A dream book of Venice

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Venice photos by Riccardo de Cal; courtesy of JoAnn Locktov.

A book of lovely photographs that capture the spirit of Venice was sent to me a while back by its editor, JoAnn Locktov, after I’d reviewed If Venice Dies, by Salvatore Settis, the Italian art historian. In Locktov’s book, Dream of Venice Architecture, each photo by Riccardo De Cal accompanies a brief essay on Venice by a noted contemporary architect, designer, artist or historian. In some cases the photos express something of the subject of the essays. (The pages are not numbered and the pictures have no captions.) Oddly enough, De Cal’s work tends to capture the venerable indistinctness of a Venice whose age is cloaked in fog or darkness. Again, they are lovely shots, but few are sunny or colorful. Many of the essays, however, describe the vivacity of its inhabitants and renew hope for the revival of a Venice that, in the pages of If Venice Dies, tilts toward a spiritual death brought on by tourism.

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The effect of nature, time and weather on the vividly unique quality of Venice architecture shines through in the photographs. I’ve chosen several to reprint with this post, and most of the 43 photos speak, however darkly, to the Venetian beauty that attracts so many visitors from around the world. An essay on the doorways of Venice by Constantin Boym, a Russian designer teaching at New York’s Pratt Institute, struck my fancy. After describing “the variations in wood paneling; the location and style of handles; the placement of bronze mail slots; or the tiny lookout windows” of a taxonomy of Venetian doorways that awaits compilation (or so he appears to believe), Boym describes the following daydream:

A few years ago I happened to be passing by the house numbered 1937, which featured a particularly distressed and ominous-looking door. Suddenly I had a strange vision that the horrific memories of the year 1937 – Guernica, Kristallnacht, Stalin’s Great Purge – are hidden behind that locked portal. It took a good half-a-bottle of wine before I could let this disquieting fantasy go.

Speaking of disquieting fantasies, in 1910, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, founder of Italy’s avant-garde movement (known as Futurism), wrote his “Manifesto Against Past-Loving Venice.” Describing the watery city as “a great sewer of traditionalism,” he called upon Venetians to “fill the stinking little canals with the rubble of the tottering leprous old palaces. Let us burn the gondolas, rocking chairs for idiots, and raise to the sky the majestic geometry of metal bridges and smoke-crowned factories, abolishing the sagging curves of ancient buildings.” Why? To “prepare for the birth of an industrial and militarized Venice, capable of dominating the great Adriatic.” In 1910, he and his stooges threw 80,000 leaflets of his manifesto from the Campanile down into St. Mark’s Square. (At least two sources say that the year was 1910, even though the Campanile collapsed in 1902 and was not reopened until 1912. Maybe they snuck in before it was done.)

Nice! Just a few years later, in 1925, founding modernist Le Corbusier unveiled his proposal to demolish central Paris and replace it with 60-story towers separated by parks and highways. People in authority didn’t listen to Marinetti or Corbusier then. They do today, and with reverence.

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Plaza by Carlo Scarpa (de Cal)

These examples of the modernists’ violent hatred for “past-loving” cities such as Venice, Paris and Providence popped to mind every time an essayist in Dream of Venice Architecture paid tribute to the Italian modernist Carlo Scarpa, a modernist whose work displays far more intelligent (or at least intelligible) creativity than does that of Corbusier and almost every other modern architect. I would say at least half of the essays in Dream emit some sort of hosannah to Scarpa. Yet however enchanting his work may be to those whose educations enable and whose careers demand its appreciation, most people, inhabitants or tourists, who stumble upon one of his interventions surely experience them as rude interruptions of the beauty they are in Venice to admire. (In researching this post I came across a 2014 book called Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice, by Jennifer Scappettone. I could hardly imagine that such a book is even allowed to exist, so well does the modernist cult patrol the field it dominates. … [Turns out upon further reading that this book is the sort of modernist tract that belies its own title, which derives from the Futurist manifesto I criticized above. Damn!])

Can we expect these essayists, virtually all of whom lean toward modernism, to express a reverence for, say, Palladio, Giorgio Massari or the other mostly anonymous dead architects and builders whose spirit remains, and remains dominant, in Venice? Probably not. Very few expressions of reverence for Venice’s legacy architects show up in the Dream essays – except via the implicit fact that the essayists would not have written about Venice, or managed to fall in love with it, were it not for the architects great and small who built this splendid city over a period that spanned a millennium. If Carlo Scarpa and his inferior minions had done to Venice what they’ve done to so many cities globally, nobody would be visiting Venice on vacation today, any more than folks visit Houston when there’s no Super Bowl on the calendar.

So it is clear that in Dream of Venice Architecture, JoAnn Locktov has accomplished the most evocative stroll along the skinniest of tightropes. She has assembled a book of Venice that expresses reverence for a beauty that many of its authors fail, in very fundamental ways, to understand. It is hard to say whether photographer Riccardo De Cal understands, but to the extent that his camera cannot lie, his lens certainly understands.

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Amtrak’s R.I. rural removal

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Charlestown, R.I., by Andrea Birdsey Kelly. (Fine Art America)

If the description by two Charlestown, R.I., town council leaders of Amtrak’s plan for an alternate route through that town are accurate, the proposal must be stopped. It is no less than “rural removal,” same as the old “urban removal” that cut a huge swath through urban America in the 1950s and ’60s. Fortunately, Providence was spared most of what had been planned during our urban-renewal era, but many big cities were largely ruined by it, with many poor but viable black neighborhoods demolished, their families cruelly dispersed and replaced by highways or less-civilized neighborhoods, often with ugly “Brutalist” architecture inflicted. Now this creature of a policy seems to have returned in rural form and is breathing down the neck of Charlestown. All to save an estimated one minute in travel time.

Here is how Amtrak’s plan was described in the two councilors’ letter to the editor today:

Straightening the track in Charlestown, as near as we can determine, will save only one minute of travel time between Boston and New York. One minute. The price for this is enormous and unsupportable. In Charlestown alone, it will cost the nation’s taxpayers more than $1 billion and cause the destruction of numerous homes, family farms, historic districts, drinking water aquifers, a wild and scenic river, critical habitats and conservation areas, and it will invade Narragansett Tribal Lands.

The bypass would also destroy the bucolic Burdickville village, demolish the historic districts of Columbia Heights and Kenyon, ruin the productive fourth-generation Stoney Hill Farm, divide the Nature Conservancy’s treasured 1,100-acre Carter Preserve, demolish the Revolutionary-era Amos Green Farm, and invade other protected conservation lands, all to enable long-distance passengers to traverse our town one minute faster.

The plan also brings the threat of eminent domain with a real loss in property value. Real estate values along the Connecticut route have already taken a 25 percent hit.

How can this be so? If it is, the Journal’s online headline got it right: “Charlestown is being railroaded.” Are the disruptions planned for the Connecticut stretch of the route equally dismaying? Maybe the Charlestown councilors, Virginia Lee and Julie Carroccia (president and vice president, respectively, of the council), are exaggerating, or wrong. If so, I will write a post retracting what I have said above. But from what they say, it sounds as if a tragic era long ago put behind us has re-emerged from the Black Lagoon.

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Webb and the Zen of craft

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Ornamental plaster work on inn at Sussex, England. (alamy.com)

I have been remiss in not having shared with readers, until now, the essays of Patrick Webb, the Charleston-based plaster craftsman and classicist, whom I met a couple of years ago at a TradArch conference hosted by the American College of the Building Arts in 2015. His blog, Real Finishes, is on my blog roll, so you can see whatever he has written. It is worth a visit, bigtime.

Webb also does a monthly blog post for Traditional Building magazine.

I am opening with his latest essay, on the mentality of craftsmanship, “The Hero’s Path,” and will follow soon with his essay on Adolf Loos’s infamous 1913 book Ornament and Crime. An early passage in “The Hero’s Path” struck me as an excellent examination of how architects and craftsmen worked for centuries. Webb is more focused on the craftsman, but as with music and architecture, the parallels between craft work and architecture are implicit. He describes the work in terms of Zen philosophy, but between the lines a more basic outline of the method’s sensibility is clearly evident:

The path available to most people throughout history has been igyo-do (易行道) the “Easy Way.” This is also known as the way of tariki (他力) or “Grace.” This path is available in a culturally stable society where it is possible to simply abandon the self to the “other power” as manifest in ritual and tradition as a means of practice leading to salvation. A practice can be ostensibly religious but need not be. Almost all craftsmen of previous times and cultures followed the Way of Grace: intuition and custom guided their daily ritual of work.

If it were not possible to link to the whole essay, as I have above, I would be forced to reprint its every paragraph. Thankfully, reader, you can immerse yourself in the entire piece. A bit later, after having described “The Easy Way” (the “Way of Grace”), which is in essence the way of building or creating by tradition, he comes to “The Way of Hardship,”  the method by which most building and much craft is done today.

For our hero craftsman the Way of Hardship may be an understatement. The flame of mingei “many for many,” was snuffed out in Western society a century ago and is little more than a flicker elsewhere. The Way of Grace has been aggressively and violently supplanted by the Way of Industry, “Few with capital and mechanical means for Many.” Industry is not a participant in life, it is an extractor of life which it feeds upon as a means to an end, the accumulation of an accursed share of abstract profit. Like a mechanical monster, it is not truly alive, cannot be nurtured by experience, but instead must consume people and burn resources to keep its dreadful gears crushing ahead. Where traditional craft provided us with a deep sense of connection, industry substitutes the minimal level of manufactured “experiences” and utilitarian functions frigid with insensibility. Freedom from obstruction is replaced by demands of consumption, the needs of the many by the avarice of the few.

Patrick Webb’s essay strikes me as not just true but good, and expressed with beauty. Read the entire essay. I myself have defended methods and practices in architecture and craftsmanship that stray far from Webb’s edicts. The idea is that compromise must be embraced in order to forge a path back to real craft in a society that is not “culturally stable,” and is likely to remain so for the unforeseeable future. Maybe. Maybe not. But how bracing to be so passionately reminded of the one true – and heroic – path!

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Videos of London, 1927/2014

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Side-by-side views of the Tower from the Thames in 1927 and 2014. (Big Geek Daddy)

Here are two videos side by side of the same scenes in London from 1927 and 2014, courtesy of Big Geek Daddy’s Video of the Day. A week ago I posted “London in 25 hard minutes,” one of Rick Steves’s television shows (the comparison was to a more soft-focus video visit to Paris). I was somewhat startled in viewing the Steves video that its producer did such a marvelous job of managing to exclude so much of the city’s modern architecture while filming London in 2014. Today’s video splices together clips of the same old scenes from the London of 1927 and the London of 2014, and suggests that the vistas shown – places tourists visit – are surprisingly free of the modernist blight. Those more familiar than I am with London are invited to weigh in on whether that’s because the 2014 filmmaker did a good job (except for the view above of the Tower of London) of keeping the crapola outside of the frame, or because London has in fact done an excellent job of preventing modernist buildings, especially highrises, from being built in places where they can be seen by people visiting the city’s most cherished landmarks.

On my first visit to London, in 1979, there were very few if any skyscrapers, but lots of infill modernism, mostly short squat buildings erected on sites demolished during World War II by the Luftwaffe. I wonder whether city planners charting new construction in this century have sought to avoid demolishing historic London buildings and tried, as much as possible, to site skyscrapers instead so as to eliminate that ugly postwar architecture.

If anyone has any thoughts on this question, please let me know.

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More music & architecture

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Pantheon de Paris. (Future Symphony Institute)

The Future Symphony Institute’s newest fellow, the composer John Borstlap, has written the latest in a string of essays that speak of music in ways that bring to mind architecture. Here is a paragraph from “Classical Modernity“:

Is there any fundamental contradiction found in putting a CD with a Mozart symphony in the player while driving a modern car on a paved road through the suburban sprawl of a big, modern city? Or in performing a piece by J.S. Bach on a piano, or his Brandenburg Concerti on modern instruments? Or in viewing a Vermeer painting dressed in modern “clothes” – the canvas being lightened by carefully adjusted spotlights which were unthinkable in the 17th century? The Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement in music, which presents music from the past on old, authentic instruments or else on exact copies of them, is a very modern phenomenon and nobody would demand that such performances are presented with the musicians dressed in 18th-century garb, with candles on their music stands. On the contrary, successful ensembles like John Eliot Gardiner’s Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, though composed of period instruments, use all the modern means and recording facilities available to spread their vision – which does not in the least diminish other possible interpretations of the same music. It all forms a rich palette of varied artistic experience which is the hallmark of true modernity.

This brings to mind the many times I’ve confronted the argument so beloved of modern architects: that a new traditional house is no more appropriate for today than a doctor who bleeds his patients. It is a ridiculous argument, and I have never met a modern architect so breathtakingly stupid that he or she cannot be assumed to recognize its weakness. And yet it is heard over and over again, still to this day.

Having read articles in Pencil Points by architecture critics defending traditional architecture in the years before modernism took over the architectural establishment, I realize that an entire field can become so besotted by its orthodoxy that it can no longer uphold its end of a discourse with those who seek to end the conversation by banning the idea – as the modernists eventually came very close to accomplishing, vis-a-vis traditional architecture, after they booted classicism from the establishment. Now the modernists are beset by the same lack of imagination in their response to new traditional architecture. And thus too in the realm of music.

So enjoy this essay by John Borstlap. He is tapping into the courage required, after all these years, to call out sheer stupidity in argumentation.

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Krier on cities’ skyscraperitis

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Drawing by Leon Krier. (BD)

According to the headline writers at BD magazine, Britain’s leading journal of architecture, the takeaway from Leon Krier’s new essay there is “It doesn’t matter if skyscrapers are designed by world-class architects or hacks – they’re destroying our cities.”

I agree with Krier, and maybe even with the headline writer’s decision to entitle the piece as he (or she) did. But my dander has long been slow to rise at the idea of the villainy of skyscrapers. Which is not to say that Krier is anything but spot on in stating that 400 proposed new skyscrapers are going to destroy London. What they will surely do is to destroy London’s character as a historic city. Though arguably that task has already been accomplished. Historically, London, unlike New York, Chicago, Hong Kong, Shanghai and maybe some others, was a low-rise city well into the late 20th century. Have skyscrapers destroyed those cities? Not yet. Like London, New York sidewalks are crowded and gridlock often jams its streets, likewise Chicago to a lesser extent. Perhaps Shanghai or Hong Kong seem to survive the throttle of their skyscrapers because so many people there ride the subway or bicycles, but they are getting more cars, too. China’s other major cities are as well. Other Asian cities, such as Calcutta, seem to be famously overcrowded but have far fewer skyscrapers to bollix their transit and civil infrastructure. Maybe Paris is another famous city that manages to be crowded without skyscrapers.

I’m sure that too many skyscrapers is not good for cities, but it depends on how many skyscrapers and what sort of cities. Some cities have governments that are better at managing infrastructure and transit. Others, not so much. But soon after I started wondering what Krier was leaving out of his analysis, I came upon this extraordinarily evocative passage, in which he imagines alternate pasts and futures for London:

[W]hat if all buildings from before 1940 disappeared from London? Mayfair, Westminster Palace, Regents Park Terraces, Pall Mall, Belgravia, Kensington, Primrose Hill, Hampstead and all London villages and traditional fabric replaced by post-1945 designs, densities and materials. If that is not enough to convince you of the tragic loss of professional capacity and responsibility, imagine conversely: what if all post-war buildings were replaced by buildings and densities of before 1945?

Clearly, London would be less crowded and there’d be less pressure on its urban systems if all the buildings built since 1940 had been of a similar character as those built before 1940. And clearly, you might not even be able to tell London from Hong Kong if its remaining historic fabric were replaced by the sort of buildings London has had inflicted upon it since 1945. And, alas, this is precisely what is happening. Krier may or may not have been thinking much about what the buildings would look like – but I am. That may be what he and others who lament skyscrapers are leaving out.

The evils of skyscrapers may perhaps be laid at the doorstep of their appearance these days as much as any other factor.

If the skyscrapers of London today were replaced by the skyscrapers of New York in 1945, things would not be so bad. It would still be crowded in London, but it would not be anywhere near as unpleasant. Those buildings were beautiful. And they were more sustainable (with operable windows, for example) than what is being built today. Picking up on the thoughts of Roger Scruton in The Classical Vernacular, would it not be plausible to imagine that if London’s skyscrapers today were as civilized as New York’s were in 1945, perhaps the resulting civilities of the civic square might have generated a more sensible civic approach to the problems of urban growth – more more civitas, more gravitas, more good humor? Maybe that’s a stretch, but beauty is a balm, and some people like a vigorous frottage scene. (Only kidding.)

I’ll grant that skyscrapers of whatever sort lay heavier hands upon city infrastructure than mid- or low-rise buildings. They are harder on the environment. They literally press down harder on the earth. But isn’t that because they enable so many people to crowd into such a small territory? And isn’t that supposed to be good for a city’s carbon footprint? Color me confused. I have not studied skyscrapers with the rigor of Leon Krier, James Howard Kunstler and others. No doubt I have omitted some major factors in this brief soliloquy. And maybe Krier is right to cite garden cities as a better solution. Still, it’s hard to resist the cogitations that inevitably arise from reading one of his essays, and this is their result, at least inside this one noggin. So for what it’s worth, it is what it is.

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Lower Manhattan from Governor’s Island in 1936. (favrify.com)

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Batman’s Penn Station, etc.

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Frame in which architect explains Batman’s new Penn Station design. (Dave Taylor)

Here is my Traditional Building blog post from December, inspired by TB editor Martha McDonald’s expression of intrigue regarding an Architecture Here and There blog post I had written about Batman hiring a modernist architect to redesign Penn Station as a whale – underneath which was to be his new Batcave. I substantially tweaked that AHAT post, “In like a rat, out like Jonah,” to create this original TB blog post called “Batman redesigns Penn Station as a whale.” Both versions of this post, for AHAT and TB, link to the source materials, which report on the graphic novel Batman: Death by Design, by Chip Kidd, illustrated by Dave Taylor. Readers should enjoy that, and some might even groove upon the evolutionary progression among the various versions and their own source material. To riff off of the motto of the fabulous Future Symphony Institute, “Blog a Symphony.” (The FSI’s motto is actually much better: “Orchestrate a Renaissance.”) Very deeply committed readers can spend half of the morning or more reading to the end of this fascinating string of hyperlinked material.

Clem Labine’s Traditional Building, which is TB’s full name, is filled with awesome stories and advertising about new traditional architecture, historic preservation, old traditional architecture and related matters. Clem’s blog is by itself worth a visit to the TB website. I have written and early tomorrow will submit my first TB blog of my second year of monthly blogging for TB. Feel free to pat me on the head!

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Rouchell and New Orleans

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Historic New Orleans, with downtown highrises in background. (TripAdvisor)

My post “Nostalgia in New Orleans?” generated some comment among traditionalists on the TradArch list, including Louisiana architect Michael Rouchell. A couple of years ago, he contributed an excellent counterproposal to help my effort to get Rhode Island’s governor to ask developers to boost Rhode Island’s “historic” brand in their project designs. He is also leading the formation of a Louisiana chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art.

Of course, nostalgia is the term of derision that modern architects use for what motivates most people to prefer houses, buildings and other elements of their environment that respect the past as they move into the future. The term “faux historic” got Rouchell’s goat when he read a piece by Richard Campanella in the Times-Picayune entitled “New Orleans’ historical revival architecture: A look to the past for inspiration? Or solace?

The piece by Campanella goes into greater depth than the piece I link to in my blog post on his study of new post-Katrina housing. His analysis of the historical roots of New Orleans’s shift to neo-traditional architecture is quite fascinating. He writes as an objective observer, a geographer, and yet he seems unable to refrain from rolling his eyeballs at the supposed nostalgia behind the possibility that people want to live in places they find attractive. Among those who turn up their nose at it, nostalgia implies a denial of problematic elements in historical periods and societies to which revivalist designs hark back. In my opinion, such thinkers are thinking too hard. People who like traditional houses, old or new, really just think they are attractive, and have an odd hankering to live in attractive places. Nothing more than that. No unstated agendas, no dog whistles, just personal taste.

Rouchell’s response to Campanella emphasizes, however, the extent to which even in spite of his rolling eyeballs, his mere existence at Tulane University is a positive development. Tulane’s school of architecture has, in the recent past, been unrelentingly modernist in its educational orientation, especially under former dean Reed Kroloff. Now some genuine curricular diversity may be on the verge of erupting at Tulane, as is occurring at the University of Colorado in Denver, the College of Charleston (S.C.) and Catholic University, in Washington, D.C. Here, printed in its entirety due to its excellence, is Rouchell’s response to Campanella’s generally fine piece in the T-P:

I often enjoy Richard Campanella’s thoughtful articles on New Orleans’ architecture, but the most recent one on current traditional architecture I find to be most special. Here is a professor at Tulane School of Architecture acknowledging that there is a strong consumer demand for traditional architecture.  Unfortunately, this demand is not being met by graduates of most architecture schools, including Tulane.

First, it must be said that the intent of tradition-based design is not for buildings to appear historical or to look old, or to create a “false historical narrative” as many may suggest, but to follow an established building tradition. With the exception of the last 100 years, this tradition, going back 2,000 plus years, was for architects to take inspiration from the past, and to incorporate current trends and technologies to improve upon that which was done in the past. It is amazing to think of all the traditions that we routinely follow without question, including holiday traditions, religious traditions, patriotic traditions, and all the traditions that are unique to our local culture [including food culture, one might add – ed.]. So why, when it comes to building traditions, do so many architects have a feeling of unease about designing new traditional buildings. Why is this?

When the pioneering architects of the Modernist Movement were experimenting with a new kind of architecture that utilized abstract forms and function-driven aesthetics, they sought a new “International Style” architecture that was completely free from any past architectural precedents, which excluded the use of any traditional forms. If the intent is to be free of the conventions of traditional architecture, then one should also be free to follow those conventions, if so desired. Unfortunately, when modernism was taught in architecture schools, traditional design approaches were discouraged, and were looked at as being less creative than cutting-edge modern designs. Architecture students therefore only learned modernism, and the result, after many generations of this approach, is that most architects today are unable to design traditional buildings. The best attempts often result in buildings that are like caricatures of traditional buildings, with incorrect details and poor proportions. The task of historic preservation work, and designing new buildings and additions to fit within historic neighborhoods, becomes more challenging. In addition, traditional building crafts that were previously commonplace are now specialized and expensive, and survive mainly on large budget historic preservation work.

Because of this decline in the architectural profession and building crafts, I have recently started a Louisiana chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, whose mission is promote the current use of classical architecture, and to teach its principles to architects and building professionals who want to competently practice traditional design and construction.

As a Tulane School of Architecture alum myself, and self-taught traditionalist, it is my hope that one day Tulane and other architecture schools will add traditional design to their curriculum.

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Nostaglia in New Orleans?

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Shots of new houses in New Orleans show proportion of old to new styles preferred by citizens who rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (Places Journal)

A decade has passed since New Orleans began to rebuild its flooded neighborhoods after Hurricane Katrina. About all anyone beyond the Crescent City has heard of are the goofy new houses of Make It Right, an organization formed by movie star Brad Pitt, presumably to “give back” to his native community. But most refugees from flooded neighborhoods who came back rebuilt in traditional styles, by a margin of 14 to 1 according to a study, “Post-Katrina Architecture by the Numbers,” at Tulane University.

The study, which used a much larger sample than any other study of post-Katrina housing, was performed by Tulane geographer Richard Campanella and architecture school graduate student Cassidy Rosen. It was published last July in Places Journal.

The number rankings were overwhelming. New homes in historical styles (“6” through “10” on our scale) were 14 times more popular than contemporary styles (“1” through “4”), and accounted for 72 percent of our entire sample, which includes all those granted a vanilla-flavored “5.” In short, nearly 5,000 new houses, citywide, have been designed to look like old houses.

The study is interesting not only because of its depth but because the authors toward the end of the study sought to deconstruct the reason why families preferred to rebuild in styles that were familiar to them rather than make a statement of novelty. The urge to seek the known instead of the unknown is a powerful force in the psyche of a people, especially one whose lives were throttled by Mother Nature. Wouldn’t that tend to push you toward experimenting with something new? Apparently not.

It may be hard to imagine, but while preservation got started in New Orleans decades before its rise in most American cities, the infatuation of citizens there for the city’s quaint history and the architecture in which that history is reflected is more recent. “The current neotraditionalism is not, then, the latest fruit of a deep-rooted cultural conservatism which germinated yet again in Katrina-soaked soils. In fact the retro revival is mostly a response to the recent past — to difficult decades of contraction and decline.” Campanella and Rosen continue:

Struggling with a mediocre present and sensing a bleak future, New Orleanians wondered whether their best days were in the past. So they looked back and found a potent source of civic pride in the memory of the days when the city was “Queen of the South.” And the most palpable evidence of those heady days was the inventory of splendid buildings in elaborate styles, located all throughout the Crescent City, an architectural patrimony unlike that of any other American city.

But I suspect that the mid-century’s modernist incursions into the city’s fabric may have reflected the city’s depressed psychology. A stroll through downtown New Orleans is fraught with modernist buildings, no doubt chosen by committee, with elegant older ones holding on demurely in the face of “progress.” The rebuilding of a city hospital in a contemporary style suggests that this illness has not yet been cured. Maybe New Orleans will realize, after reading this study, that citizens think its city’s progress into the future had best build upon rather than rejecting  its past.

Ten years on, the results of the rebuilding might seem ersatz to some, anathema to others, smacking of laziness and sentimentality at a time when we ought to have prized sustainability and innovation. But clearly the thousands of new old houses, or old new houses, preferred by a ratio of 14 to 1, reveal the ethos of a people in a place nearly destroyed, a society whose own past has became a refuge from a tenuous present and a cicerone to an uncertain future. In the face of civic trauma, the houses stand as monuments to civic will. They will tell stories — of the past decade, and past centuries — for many years to come.

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London in 25 hard minutes

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Scene from Rick Steves’s 2014 show on London.

By hard I mean compared with the soft gray focus of the video in my last post, “Fifty soft minutes in Paris.” This is the Rick Steves tour of Britain’s capital. Steves’s voice is mellow enough, and the photography, unlike that in the Paris vid, is lit with the color of a sunny day. But you can turn the sound off if you’d like to banish the Stevesterian murmur. Steves’s cameraman is to be gently applauded for excluding as many of the city’s modernist vandals, invaders these past fifty years, from the viewfinder’s frame – a task that was much less difficult for the videographer working in Paris. One must labor through a brief segment about Canary Island, but most of the abominations one might fear in this 25-minute show from 2014, such as the Gherkin, are set discreetly in the background. Rick Steves seems to have a pretty good idea of what most viewers don’t want to see. So, please enjoy!

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