some were later described by Prince Charles as having done more harm to London than had the Luftwaffe).

And so London immediately following World War II offers New Orleans a range of object lessons, from the government-mandated greenbelt and rehousing programs to private commercial development at the center and guidance through the exertion of building and planning controls over the broader city and region. Cities took diverse approaches to rebuilding after the war. In Rotterdam, for example, the Dutch were already accustomed to strong government action in the building of dikes. After the destruction of the port and industrial city, businesses accepted the appropriation of private-property rights in bombed areas and the allocation of new rights within replanned industrial and commercial districts. The resulting construction was modest, perhaps dull, but, again, arguably the best that could be managed at the time. This particular example might cause New Orleans to consider whether the government’s strong directives and involvement encouraged or restricted the establishing of a rich base for the future—or whether, in bad times, a low-vitality environment can be arrived at by either private speciousness or government banality.

But then there is Tokyo, which could be said to rest at the far end of the spectrum of government action from Rotterdam, on the lunatic fringe of private pragmatism. In the 1950s, the city’s vast center was rebuilt along property lines whose dimensions derived from the span of wooden rafters over wooden houses. The result has been a higgledy-piggledy urbanism that, depending on one’s philosophy, is the ultimate in exuberance or the final word in bad taste. Tokyo’s famous pencil or eel buildings—office buildings sometimes twelve stories high but only twelve feet wide—derive from this condition. So do the juxtapositions between such buildings and later developments, of occasionally overpowering scale, flush beside them. Did this ad hoc rebuilding process allow for a more vital Tokyo than an orderly plan might have?

This seems to be a crucial question for New Orleans as it rebuilds, given the famed spontaneity and lively cultural heritage that earned the city its “Big Easy” nickname. I believe that, like post-fire London and postwar Tokyo, New Orleans will do what it will do. Expediency will prevail. But the scale will not be atomistic. On the one hand, developers and corporations are already descending on the area, with city and state governments courting the opportunities they offer. And while we won’t see corporate commercial rebuilding at the scale of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, for example—or not just yet, because the urban economy, indeed the whole society, is too depleted for that—pencil buildings will not spring up on the sites of former single-family houses, either. On the other hand, the need to condemn and demolish an estimated one-quarter of the houses in the city, and the absolute requirement to protect from floods will, like it or not, mandate a greenbelt- or Versailles-scale of thought and control to deal with select areas and problems.

One might ask what the appropriate scale of rebuilding for local and regional government and private organizations will be. Can New Orleans manage the span from private pragmatism to government fiat called for? Required now, anterior to large-scale rebuilding, is holistic thought on methods and concepts for realistic environmental protection. If courage is needed, it’s the courage not to rebuild the levees as they were (thus courting the same risks), but to think strategically about hurricane levels, to evolve new standards for protection against them, and to set out the land-use coefficients of such standards. An understanding of the meaning of a “500-year flood” should be encouraged in the population. It means there is a 1 in 500 chance of seeing one this year—and next year, too.

Of course, American cities and their state- and federal-support systems have their own ways of procuring urban infrastructure, and New Orleans is following these now to mend roads and patch up levees—but discontinuities, and worse, in such methods are what lay behind the tragedy of the flood. So change in methods will be required to allow sophisticated protections at a regional scale to be evolved, and to enable the powers of federal government to be brought to bear urgently on coordinating, financing, and constructing them. However the political unpopularity of flood-control legislation remains a factor. No one wants floodplains and floodways declared, and no one wants their boundaries moved inland (until, that is, thousands are killed).

For those who ask, “Why rebuild, given the peril of floods?” the answer, I believe, is that the city’s strategic location forces the decision. There is no alternative to reconstructing a great port here. Houston, Miami, and Memphis might pinch hit for a while, but none can provide New Orleans’s strategic connectivity. From its central saucer on the Gulf at the foot of the Mississippi, this city controls more relationships between the United States and the world than most Americans could have imagined. It is still great, still central to us. The renewed city will be modest and based on expedients ready to hand. It will attempt to survive on what remains of the economy; the first starts will be weak, and, as people return to neighborhoods where topography caused least damage, we can see the direction they will take. In the near future, however, the parts of the destroyed city system that support the regional and national economy, those having to do with the oil industry and the port, will have to be put back.

But will they be set up in the American way, with little reference to each other—transportation planning being disconnected from land-use planning, for example, and the whole organized with greater reference to outlying areas than to the city? In the wake of events that altered the most basic relationships among the local, regional, national, and global, would it be too much to hope that the American revulsion to regional planning will be overcome enough to allow the economy of the broader region to support the cultural life of the Big Easy? (And if Eastern cities and Los Angeles are learning to help their historic cities and downtowns survive by tapping broader markets in the region, can metropolitan New Orleans do the same?) Rebuilding selectively, or at some distance, or reforming the landscape before rebuilding the city, are possibilities. But something will happen in this place, even if it takes years. And geography and economics, not planners or politicians, will determine the results.

As for the people, many will leave, but some will stay, and the questions of how to produce housing for them remains. The trailer houses already provided will suffice only in the short run. I suspect that the housing problem will be solved, US-fashion, via developers, merchant builders, and the manipulation of interest and subsidy rates. Direct payments to people, not a usual method of government (there is no patronage there), may be needed in this case, if many are to establish their lives away from New Orleans. Government can’t build housing for dispersing people, but it can help them to relocate by providing housing payments and work incentives elsewhere.

But the unique New Orleans culture, having migrated with the city’s inhabitants, may not return. While the city’s scene will reassert itself at a level the new New Orleans can support, a minimum density will be required to maintain its intense, private- sector zaniness (long an important draw for tourists and others). The fact that the patterns are now broken, or have gone to Texas or Pennsylvania with the people who purveyed them, might be a permanent condition. Which raises another issue: In the past, broad population movements caused by war, famine, and oppression—migrations from Eastern Europe or Italy for example—have pervasively influenced the culture of the US. And, within the country, earlier dispersions via the Mississippi helped to convey African-American music and culture and southern industrial and business know-how down the river to the world. What spreading of skills and cultures will be traced out in years to come from Katrina’s enforced decamping?

New Orleans today offers an appropriate place and time to reconsider the role of government in urban life. The deadly lack of coordination between levels of government evinced during the emergency should be understood for what it was—a failure of will. In the US today, few people see government as a resource for the nation. Although we may understand how this skepticism developed, we should consider whether it can now be reassessed. Such reassessments occurred during the Great Depression and again with the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, when government, especially federal government, defined itself as a friend of the poor and a safety net in times of danger. But the pendulum swung in the 1970s, and today even Democrats question the role of big government—especially if it is in the hands of Republicans. Yet New Orleans shows that, when great forces hit, when needs are supraregional or beyond the means of state and local government, federal planning and action are needed.

And Katrina calls on architects, environmentalists, and planners to rethink. The severity of the disaster forces on us an altered logic in our conceptions of the city and of our relationships and roles vis-à-vis each other and the society. Few of us are accustomed to considering the city as a broad economic and environmental region, or to studying it as a series of overlapping systems and disciplines of thought. We follow our own interests—architects in the physical and the aesthetic, environmentalists in the natural, and planners in the political and procedural. Planners in particular tend to deal in two dimensions, to consider the city as a “spatial economy” and a series of patterns. Katrina showed that they must learn to understand the third urban dimension in order to save lives, because in some situations topography is death. Planners should make common cause with environmentalists in conceptualizing the vertical dimension of urban topography, and architects and landscape architects must help, because they have been trained to think in section as well as plan.

There are many roles for the design professional in the aftermath of this catastrophe, from working on rebuilding in the private and public sectors to helping city and regional agencies deal with emergency planning and long-term strategizing. Right now, government needs help in considering how the billions urgently allocated for rescue and clearance can be used to head, as well, toward rational replanning. As we speak, developers are acquiring land and forming architectural teams. How will the agencies, while still reacting to emergencies, stay on top of the fast-moving private sector? And the roles for us include the one I’m now fulfilling—raising the questions.

If, like our European confreres, we are to think joyously of the future New Orleans while urgent conditions still prevail, then our views must shift. Rather than fret over Wren’s plan, we must enter into the muck of cleanup and development and the murk of governmental operations. Our aim should be to help New Orleans do what it will do, but in the best way possible. And we can do this only through cultivating a loving understanding of the mess. We need a measured, realist approach, while recognizing that, even by the criteria of realism, we will have to be, in some sense, visionary too. This is what history tells us.

Denise Scott Brown is an architect and urban planner, and a principal in the firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, of Philadelphia.