16 June 2013


New Orleans- Doug Joyce Photo

A few thoughts about a place that helped to form my urban design philosophy.

I have just returned from New Orleans, a place filled with character, and with a distinct climate in early June. Hot. Muggy. Always a chance of rain. The climate bears down on the buildings and infrastructure, and things are in a constant state of decay and renewal.

Its people tend to prefer buildings that play along with the agreed upon architectural style, but there has always been some room for the adventurous and creative. Alas, there has also been an element of the crass and carelessly expeditious. Things decay, and sometimes they are blown away, and they are lovingly brought back, or stuck together with plywood and caulk and painted chartreuse to honor Mardi Gras.

New Orleans is a City without a direct place to compare it to. It has justifiably been compared to a Caribbean City, but it has some distinctly American qualities. Its vulnerable geography and climate mixed with its intricate cultural melange give it its mystic qualities. For every observation you can make about it, there is a corollary to contradict.

It makes for an interesting backdrop to practice architecture, for the city takes what the architect does and introduces it into an exaggerated cycle of entropy and rejuvenation. The large bodies of water, the Mississippi River, and Lake Ponchartrain make their presence known. The linked neighborhoods and districts, tied together along the profile of the river, creates a series of processional experiences that help to make the place entirely agreeable to walk or slowly move through on bike or streetcar, despite the sometimes difficult climate. There is always interest along the way.

For all the great architecture there, the city swallows up its buildings. From the shotgun double, to the Make it Right houses, to the Superdome, to the Pontalba. It swallows them up for all the reasons I just gave and more. All these buildings, in their faded glory, in their state of decay, are part of the great processional experience of the city. They participate, along with the oak lined streets, in the great public procession. The space flows from one thing to the next, breaking into the great public places, in that ongoing and always changing, yet seemingly eternal flow through the place. The buildings stand as a backdrop to the culture, the music, the celebration of eating. They are very important, but they pale to the experience of moving through this alive environment. Offer up your ego, your architecture; the city will take it and turn it into a part of its gumbo.

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