The Making of a Make it Right House


[Shigeru Ban MIR house]

Can you guess who designed this rather clumsy looking Make it Right house? While it almost looks like some sort of elevated, mundane prefab structure, it is in fact designed by one of our most innovative contemporary architects. You’re looking at a Shigeru Ban design – and one of the problems with the well-meaning Make it Right program.


[image via Make it Right]

The design architects essentially relinquish control of their projects once the construction documents are handed over to Make it Right’s team of architects and builders. Ostensibly, this is to create a certain vague uniformity among the houses, keep costs down, and strengthen the vernacular elements, thereby creating a neighborhood from disparate global visions. The end result, however, is at best a diluted version of the design, and at worst, a poorly detailed, hastily constructed eyesore.

When comparing the above rendering to the built work, it’s pretty clear that something was lost in translation. The strong horizontals of Ban’s design have been lost to extraneous mouldings and a bad paint job – notice the white verticals at the corner. Its hard to say if this is an actual design change, or if the builders are trying to cover lousy detailing. A bit of both, I imagine. The MIR homes are required to be raised at least 5′ above the ground. Clearly, this particular Ban house has been raised higher – a feature that’s hard to argue against, especially when remembering that only 4 years ago these streets were patrolled by boats. Potential flooding and the requirement for an elevated interior space also explains the addition of the dormer. Small concessions, yes. But the end result has destroyed all ideas of craft and elegance. The minimal design has been transformed into a simple house.


[image via Make it Right]

Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo from the other side, but while the courtyard was built, I’m not sure that large, integrated tree will be included. There’s also a mandatory second exit from the courtyard that, to put simply, wasn’t designed at all. It’s just a staircase attached to the side of the building. The stair rails appears to be an off-the-rack standard that a few other of the houses seem to be using.


[image via Make it Right]

Suffice it to say, the interior will most definitely not look like this.


[Lower 9 repopulation map via GNOCDC. MIR area in blue. Click for larger image]

I don’t want to disparage the Make it Right program, just show a bit of the reality of what is actually getting built. No matter what problems people have with it, MIR is putting people into new homes. Something that still desperately needs to happen in this city. Almost four years after the storm, ten MIR homes are occupied and four more are ready for tenants. Their goal of building 150 affordable homes for the returning residents of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward neighborhood has slightly changed, as “affordable” now means $150,000 – $180,000 (let’s not even get into the $250,000 playground) and the process is, by necessity, no longer limited to returning residents.

Many have opted not to return at all.

It’s a slow, at times painful, process, but it’s progress. And it was recently announced that duplex homes are on the way, designed by a mix of international and local architects that include Frank Gehry and a slightly less cynical design from MVRDV. It’s hard to imagine a dense lower 9th ward. The homes, at times separated by blocks, have a folly-in-the-park feel. Only time will tell if this will be a functioning neighborhood, a worthy pilgrimage site for architects from around the world, or an alltogether different type of folly.

3 replies on “The Making of a Make it Right House”

Jim: Let’s ignore the architectural oversights in the original design (the failure to design to the required height.) Let’s also ignore the conceited use of the tree through the deck, thus providing a difficult “training” job needed to grow the thing through the hole provided for it. Let’s also forget the continuing “clean up the junk from the tree” job, and the repairs to the deck structure when the winds of the next hurricane hit NOLA. Instead, let’s consider that the horizontals are broken up not by molding but by the addition of two major vertical windows. I would have thought that the use of a glass curtain wall on the rear face would have been adequate to the task… but perhaps too open for adequate privacy? A shame they couldn’t have kept the smooth and relatively unbroken original wall. And the paint job is surely questionable. My hope is that good landscaping can cure 50% of the visual problems in the design as built.
I shudder to think of what Gehry is going to come up with for the Lower 9th. If any city doesn’t “need” a Gehry, NOLA is it.

How does this happen?

Is the issue that the original design was missing requirements? That the architect ignored certain requirements that they were given? New requirements were discovered on the ground?

It seems to be a very common event in the construction of buildings.

I’m reading Alain de Botton’s Architecture of Happiness and he talks about attuned we are to small changes when we look at faces and people, suggesting that this carries over into design and buildings.

Looking at the many small changes of your after/before pictures I feel like it’s a pretty striking illustration of that.

Ban’s design has more in common with traditional historical buildings than the abomination that was built. The belief that anyone can “improve” on a design is now ingrained in the American psyche(and maybe everywhere). The compromises in this approach will inevitably leave these neighborhoods looking like a trainwreck. I would prefer they approach it less ambitiously than build these failures. As for decrying Gehry, a good version of the firm’s work may provide a moment of interest in a sea of nothingness.If it is built like this, no. They don’t need architects if this is what’s going to be built, they need stock plans.

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