rebuilding a more modern new orleans

The announcement of the competition's winners in April coincided with the launch of New Designs New Orleans, a nonprofit that will focus on rebuilding communities locally and around the Gulf Coast. The development organization was co-founded by Gerry Billes and Jeanne Souders, an associate at the firm and co-manager of the design competition. Souders also is principal at Billes' product design division, Billes Products. Through New Designs New Orleans, Billes Architecture plans to actually build some of the winning house designs through partnerships with other organizations. However, the firm has not yet decided which of the designs it will build first; it may depend on the organization with which New Designs New Orleans partners.

Billes would like to see the city's architecture move in a modern direction, with a greater focus on affordability and sustainability—particularly in areas hit hardest by the hurricane. Although modern sensibilities aren't often associated with cities as architecturally unique as New Orleans, the success of the high-profile Make It Right project—which draws on designs that are mostly modern takes on vernacular architecture—has shown how attractive, livable, and complementary to existing aesthetics modern design can be.

In Billes' experience, most developers involved in post-Katrina rebuilding have little interest in modern design and mostly want to match the style of new housing to the style of the neighborhood, but he reminds them, "There is no neighborhood, now.

"I'm not against preservation; I was and still am a preservationist," Billes continues. "But in these areas that have been devastated you almost have a clean slate, in a way, to use that ground for new thinking, for sustainable design, for modern design, and I think that's a great opportunity. And we haven't taken advantage of it as much as we should."

The architectural makeup of New Orleans' residential sections will most certainly change, simply because of the new building and flood-level requirements, but Billes thinks the stage is set for modern design to win converts among local residents.

"People are used to living in certain types of houses, and I think that's why an awful lot of the Greek Revival or Victorian styles have been so popular," Billes says. "That doesn't mean they wouldn't like a modern building—that's just what they're used to. The more these modern designs come online, the more acceptable they're going to be to a general population."

For more on reconstruction efforts in New Orleans, see residential architect's August 2007 issue.