we held our most recent Reinvention design symposium in New Orleans. Reinvention always kicks off with a tour of local housing, typically the best and the brightest a town has to offer. I knew when planning the trip that we would have to go see the houses of Make It Right.
I also knew the stop would spark controversy. But to avoid the project and the discussion that naturally ensues is alien to the basic nature of this magazine. We try not to shy away from tough questions.
And Make It Right presents a tough question indeed. One that strikes at the very nerve of architects’ perception of themselves and the public’s view of the services they provide. Some architects on the tour thought the houses were the ultimate “emperor has no clothes” revelation of the design profession’s self-absorption. Why on earth, they asked, would architects impose such bizarre design solutions on the victims of one of this country’s worst natural disasters?
I have to admit, with apologies to our host for the tour, that I shared this impression of the project before I visited it. I thought it potentially damaging to the architectural profession—a high-profile example of architects out of touch with ordinary people’s needs and wants.
But after touring the project and learning more about how it works, I began to soften my opinion. Make It Right doesn’t foist crazy architect designs on owners of Lower Ninth Ward lots; the owners are free to build anything they want on land they own. What the foundation does offer is steeply subsidized LEED construction and a choice of plans by nationally known and locally grown architects. It’s frankly no surprise many residents are taking the deal—and it’s a pretty good one at that. A shrewd investor might wager the houses will appreciate faster than other, more lackluster efforts. No matter what the potential market value of the homes is, the subsidies will translate as equity when the time comes to sell.
The deeper question of whether owners of the Brad Pitt houses are being twice victimized—once by the storm and once by hypermodern design—is worth considering. But there may be no immediate answer—not until residents live in the houses for a long stretch and can speak for themselves about how the spaces feel and how they function. Yes, it’s patronizing for architects to believe they know best how their clients should live, but it’s equally patronizing to posit that poor people can’t understand or enjoy progressive design. Especially when their new homes cost $30 a month in power bills instead of $200. Love it or hate it, this collection of houses adds to the interesting fabric of New Orleans—perhaps as notably as San Francisco’s Painted Ladies. No doubt architectural historians will parse merits in the future.
In this issue, we address subsequent architectural efforts at disaster housing. And many of the same debates arose about whether high design has any place at all when the need for function is so acute. But to me, that’s like asking when your heart is failing if you still need a soul.
Also with this issue, we launch our new partnership with The American Institute of Architects. You’ll find their section tailored just for you on pages 15–17. We welcome their attention to residential practitioners and look forward to a fruitful collaboration on your concerns.
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