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.