NEW ORLEANS

New Orleans is a city with a rich and unique architectural and cultural heritage, and its passionate, creative citizenry faces a complex range of urban and environmental challenges. The people and the qualities of this singular place combine to make the city a dynamic environment for the study of architecture and design.

Since 2005, Tulane’s URBANbuild program has been working to help revitalize New Orleans neighborhoods that faced particular hardships both before and after Hurricane Katrina, one design/build project at a time. Program Director Byron Mouton shared these reflections about the city, which is also his hometown:

New Orleans is a city of contrasts in adjacency. Rich and poor, black and white, left and right, high ground and low ground: these contrasts intermingle without a clear divide, and that allows us to step into the fringe zones and make an impact without being imposing. Many of the nation’s other design/build programs happen in either rural communities or in cities where dealings with the city’s agencies are either not stringent or not required. New Orleans is a successful, thriving, metropolitan area—that also happens to be a small town. So, in contrast with other big cities, we can handle things such as dealing with city hall or city inspectors quickly and efficiently, which complements our schedule. It’s also a city that allows us to afford possibility. The low cost of property in a dense urban setting is a peculiar asset that the city offers. All these things, coupled with the climate, which allows us to work out in the field most of the year, makes this an ideal place for this kind of curriculum.

New Orleans’ neighborhoods are authentically old, and many of them are in desperate need of repair. Rather than replicate the existing homes in these neighborhoods with copies of historic architecture, we posit that older homes need to be renovated and preserved, and where new homes are being constructed, we offer alternative architectural possibilities for the city. Architects are trained to recognize dualities: darkness and light, mass and void, prospect and refuge. From duality and contrast comes vibrancy and dynamic energy—things can be perceived as more what they are when juxtaposed with their opposites. So, placing a new structure adjacent to a restored and revitalized historic home enhances or highlights the valuable qualities in each typology.

 

When designing these homes, we respect the scale and character of the neighborhood—though, it’s important not to confuse character with style. We pay careful attention to the traditions of the inviting entry porch or stoop, interior volumes that are significant in height, design that makes the best possible use of natural light and air, and exterior spaces for cooking and socializing, all of which are typical of New Orleans homes. We preserve the character of these neighborhoods by designing new homes that possess many of the qualities of old New Orleans architecture and yet offer a stylistic alternative to traditional housing here.

I have been pleasantly surprised by the acceptance of the URBANbuild program and the houses we produce by our neighbors in Central City. We are introducing new ideas of home to the neighborhood, and people have been much more tolerant of this evolution than I expected. New Orleans is a city in which issues of class structure, racial inequality, and the adjacency of poverty and wealth can be divisive. Our experience in a neighborhood that is particularly challenged by these issues has proven that this is also a city in which people are incredibly accepting and welcoming, tolerant and progressive.