Hurricane Katrina, Three Years Later

[photo taken in May…2008]

It’s the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. For new readers who may not have followed this blog from the beginning, Life Without Buildings was conceived in a French Quarter alley and born on a Garden District Balcony into the depressing heat of a New Orleans summer and post-architecture school ennui. Then came Hurricane Katrina and for a while it became a rarely-udpated travelogue of evacuation, the end result of which was an apartment in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood. Leaving New Orleans might have been the hardest decision I’ve ever made and not one single day has passed where I haven’t wondered if I chose wrong.

This Friday’s links are a collection of posts written about The Big Easy — some while I was living there and some about the city’s redevelopment. I’d also like to again ask everyone to send a letter to in defense of preserving New Orleans Regional Modernism before its nothing but a memory. Comments can be sent to masterplan@rsdla.net For more information, please check out the collection of links posted at Archinect.

  • Modern in New Orleans: A Bike Tour: Just a few days before evacuating, I took my new bike for a ride around town to document some of the more recently built contemporary architecture in the New Orleans.

  • New Orleans in Exile: The evacuation post. At this point we really didn’t have any idea of just how bad things were going to get…

  • Evacuation Day 10: “You don’t need me to tell you that things are pretty bad in new orleans right now. It’s been a strange time. I don’t really know when i’ll be able to return to work, much less when i’ll be able to return to the city. my apartment seems to be ok and my friends are safe, but it pains me to say that some of them have been left homeless. The seriousness of this catastrophe is finally catching up with me and its unbelievably frustrating to be able to do nothing.”

  • N.O. Return: Some thoughts on returning to New Orleans after two months of nomadism. “Previously abstract portions of the city fabric have gained a new power in their absence – phantom pains in a dismembered city. A fallen tree and its resulting absent canopy, an empty lot, missing street lights… Although at times it was difficult to specify what had changed, things were different. That first day, the overall effect was incredibly disorienting.”

  • Katrina Memories, Looking Back After Two Years: Notes from the moleskin I thankfully had with me during the evacuation. “Day 4. Drove all night across Texas. Never again. Rumors abound. Fires? looting? militias? martial law? Friends stuck in the city? Friends getting airlifted out? It’s impossible to know what’s ACTUALLY happening. Over the next few days, we seemed to take turns breaking down, everyone in their own way. This is a frustration I’ve never known.”

  • Stealing Magnolias: Looting continues in New Orleans, only this time thieves aren’t after sneakers and flatscreen tv’s. Their new prize? Cornices, window shutters, and other architectural ornaments.

  • The New New Orleans Riverfront: The proposed adaptive reuse of the old Rice Mill in New Orleans’ Bywater Neighborhood. A beautiful and sustainable project that will hopefully one day be realized.

  • Local Architects Shaping the New New Orleans: A look at some of the post-Katrina greatest hits from local architects.

  • “The Architectural Soul of the City at Stake”: Reprinted from an excellent article in the New Orleans Times Picayune 2 years after the storm.

  • Third URBANbuild House Almost Complete: A closeup look at the Architecture School house during a trip back to New Orleans last May.

  • It’s Pinup Tme for The Sundance Channel’s Architecture School:In today’s reality-TV obsessed culture, any architecture student who has spent an all-nighter (i.e. every architecture student) working in studio has had the 4 am amphetamine-induced epiphany, “hey, someone should make this into a reality show.” Well now someone has.

  • ReNew Orleans: Thom Mayne’s Plan. Yeah…we’re guessing this one never comes up again.

  • For some amazing work by New Orleans area artists and writers, check out the beautifully designed journal Constance, which was recently listed in the New Orleans 100. An interview with the duo behind Constance can be read at PSFK.

  • Also on the New Orleans 100: Defend New Orleans. Why not head to the website and buy a shirt from this “fashion and lifestyle brand that embosses the attitude and lifestyle of New Orleans from the people that live it everyday.”

  • The Gustave Tracker

Local Architects Shaping the New New Orleans

Contemporary architecture is making some welcome headway in post-Katrina New Orleans — at least if we look at the top four winners of this year’s New Orleans AIA Awards.

[Image via studiowta.com]

The Rebuild Center at St. Joseph Church, designed by Wayne Troyer Architects is a community resource center built from six trailers, organized around a courtyard and joined together by wood canopies & decking, as well as translucent polycarbonate screens. Compared to a “zen fishing camp” by the architect, The Rebuild Center was intended to stay open for 5 years, but with the slow reconstruction of New Orleans, it looks like it might be around just a bit longer than that…

[Image via Make it Right]

The above winning entry comes courtesy of Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, and is one of the local contributions to Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” housing program. The energy-efficient design is a riff on the classic New Orleans shotgun, and can be somewhat customized to fit the tastes/needs of the owner.

[image via bildit.com]

Bild Design’s Lowerline residence is another twist on New Orleans vernacular — this time it’s the Camelback house that gets a thoughtful, contemporary update. The two-family home makes maximum use of its height in providing additional living space and river views.

[Image via Eskew+Dumez+Ripple]

Eskew+Dumez+Ripple also won the Urban Design category with their entry for the “Reinventing the Crescent” competition. When complete in 2016, their masterplan will be the largest continuous waterfront park in the city. Developers will work closely with the planners and architects to ensure that public are granted easy access to The River. The plan also includes the adaptive reuse of existing buildings, to help merge any new construction with the existing fabric of the city.

Preservation in New Orleans will always be necessary, but it’s nice to see that the city seems to be growing more open-minded about contemporary architecture. Perhaps EDR partner Steven Dumez put it best: “we are a city of architectural diversity and people love that diversity and sense that as ‘New Orleans.’ What is being designed now is a contemporary design for the city as it is now…and there is room for a new interpretation of New Orleans.”

&#183 N.O. architects lean to edgier, modern designs [New Orleans City Business]·
&#183 Modern in New Orleans [Life Without Buildings]·
&#183 The New New Orleans Riverfront [Life Without Buildings]

The New New Orleans Riverfront

[image of the jazz center via the new york times]

An article in last week’s New York Times focused on some of the more ambitious projects planned for New Orleans, including Thom Mayne’s proposed Jazz Center, and a scheme for the river-front designed by TEN Arquitectos.Located in the Bywater, a neighborhood that was very much up-and-coming before Hurricane Katrina, The Press Street Landing by TEN Arquitectos is a small part of the larger six-mile-long park and mixed-use development planned along the Mississippi. You can read all about Mayne’s building and the Press Street project in the Times Article, but I’d actually like to draw your attention to the project that’s next door, as noted by the yellow arrow:

[image via The New York Times]

[photo via studiowta.com]

The existing building was once the largest Rice Mill in North America, and an impressive renovation has been proposed by local New Orleans firm, Wayne Troyer Architect. The adaptive reuse includes new commercial spaces and a variety of residential units. If built as designed, the Rice Mill would become the first multi-family LEED gold certified building in Louisiana. From their website:

The project raises the architectural design bar by implementing such building technologies as: solar energy power; wind power; passive cooling by introduction of a solar chimney and a series of open-air courtyards, excavated from the building’s central core; utilization of insulated, low-E glazing at openings; establishment of a cistern for reclamation and recycling of rainwater for irrigation; landscaping with native and indigenous species; interiors that capitalize on exposed wood/masonry structure while incorporating recycled and low or non-emitting VOC materials, and mechanical systems that provide the most efficient means of energy.

[image via studiowta.com

At the rear of the building, a cantilevered glass addition was inspired the the ubiquitous gantry cranes scattered along the Mississippi. A clever solution that acknowledges the surrounding context without resorting to a simple one-liner.

[image via studiowta.com

Troyer is no stranger to adaptive reuse projects like this. Many of WTA’s projects have involved modern interventions into historic New Orleans structures. The firm has developed a adroitness at balancing these potentially conflicting elements, an idea perhaps best summed up by another statement from the Rice Mill project page, “The notion driving the project is a promotion of revitalization and the acknowledgment of a key industrial, historical site, while interjecting innovation and quality design in the form of a mixed-use community.”

Katrina Memories

Yesterday was the two year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I was going through some old notes and photos I had at the time and thought I might reproduce a couple excerpts. Most of these scratchings were written in the back of a Honda Accord, so it’s not exactly Hemmingway:

300 miles in 12 hours (and we’re the lucky ones). I-10 and most other interstates have been closed for hours. contraflow is working, but the evacuation is just too enormous. We’re taking the state routes and for the most part, it’s a smooth ride. Unfortunately, every small, state-route town has a police force whom want nothing more than to play a role in al this; to be important, if for only 24 hours. Their attempts to direct traffice have proved disastrous, successful only in creating traffic james that could have been prevented by a single, blinking yellow light. We stay motivated, stay together. frustrations only strengthening our friendships; a traffic crucible.

We left town on Saturday night for the Northshore. Evacuations are pretty common and like many others, I was planning on staying. “Been there, drank through it.” This time, things looked different. the city felt off. The pit in my stomach, the proverbial “bad feeling,” told me to leave, so I called up some friends, threw a tarp over my books, grabbed a t-shirt and a my laptop and hopped in a car. 11pm. We arrive in Houston. Aunt Sandy takes us in, with tears in her eyes and maternal hugs for people she’s never met. Still no reception on our cell phones but text-messaging sometimes works. We’re slowly able to get in touch with some of our friends and family. Some people are still unheard from but we think the worst is over.Monday morning. the roof of the Superdome is peeling off. thousands of refugees scramble for shelter in the rain-soaked stadium. Levees are beginning to leak and the water is slowly rising throughout the city. It might be a couple more days before we can go back. Houston’s opened its arms. People are sleeping in mattress stores. Text messaging is the only reliable form of communication. It’s frustrating, but at least it’s something. Unsure of when we can return, we’ve decide to head west in a day or two and just play it by ear.We stop in Target, buy clothes and change into them in the dressing room. Also bought a cheap camera.

Day 4. drove all night across Texas. Never again.Rumors abound. Fires? looting? militias? martial law? Friends stuck in the city? Friends getting airlifted out? It’s impossible to know what’s ACTUALLY happening. Over the next few days, we seemed to take turns breaking down, everyone in their own way. This is a frustration I’ve never known. Never imagined.

Day 6, somewhere in Arizona. I hate the desert.

3 wks later, South Bend. Back in the midwest. Friends try and lighten my mood with jokes; “Jimmy! Jimmy, call FEMA and have them help us with this bar tab! Why are we waiting for a cab? Call FEMA and have them airlift us home!”Chicago. Hanging out with some old friends at the L&L Lounge in Wrigleyville. I see some familiar-looking kids and overhear their conversations. “Molly’s is still open…” and “…still in the Faubourg.” Molly’s would be Molly’s at the Market and now I realize I’ve met these people at that Decatur St. bar. It was strangely comforting to see these dive-bar-friends in another bar across the country, people who know the New Orleans of dirty bars that never close, backyard rock & roll parties, the worlds of Quintron and MC tracheotomy (reportedly last seen dressed as a pirate riding his motorcycle into oblivion, laughing and shooting a handgun into the air). They don’t know when or if they’re going back. Neither do I. The New Orleans diaspora is in full effect.


It was a very strange, very uncertain time, but in the end, we were extremely fortunate. I was very lucky to evacuate with 2 of the most amazing people I’ve ever met (hey jake! hey miriam!) and I’m incredibly grateful to all the caring, compassionate people who took us in, fed us, and sometimes even clothed us. I’d also like to thank all the readers of this site who checked in with me, sent their warm wishes, and even offered me a job or two.I’m off to Milwaukee for a wedding, but there’ll be a couple more New Orleans posts next week. In the meantime, check out NPRs continuing coverage of post-Katrina life.

N.O. Return

Hey you. Yeah, it has been a while…
What? Oh…thanks. You look good too.
So um…sorry I haven’t called… things have been kind of crazy lately…


A lot’s happened in the past few weeks, making it difficult to know where to begin. There’s the trip the San Francisco for the opening weekend at the new de Young Museum, the brief time spent in Cincinnati, Chicago, South Bend, and then there’s the return trip to New Orleans.

Business first, I suppose…

So I returned to New Orleans last week to collect my belongings and tie up some loose ends. That’s right, I’m leaving. Moving to San Francisco in two days. It really was a tough decision, but it’s one that’s been in the back of my mind for some time, and I felt like I had to see where this adventure would take me. It’s time for a new beginning. I’ll never forget last week’s return. The current state of the city is one that fosters strange and surreal experiences. My first night there I was riding bikes with my friend Jac – swerving around military humvees, driving past brick rubble and abandoned buildings – and as we made our way through town, it was impossible to ignore the silence of it all. Simon and Garfunkel never seemed more profound. Even with people milling about, there’s an underlying stillness that wasn’t there before. Walking and riding through the city, we quickly became aware of a change in the spatial experience of the city, even in the relatively undamaged uptown area. Previously abstract portions of the city fabric have gained a new power in their absence – phantom pains in a dismembered city. A fallen tree and its resulting absent canopy, an empty lot, missing street lights… Although at times it was difficult to specify what had changed, things were different. That first day, the overall effect was incredibly disorienting – almost to the point of making me dizzy. It felt like I was living in some sort of vast James Turrel work.

The military presence was another constant cause for astonishment. Most notable were THEIR MACHINE GUNS. Is that really necessary at this point? I can understand that with a reduced police force, the military may be necessary for some time, but seeing these soldiers – kids sometimes!- walking around, eating Halloween candy with real Machine guns slung over their back! Being questioned by a uniformed, armed, soldier about being out past curfew (curfew!) is an unsettling experience to say the least. An ugly business, the whole thing. Juxtapositions abound between these iconic authoritarian figures and the more bizarre denizens of the Big Easy. During Halloween weekend, the military and police responded en masse when the electricity went out in the Bywater. I remember sitting in this dark, powerless bar, looking out an open window at a street lit by the sirens of police cars. (Very much like an Arcade Fire lyric, come to think of it) A dominatrix was talking to two soldiers. A couple wearing wetsuits with water wings were casually leaning against a humvee talking to another soldier, while a drum circle started playing and everyone began to sing “Tainted Love.”

I’m not trying to make light of the situation by recounting these events. I saw things down there that were profoundly disturbing and things that broke my heart, but I think we got our fill of that from the news. Things have changed Life is back in New Orleans. People are once again living, working, and partying in the city. Strangers are sitting together at coffee shops and restaurants – people who once lived on opposite sides of the city now find themselves in the same house or apt building. Social and economic demographics are changing. The city is changing and will continue to change. Hopefully for the better…

For any friends and acquaintances who may be curious about my personal status, I knew weeks ago that my car was gone, but the status of my apartment was a mystery. Although my second story one bedroom is in an area that didn’t flood, the wind-torn roof resulted in some water damage that unfortunately seemed to be localized over my architecture and art history books. I also lost some journals and sketchbooks that, when handled, broke apart like ancient texts from the Library of Alexandria. In the grand scheme of things none of these things are really important. I know that I am one of the very very lucky people and I’m extremely grateful for that.

Later this week I’ll try and post more about my time and N.O. and my last trip to San Francisco, so stay tuned. In a week or so I hope to be have a somewhat stable living situation, and be regularly posting once again on the topic of all things architectural.