PRINT March 2006


Photomontage of the school in an aerial view taken on August 31, 2005, the third day of flooding.

MVRDV HAS TAKEN a drawing made by a girl in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as the psychological blueprint for a new school to be located in a blighted downtown neighborhood wiped out in the deluge. “She drew this hill with people walking up to the top, escaping from the flood,” the architects write. “It had something religious as well as sentimental to it, but its simplicity was highly appealing. Perhaps we should build and realize her dream.” To this end, they perform a kind of reverse archaeology, embedding an irregular pile of long, rectangular spaces in an artificial landscape. The shapes of the spaces recall the shoebox configuration of the traditional shotgun houses that once filled the quarter, suggesting a metaphorical reuse of detritus. At the same time, they form a reinhabited heap of debris that rises, quite literally in the accompanying images, above the section line drawn by the waters across the city. All of the crucial program elements—classrooms, library, and community center—are situated above sea level: The high ground created by the hill provides refuge from future floods.

These spaces fan out from a wedge-shaped core that opens toward the sky and is roofed by, of all things, a skateboard ramp studded with skylights. The landscape itself is broken by the brightly colored interior volumes, which nose out of the ground like flotsam buried in a dune to form wide verandas overlooking the neighborhood. A sheltered basketball court is cut into the eastern slope, adjacent to a small playground that runs gently down toward the existing grade below. A funicular (so much more fun than an elevator), a lower-level parking garage, and steep paths provide access to the mound and the structures inside, weaving their geometries into the surrounding street grid.

Two views of the school. Left: a basketball court cut into the hill. Right: classroom verandas.

The building is permeated with a sense of whimsy underpinned by an acknowledgment of the terrible events that took place here. MVRDV realizes that “it can look as if we are vultures, going around the world circling above possible disasters to find new commissions,” and has tempered its architecture with a restraint that is somewhat uncharacteristic of the group. The firm’s project, they say, “is landscape, maybe not architecture”—a modest reformulation of a vital piece of local infrastructure, meant both to revitalize a community and serve as a safe haven should the levees ever fail again.*

*All project descriptions were written by Kevin Pratt, an architect based in Philadelphia and a regular contributor to Artforum.

The child’s drawing that inspired MVRDV’s design: A hill saves New Orleanians from the flood.

Top: Computer diagram depicting the spatial distribution of the school complex. A “Sputnik-like” configuration of classrooms and other facilities, the building is largely covered by earth.  Bottom: Two sections of the school-in-the-hill (school program and community/semipublic areas, respectively). The classrooms (blue) are situated around a central common area, while the sports areas (gray)­—skateboard ramp, basketball court, and sloped playground—are on top.

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