PRINT March 2006

Reed Kroloff

New Orleans’s heavily damaged Ninth Ward, January 22, 2006. Photo: AP/Eric Gay.

DESCRIBING THE AFTERMATH of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans is difficult because it involves such a massive scale of destruction. But imagine it this way, and perhaps you’ll get some sense of things.

Let’s assume the town where you live just suffered the same kind of catastrophe. You decide to go for a walk to assess the damage. How bad is it? Well, every house on your street is abandoned. All the trees are dead (even those still standing); so are the bushes, lawns, shrubs, and any other landscaping. The streets around you are littered with debris—furniture, bedding, clothes, large and small appliances, art, books, personal papers. Cars sit in driveways, on sidewalks, in yards, on trees, on top of each other, anywhere and everywhere. They’re covered, inside and out, in a fine layer of silt, and they stink. The streets are covered in the same toxic grime. So are the yards, which makes them look even more dead, almost ghostly. Houses have their windows bashed in, their doors missing, and much of their interiors torn apart. So do stores and offices and schools and hospitals and libraries and fire stations. Every building has a horizontal stripe along its facade at a height ranging from two to eight feet, depending on the area where you’re walking; that line is the flood’s high-water mark.

It looks as if the place has been abandoned for years. But it hasn’t been: People lived here just a few months ago.

You walk and you walk and you walk. Past blocks of empty houses and abandoned businesses and boarded-up stores and churches with broken steeples. You keep on walking, and still the destruction doesn’t stop. It’s there no matter how far you go. Walk for an hour, two hours, three hours. You’re still in it. How far? Well, if you headed east from the western edge of Orleans Parish, you could walk for five or six hours easily and still be in the killing fields. But you’d want to turn back before then, as by 4:00 PM the sun starts to set. And you don’t want to get caught in the part of town (nearly 50 percent) that still doesn’t have electricity or streetlights (or water or gas). These neighborhoods are spooky in the daytime. At night, the absolute darkness is terrifying. There’s nothing out there. No lights. No people. No police. No sound. No horizon. No hope.

How much of New Orleans remains abandoned and uninhabitable? Right now, more than 70 percent. Think about that. What would it be like if you removed the people from two-thirds of your town? Think about Manhattan with no one living below Ninety-sixth Street. Slice most of the peninsula off San Francisco. Go ahead and empty Oakland and Berkeley as well. Throw in Marin County for good measure. If the footprint of New Orleans’s devastation were laid over Washington, DC, the capital would all but vanish.

New Orleans is going to be a mess for a long time. And that’s the context against which any rebuilding will begin. That’s why Artforum, the Netherlands Architecture Institute, and the Tulane School of Architecture commissioned the work you see here. Simply put, this city needs bright visions to contrast with the bleak present that surrounds us. We need to see that there are alternatives to the calamitous inattention (or worse, attention) of the US government. We need inspiration and innovation, glimpses into a promising and expressive future.

Of course, New Orleans has long mined its past for spiritual—and economic—succor. And why not, in the city that invented jazz, perfected Creole cooking, and laced its streets with a breathtaking collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century architecture? Some would have us believe our only future lies in that past. In neighboring Mississippi, the Congress for the New Urbanism, led by the irrepressible Andrés Duany (of Seaside, Florida, fame), recently completed an extensive design charrette to provide guidance to that state, equally hard hit by the storm. The result is a neo-traditional plan book that is quaint and predictable, but also smart and marketable. It pictures the new southern Mississippi as a candy-coated dream version of the old southern Mississippi, the past as prelude, present, and future, thanks very much, and we’ll take a dozen to go.

The New Urbanist Svengalis have now seduced Louisiana’s hapless governor and been given the keys to the state. But the real goal, the very city on which their movement is based, is New Orleans. And until now, no one has offered an alternative to their toothache of a future. The proposals you see here, in the pages that follow, thus inaugurate an important dialogue. They bring fresh new vision to a city waiting to hear that its greatest days are not behind it, that it has an architectural future that will stride confidently beyond its past.

Reed Kroloff is dean of the Tulane University school of architecture.

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