Film star turned aspiring architect tries to Make It Right in New Orleans with disappointing results
Housing construction decline is everywhere, and everyone is desperate for a good news story. But even so, it seems odd that there should be so much praise given to a US project that has constructed a mere 50 houses in five years. That’s about 40 people being housed every 12 months. The fact that this paltry new-build statistic relates to New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, the city region most devastated by Hurricane Katrina, makes it even more tragic.
It was here in 2005 that some 4,000 people lost their homes, and, at this rate, the last person will be rehoused in a hundred years’ time. Maybe this project is celebrated because it makes the official US construction statistics look dynamic by comparison: just 471,000 single-family homes were started in 2009, representing a mere one third of those that were erected way back in 1978.
The Make it Right Foundation is headed by actor Brad Pitt. He is the man regularly referenced in the press as Frank Gehry’s acolyte and is the architectural dynamo responsible. He founded Make It Right in December 2006 to build a total of 150 affordable homes and he’s one-third of the way there. Calling in favours from friends − and those wanting to be friends − Pitt has commissioned a ragtag army of starchitects to design large family homes that will also be ‘green’ and ‘storm resistant’.
They are also described as safe and healthy homes inspired by William McDonough’s ubiquitous ‘Cradle to Cradle’ brand. Each house is based on the traditional shotgun layout: narrow, deep houses, although instead of linking one room to the next, these modern versions have been provided with corridor separation between rooms.
Brad Pitt tries to make it right in New Orleans with plans for 150 affordable homes
Adjaye Associates, Gehry Partners, Shigeru Ban and Kieran Timberlake are among the many big names pledging their support. Adjaye has three schemes on site, each a development from the one before, seemingly using the site as an experimental playground in order to learn from elementary mistakes in the previous layout. The architects sketch a notional design for the plot and hand it over to local builders to make it work (as distinct from: make it right). As a result they are poorly detailed, with flashings nailed to timber upstands, waterspouts discharging onto enclosed staircases, minimal threshold and cills, and high maintenance exteriors. Throughout, the detailing is shoddy but cunningly disguised by the quirky architecture.
The Lower Ninth Ward’s housing development was set aside for returning black servicemen after the Second World War. It was the first time that black people were allowed to own their own homes and to pass them down through their families. Rather than being created as a ghetto (as it is regularly portrayed), its origins were, in fact, reasonably enlightened. While Pitt’s laudable ambition has been to recreate that sense of community, it is he who seems to have created the ghetto, albeit an attractive one.
This is because each home is an individual ark. The central focus of the house is the rooftop refuge: a flat-roof designed to be above the worst-case water level. Here people can stand safely waving to emergency helicopters, rather than balancing precariously on pitched roofs as they did back in the day.
This project − this architecture − is based on an explicit paranoia about the environment. In the past, New Orleans was known as ‘an inevitable city on an impossible site’, summing up the desire to transform a location fraught with natural hazards into a place of tremendous urban potential. However, these homes are the opposite. Rather than being a project premised on a new generation of infrastructural flood defences that will preserve and protect the entire community, each I’m-All-Right-Jack house will preserve the lives of individual homeowners.
Thom Mayne’s Floating House admirably sums up the concept. This is a community of Noahs. Conceptually, these homes are more indicative of hurried emergency dwellings than the dawdling programme of works on display here. In one sense, at least someone is doing something, but it is symptomatic of the inadequate housing ambitions at federal and national government level that it has been left to a celebrity’s whim to construct these fetishistic homes.
Learn more about the AIA’s housing debate in a view from New Orleans