Building boom changes New Orleans cityscape

Building boom sparks battle of old versus new in New Orleans

If you’re paying attention to new architecture and wondering what it says about the emerging look and feel of post-Katrina New Orleans, you may have strong feelings about 930 Poydras.

It’s the massive, jet-black apartment building with the glass room that juts out from the ninth floor and hangs over the sidewalk on the Poydras Street side. Except for that room, the building appears to be a strangely impenetrable monolith, because the rest of the windows are tinted as dark as the walls.

To critics, 930 Poydras is an affront not just to New Orleans’ architectural traditions but to the more conventional towers alongside it, the ones that went up on Poydras during the oil boom of the 1970s and early ’80s.

Not surprisingly, Steve Dumez sees it in a different light.

Far from defying or insulting the New Orleans vernacular, 930 Poydras is, in fact, a respectful salute to the French Quarter, says Dumez, of Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, the New Orleans firm that designed the building. The cantilevered glass box is a reference to the Quarter’s semiprivate courtyards, Dumez explains — remote from the street, but central to the lives of families living behind shuttered cottage fronts.

As the post-Katrina era nears its 10th birthday, New Orleans is in the clutches of a building boom, the biggest in a half-century. From Poydras Street to the Lower 9th Ward and Gert Town, bold statements proliferate, along with more mundane contributions to a city that cherishes its visual heritage.

Whether the new stuff will enhance or undermine that heritage is the question of the hour. It’s a source of sometimes rancorous debate and sometimes fanciful rationalizations.

Recipe for a ‘secret sauce’

Linking 930 Poydras to the French Quarter may seem like a stretch, even to fans of the building, of which there are more than a few. For them, the architectural experience is its own reward. From the Poydras Street entrance, centered in a row of ground-floor shops and eateries, elevators whisk you past multilevel parking to the glass room jutting out from the ninth floor. It turns out to be an airy lobby for the 250 apartments that occupy the upper floors of the 21-story building.

“It acts as a social mixer,” Dumez says, “a shared space” that includes a coffee bar and TV lounge adjacent to a terrace and swimming pool surrounded by tiered decks. Dumez contrasts the friendly, offbeat lobby with the sharply limited social experience offered by most high-rise buildings: an awkward elevator ride with everybody staring silently at the carpet.

“Our philosophy is that a building has to be of its place but also of its time,” Dumez says.

Hotelier and developer Sean Cummings agrees. That delicate blend — fresh design that is nonetheless respectful of the surrounding architectural context — is the “secret sauce” for successful additions to the cityscape, Cummings argues.

Radical innovation may be a thumb in the eye of a city that has made a religion of preservation. But simply knocking off reproductions of old buildings, however beautiful, fails the timeliness test.

Architect Steven Bingler, head of the Concordia firm, calls the knockoffs “phony colonial.” And he sees plenty of them in New Orleans, not least in the made-over public housing projects. Still, Bingler is not wild about 930 Poydras. It’s a clever building, he concedes, but one more apt to impress architects than the general public, a constituency he says his profession too often ignores.

Biomedical brouhaha

Nine-thirty Poydras is just one new building in a city that suddenly has lots of them.

The cluster of houses sponsored in the Lower 9th Ward by actor Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation — now more than 90 in number, with another 60 on the way — includes some daring designs by world-famous architects. That might seem to betray tradition in a neighborhood where shotguns and slab-on-grade ranch houses once abounded. But the Make It Right neighborhood coheres visually in several ways.

For one thing, the one-house-per-lot scale reflects the layout of the community the residents loved and lost. For another, the devastation was so complete that there aren’t a lot of old shotguns and cottages left to clash with their bold new replacements. And the new buildings are not ignorant of history. In their unusual elevation, they make reference not to the distant past but to the memory of the recent disaster.

The billion-dollar biomedical complex rising on the lake side of South Claiborne Avenue dwarfs even Make It Right’s ambitious multi-block effort. Two hospitals sprawl over a campus of nearly 70 acres combined, and their prominent place alongside a tangle of elevated highways at the heart of the city makes them, to date, the defining addition to the post-Katrina skyline.

The designers contend they are creating up-to-the-minute architecture that nods to the New Orleans vernacular. But this time the secret sauce has made for a bit of indigestion.

The complex’s key components — the Veterans Affairs Department’s new hospital and the University Medical Center that has replaced Charity Hospital — could be going up anywhere in America, and more likely in a suburb than a city, Bingler says. And the vertical window slits, a motif carried across several of the structures, are more evocative of a prison than a place to get well, he adds.

Eric Hanson, a project manager with NBBJ, the Seattle-based lead architecture firm, sharply disagrees. The verticality of the glazing is in fact a salute to the tall windows and French doors characteristic of New Orleans homes, Hanson says, and the syncopated rhythm of the windows echoes the eclectic look of older buildings in the area.

Another New Orleans touch that pleases Hanson: The open-air decks on the ends of the three towers that face Canal Street bring to mind traditional New Orleans galleries — though the reference can be hard to spot, given that the decks are screened.

Connecting concourse

Dr. Stephanie Repasky, associate director of the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System, spoke up for the VA’s part of the complex. She said the design was developed through countless meetings with community and veterans groups. The overarching message from the vets: “It’s a big campus; don’t let us get lost.” The architectural response is a concourse that runs the length of the complex, integrating its component buildings, “much like an airport,” Repasky said.

But that’s precisely the problem, says Roberta Gratz, who is finishing a book on the city’s post-Katrina recovery. With its concourses, garages and acres of surface-level parking, she sees the biomedical corridor as a throwback to one of the more disastrous movements in the recent history of American cities: “urban renewal,” the mid-20th-century enthusiasm for gouging out cities’ hearts in the name of slum clearance and related “improvements.” The elevated interstate through Treme is scar tissue from that period, as are the parking lots off South Rampart, now giving way to the South Market District development.

What makes the biomedical corridor reminiscent of urban renewal is not just that a swath of vintage New Orleans housing was bulldozed to make way for it. Insult was added to injury, critics contend, by the creation of “super blocks” that interrupt portions of the area’s street grid.

The irony is that one of the key principles in reconfiguring public housing after Katrina was to restore the original street grid, preservationist Sandra Stokes points out. Cutting the old projects off from the flow of city traffic had made them more isolated and more stigmatizing. And now the street grid is being destroyed all over again, says Stokes, a vice president of the Louisiana Landmarks Society and a leader in the unsuccessful battle to reopen the old Charity Hospital and center the biomedical district around it.

Hanson replies that amalgamated blocks are few in number and most streets remain intact.

On the riverfront

Cummings, the hotelier and developer, lives in a historic mansion near the foot of Esplanade Avenue and has favored adaptive reuse of old buildings in some of his commercial developments, among them the Rice Mill apartments on the Bywater riverfront.

But Cummings is also a connoisseur of bold architecture. While in charge of the redevelopment of municipal property for the Nagin administration, he dreamed of studding the riverfront with work by globally significant masters, or “starchitects” — a double-edged term that gets at their egotism as well as their talent. A soaring Calatrava performance space was one piece of Cummings’ vision. An equally striking replacement for the World Trade Center would have been another.

In mustering opposition that lowered the height of towers initially proposed as part of a condo cluster in Holy Cross, one neighborhood recently served notice that the debate over what happens along the Mississippi is going to be contentious.

Many of the riverfront projects proposed since Katrina are moribund or still in limbo. One exception is Crescent Park, the green space and walkway that runs along the batture from Poland Avenue to Elysian Fields, not quite connecting with the French Quarter’s Moonwalk. Under Cummings’ direction, Eskew+Dumez+Ripple had a big hand in that project, as did Hargreaves Associates, a Massachusetts-based landscaping firm.

As it opened in February, Crescent Park was hailed for having made ingenious use of a narrow, 1.4-mile-long strip of land wedged between railroad tracks and the river. Bywater residents are generally delighted to have gained access to this extensive swath of waterfront, though some carp about the steep hike over the distinctive pedestrian bridge — a.k.a. “The Rusty Rainbow” — that arcs up over the floodwall and railroad tracks at Piety Street.

Designed by the Tanzanian-born, Washington, D.C.-based architect David Adjaye, the bridge also has been faulted for the view-blocking height of its walls. Art critic Doug MacCash has proposed a simple solution: Cut portholes in them.

“It’s new, but instantly familiar,” says Cummings, reflecting on the way the Crescent Park team came up with something fresh while also preserving relics of the waterfront’s industrial glory days, including a burned-out wharf.

Balancing act

The same balancing act was attempted by the South Market District development taking shape along South Rampart Street. There, the visual reference is to the Warehouse District, rather than riverfront wharves or the sky-high French Quarter courtyard at 930 Poydras. But the general consensus seems to be that while South Market District’s mix of ground-floor retail space and upstairs residential units is commendable, the faux warehouses are visually bland.

Similarly unfavorable descriptives are frequently lobbed at the hodgepodge of rental units strewn along Interstate 10 as it cuts through New Orleans East. In fairness, these are less products of architectural imagination than of tax incentives and other giveaways aimed at luring developers into hasty creation of affordable post-Katrina housing.

Speed was of the essence, which seemed to rule out more thoughtful or imaginative ideas that had been bandied about. Taller buildings with smaller footprints might have made more sense in a flood plain. As at 930 Poydras, lower floors could have been used for parking, ensuring that the residential units above would be out of harm’s way come the next flood.

Working with water

Elsewhere across the city, the flood threat has been taken more seriously. The elevated Make It Right houses are only one response. As Bingler notes, the most consequential construction since Katrina is not usually thought of as architecture at all: the levee system and the reworking of the city’s vast web of subterranean stormwater conduits.

These infrastructure upgrades eclipse even the biomedical complex in size and cost. Good, bad or otherwise, the building boom gathering momentum citywide is predicated on faith that — this time, anyway — the Corps of Engineers has got it right.

But has it? And can mitigating flood threat be left entirely to the Corps? The link between water management and architecture has become an obsession and a source of fascination for David Waggonner, of the architecture firm Waggonner and Ball.

Repeated trips to the Netherlands since 2005 have given Waggonner an appreciation of that low-lying nation’s very different approach to flood control. Following their Katrina moment, in 1953, the Dutch came to realize that walling off water behind levees and floodgates was futile. Instead, they learned to work with the water, controlling its influx into canals and low-lying tracts by means of leaky levees and more finely tuned gates.

Under the water management master plan developed by Waggonner in association with the Corps and university scientists, Bayou St. John is being reconnected to Lake Pontchartrain and, via the Lafitte Greenway, all the way to Armstrong Park on the edge of the French Quarter.

A New Orleans that’s more moist is also less prone to another force that bedevils the city almost as much as the flood threat: subsidence of the increasingly desiccated sediment on which the New Orleans stands — the reason roads and house foundations crack, buckle and need constant shoring.

The challenge is not limited to macro-environmental projects like Bayou St. John or the use of green space for retention ponds when rainfall exceeds the capacity of the city’s pumping system. The Dutch model extends to roofing canals, and even houses, with absorbent and well-vegetated sod.

Elements of the new thinking are reflected in the city’s long-awaited new comprehensive zoning ordinance, apparently finally near approval. A particular focus of concern is the illegal, but widespread, practice of turning front and side yards into paved parking spaces. The zoning ordinance supports maximizing the porosity of yards, courtyards and street sidings to soak up rain rather than shunt it onto adjacent properties.

Not yet completed, the building at Lee Circle that Waggonner’s firm has designed as a new headquarters for the Greater New Orleans Foundation will have an absorptive interior courtyard to minimize runoff.

Xavier chapel draws praise

Kvetching about one another’s work may be an occupational trait among architects, but there is at least one post-Katrina building that seems to have engendered near-universal admiration: Xavier University’s St. Katharine Drexel Chapel.

It was designed by Cesar Pelli, the Argentine-born superstar whose oeuvre includes the linked Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for a time the tallest buildings on the planet.

By contrast, the Xavier chapel, an 11,000-square-foot-structure with seats for 450 people, is a serene and simple convergence of limestone blocks and natural light, filtered by a chancel screen. The screen envelops the entire ceiling of the sky-lit central space, rather than dividing congregation from clergy, a chancel screen’s traditional function.

The chapel does not reiterate the neo-Gothic motif that integrates many other buildings on the Xavier campus. Its octagonal rooms are rooted in an even older tradition of religious architecture, according to Kenneth St. Charles, Xavier’s vice president for institutional advancement, and its uplifting spiritual function is apparent both from the lawns and walkways of the campus and from the nearby elevated interstate.

Pelli was personally involved in every step of the design process, St. Charles says. On a first visit to Pelli’s studio, across from the campus of Yale University, Xavier President Norman Francis and his associates were encouraged to choose from among dozens of small clay mock-ups of building shapes that Pelli thought might suit the university’s purposes. These were quickly narrowed down to three, which were developed in greater detail, eventually leading to the final choice: an octagonal chapel, with an octagonal meditation room and garden beneath the building’s bell tower.

The copper sheathing on the roof of the building, now dark brown, will weather over several years to the deep green seen elsewhere on the campus. Some of the chapel’s numerous private donors urged that the roof be painted green from the outset or treated with chemicals to hasten the weathering process, St. Charles said. But Pelli resisted. He reasoned that the natural maturation of the copper sheathing was appropriate to a university campus, a place where students themselves grow and change over time.

That Pelli attended to every detail and knew the answer to every question prompted the Xavier team to give him “more flexibility than any other architect we’ve ever worked with,” St. Charles said.

The result is spiritually uplifting architecture that is also a meditation on the relationship between tradition and architecture’s cutting edge.

The chapel cost about $10 million. Pelli also has been involved in a far larger local project, the $650 million terminal planned at Louis Armstrong International Airport. Renderings of the building suggest that this will be a flashy, space-age confection unconstrained by visual references to the historic city that owns the airport.

Exclamation point

It’s probably too early to pass final judgment on what, if anything, the post-Katrina building boom will do to the overall look of the city. The ranks of office and hotel towers in the Central Business District were the upshot of the 1970s oil boom. Along with the biomedical corridor, will residential towers on the riverfront emerge as one of Katrina’s visual legacies? Too many big projects are still in the formative stage, not least plans for the World Trade Center building.

The Landrieu administration, like Cummings and other fans of high-profile architecture, wants redevelopment of the WTC to lead to something “iconic” — a project worthy of the city’s impending tricentennial, an architectural exclamation point where Canal and Poydras streets meet the river.

To Gratz, that’s a ridiculous ambition. You don’t need another “icon” in a city like New Orleans, she says. “The city itself is an icon.”

Jed Horne is news editor of The Lens, a nonprofit digital newsroom. His books include “Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City.”