Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Making It Right (at our house and in the Lower 9)

I am oh-so proud to report that I have accomplished what I was afraid I'd never, ever accomplish: I've settled on a floorplan! As our historic consultant pointed out (during my long phase of obsessive floorplan-drawing), any shotgun house requires compromises in the floorplan, especially when you are trying to preserve the historic fabric of the home. Our compromise was that we couldn't get the kitchen in the back (where we'd initially wanted it) without creating a "useless" room up front (a "formal" dining room that would likely never get used.) So, the kitchen will be in the second room, dining in the first, a reading room/study will go next to the dining room, separated by a chimney, and the rear of the house (on the south side) will be comprised of a large "family room" with french doors onto the rear porch.

This weekend, we had an exciting meeting with Tracy Nelson (Gulf Coast Coordinator for Architecture for Humanity and a historic preservationist). We toured our home together and she schooled us in all kinds of interesting facts about our home. She thinks it's a great house (as does everyone who' s seen it, which makes us feel way better about making the sometimes-scary decision to buy in the Lower Ninth Ward). She oohed and aahed over its plaster walls (in the un-gutted right side,) its bead-board ceiling in the rear porch, which she said is likely original to the house, its ornate mantels and Eastlake doors, and the remnants of the wallpaper, which we discovered was backed by issues of the Times-Picayune dating back to 1927! Meeting with her made us realize just how lucky we are to own a house that's more than 100 years old, and made us think about doing right by the house in our renovation. So as we move forward, we will need to find ways of modernizing it to our standards that will simultaneously honor the home's history.

Speaking of homes and of "doing right," another exciting "visit" to our neighborhood this week came in the form of a press conference for Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation. The foundation hosted a party last night to celebrate the launching of The Pink Project, which Brad Pitt described as a sort of "social disobedience."

The Pink Project is comprised of 429 "base volumes" that are scattered throughout several blocks of the Lower Ninth Ward near the site of the levee breach. Those "case volumes" look like hot-pink boxes and upended-roofs, and their scattering is meant to represent the scattering of the lives and homes in the wake of the levee breach (which, I might mention, was the reason for the devastation of the Lower Ninth--not, as many seem to believe, the typical "flooding" one might associate with a hurricane. In other words, this was a manmade disaster, folks.) Between now and January 7th, a fundraising effort will take place, and as monies are raised, the homes will be "righted." Check Do check out the link at the bottom of this page. There, you can see just how interesting (and odd) this art installation is.

I walked around the site yesterday afternoon, and I ran into two national guardsmen, Sergeant James Clark and Specialist Caleb Christianson. Seargent Clark asked what the deal was with the pink stuff, and I tried my best to explain (and felt a little silly doing it.) When I'd finished, he said that he'd been stationed in the area in the days and weeks following the storm, and that the scattered structures reminded him a lot of what he'd seen then, "Only pink." (Then, Clark and Christianson confessed that they'd really come down because one of their peers had sent a picture of Angelina Jolie from his cellphone. Where could they find her, they wanted to know. Ah, yes...)

At the press conference, Brad Pitt acknowledged that people would probably be a bit, um, bemused by the choice of the color pink. He didn't choose it because of the "little pink houses" that John Mellancamp refers to (in his classic song about the un-attainability of the American Dream), nor did he choose it to represent a "pink elephant in the room" (the obvious destruction of the Lower Ninth Ward and its neglect at the hands of the republican administration.) He chose pink, he said, because it "screams the loudest."

And scream it does. When I first crossed the Claiborne Avenue Bridge, I was thrown by the sight of the hot pink structures where I'd become so accustomed to seeing overgrown green fields. It's an arresting sight, and I hope that it inspires folks to contribute so that families who've received so little assistance can, in fact, return.

Now, the houses, themselves--the real ones that have been designed by 13 architects--are not altogether "right" in my mind. All pay homage to the tradition of the New Orleans shotgun, but as I heard one architect say at the party last night, that comes more from the need to deal with the long and skinny shape of the lots than it does from any real tribute to the style.
Here, the MIR staff explains the philosophy that went into the homes' design:

Because local cultural influences gave rise to the pre-Katrina architecture so emblematic of the area, preserving that identity remains vital in reclaiming the spirit of the neighborhood. MIR’s goal is to join the history of this tradition with creative new architectural solutions mindful of environmental and personal safety concerns in order to encourage both the evolution of aesthetic distinctiveness and the conscientious awareness of natural surroundings.

I think some of the groups got a bit carried away with their, uh, "creative new architectural solutions." You can check out some of the other odd birds here.

This one is called The Escape House. Now, I may be wrond, but I don't think anyone wants to live in a house that looks quite literally broken like a stick (we've had enough of that, thank you). I also don't think anyone wants their home to perpetually remind them that they may need, one day, to "escape." Overall, it's just plain difficult to imagine some of these houses comprising the future landscape of New Orleans, but I am trying to have an open mind:

I asked a group of neighbors last night what they thought of the houses. "They're different," they said. I couldn't tell if they meant different-good or different-bad. When I asked, they said it was "all good."

"Anything to help us get out of these trailers," they said.

True that!

Still, as I wandered through the three shipping containers that had been set up to display the designs, I kept wondering why the architects had to move so darn far away from our architectural style. Why not do something off-the-wall with the "lacework" that adorns our homes? Why not give the house "shutter-wings"? It just seemed like they wanted so badly to make some sort of a design "statement," they'd forgotten we like our history, and we see our historic homes as representative of that history. A long and skinny house doesn't a shotgun make, and these homes ain't shotguns in any sense other than the long and skinny.

I did like this design, though. It's got our Easter-egg color going on, and looks closer to the traditional shotgun than any of the others did.

But did the designers of this interior really have our population in mind? The delicate settee and the wall of books smacks of wishful thinking more than it represents who we really are:

You know, I think the architects belong to the school of though that the head-dude subscribes to. When he (William McDonough) spoke at the press conference yesterday, he talked about how he lives in a house designed by Thomas Jefferson. "The only things listed on his tombstone are the things he designed," said McDonough. His boy T.J. "recorded his legacies--the things he left behind--not his activities." McDonough said that what we do fades while what we create lives on.

But doesn't this fly in the face of the whole "cradle to cradle" concept? I mean, shouldn't we be doing more and leaving behind less? I don't get it...

McDonough went on to talk about breaking design for the Make It Right houses "down to the molecule."

"Design" he said, "is the first symbol of human intention." (Wha-what?)

It represents "our intention toward each other as a species." (Hmmm.)

I felt as I listened (and as I've read more about The Team at Make It Right) as though these folks have become a bit bowled over by their philosophies, which was completely confirmed by this, which I read on the MIR site (regarding the Pink House Project):

The simple legibility of the pink monopoly house reassembled from smaller individual components intentionally focus attention onto the problematic of manageable scale, allowing the individual to physically participate within the installation in real time. Filmic concepts drive the narrative of the installation, framing the architectural development. The scenes within the assembly create emotive and informative storyboards containing specific perspective rich with history and memorialization...

The tangram serves as a conceptual overlay for Pink... The tangram is a Chinese dissection puzzle consisting of a square cut into five triangles, a square and a rhomboid, to be reassembled into different figures. These pieces, called tans, can be combined so as to form a great variety of other figures. Upon reassembly, multiple graphic identities emerge.

The idea of the tangram was translated into a three dimensional expression in Pink. At the installation's commencement, the individual components lay haphazard throughout the site. It is only over time and through donation that the cohesive volumes are reassembled. The overall cohesive form is a synthesized representation of traditional New Orleans housing typologies: the shotgun house and the Creole cottage.

Obviously, sorting through the pretentious language here is tough (and if this were a freshman essay, I would've told them to revise with a clearer sense of audience in mind). What is clear to me is that these guys are in love with an idea, and that they see the Make It Right project as an opportunity to make a statement.

Resident Valerie Schexnayder, who I ran into outside of her trailer yesterday, seemed to agree. She was appreciative of the project, but said, "They all got their statements." I could tell she was a woman tired of statements, (if not of her own, which she'd displayed on signs in front of her trailer.)

And that's what I saw the most of yesterday: a lot of interest in the statement, but a lot of confusion, too.

How, exactly, were these pink things going to help get folks home? And how on Earth was a house like this going to be someones Lower Ninth Ward home?
I guess what I'm saying is that it appears the hearts of Brad & co are in the right place, but there's just something about the "synthesized representations" of the prospective homes that was a little... insulting?

The computerized barbecue on the walled-in front yard of this house (we don't wall in our porches, people)... the blast-off aesthetic of the "escape house"... the rows and rows of books that each designer planted in their Jetsonian interiors... who did they think we were? Who do they think we are?

At the end of the day--even after a gleeful night filled with free wine and a performance by Jerry Lee Lewis, I couldn't help feeling like it was all a bit, well, wrong. I felt like the Make It Right project was--and is--a wonderful dose of hope. But it was someone else's hope, not ours, and I went home sad that we were once again being forced to take what we can get.

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