More dishing on Brad Pitt

Experimental houses built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right foundation. (Flicker/Commons)

Apparently, some media outlets have discovered the joy of dishing on celebrities who think they know best. Isn’t that all of them? At any rate, the Daily Kos and the (U.K.) Guardian both have new hit pieces out on Hollywood film crush Brad Pitt, who in the wake of Hurricane Katrina rushed to New Orleans to build new modernist houses for victims in the city’s hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward.

Anyone could have predicted that the houses would suck. The Guardian’s writer, Wilfred Chan, says they suffer from “water intrusion, black mold, porches rotted through, stair rails collapsing, fires caused by electrical problems, plumbing problems and poor ventilation.” Rebekah Sager, writing for The Daily Kos, accuses Pitt of “breaking a promise” to the ward’s mostly black community.

But he did not break a promise. Pitt formed a foundation called Make It Right to build 150 affordable, ecologically sustainable houses. Bill Clinton, Snoop Dogg and others held fundraisers. Pitt and his wife at the time, Angelina Jolie, raised millions, and donated $5 million of their own money; 109 houses were built and sold to star-struck residents for $150,000.

In 2010, Pitt declared, “We’re cracking the code on affordable green homes.” By 2014 it became evident that the houses were falling apart from the inside, but in 2016 Pitt divorced Jolie, they sold their mansion in New Orleans and the Make It Right website vanished. Two years later, a study showed that only six houses of the Make It Right neighborhood remained in “reasonably good shape.” Several have already been demolished.

Class-action suits started appearing in 2018. As described in the Guardian:

Some houses had flat roofs and lacked basic features like rain gutters, overhangs, covered beams, or waterproof paint to weather New Orleans’ torrential downpours. Within weeks, houses began to develop mold, leaks and rot. Pitt’s non-profit initially made some minor repairs, but then began pushing residents to sign non-disclosure agreements before it would tell them what was wrong with their homes. “That’s when a lot of residents started to notice that things were very fishy.”

Both writers, and many others over the years, point to black mold and the other oopses, but no one seems interested in why these houses – designed by A-list architects such as Frank Gehry, David Adjaye, and Shigeru Ban – developed such a long list of problems. They did not need to look hard to discover how Brad Pitt’s houses differed from pre-Katrina houses in the ward, for example the famous shotgun houses, which had lasted decades and even centuries.

How did they differ? They were modernist. Make It Right was dedicated to Making It Wrong.

The desire to experiment with form required cutting costs on materials. The foundation could not create groovy new houses with shape-bending features and then sell them for a mere $150,000. This price tag was already below cost, but how much below cost? It was never going to work.

Brad Pitt wasn’t the only one building new houses in New Orleans after Katrina.  Of these, it seems only Pitt wanted to break the traditional rules of architecture. A study by Tulane identified 333 houses built between late 2005 and 2012, according to building permits, found that by a hefty 14 to 1 margin, residents wanted houses of traditional rather than modernist styles. As of 2012, Brad Pitt’s houses were only 1 percent of new houses built post-Katrina.

What may be more surprising than the failure of Make It Right is the behavior of its founder, Brad Pitt, certifiably a good guy, you’d think. When the writing on the wall resolved into Thou shalt not experiment on the poor, Pitt headed for the hills. The Hollywood hills, of course. Maybe that should not be so surprising. White privilege, anyone? It’s only when a blue-chip celebrity breaks the laws of architecture does the public notice, not to mention the authorities. Traditional architecture is not only more beautiful but more utilitarian and more sustainable than modern architecture. They used to build it right; now, they hardly ever do. Let’s hope Make It Right turns out to be an effective teaching moment.

[Rob Steuteville’s excellent column on this topic in his CNU Public Space also makes the points most writers fail to make. Nikos Salingaros links to Rob’s column in his comment, also excellent, below.]

Traditional houses in New Orleans. The one in the middle is new. (Infrogmation)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to More dishing on Brad Pitt

  1. TBH says:

    “The desire to experiment with form required cutting costs on materials.”

    This is more common than you think. Low income communities and those suffering from sever hardships are seen as “pet projects” for celebrities and the architectural glitterati. I’ve seen this time and time again both academically and professionally: over-designed projects that favor cliched “formology” over time-honored and rational building techniques. It’s more important to convey an image rather than practicality. These houses would probably not have as many problems otherwise.

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  2. LazyReader says:

    “Sustainability” is a buzz word used by celebs and green advocates. It’s a laudible goal. BUT let’s analyze what it means. Sustainable means ecological systems “Sustain” themselves indefinately, this is accomplished via typically by recycling All resources over and over. Growth has prescribed limits based on resource availability. Everything nature makes, is food for something else or dies as a food source. Natural addition to decomposition…..

    These Pitt homes were built with environmental quality, they got exactly what they wanted. Houses that decompose. They hired alot of “Experts” what they didn’t hire were people in house building trade. Synthetic and petroleum based materials maybe “Non-sustainable” but they do a good job keeping the house from rotting. In the old days more toxic materials, flammable or dangerous
    Pitch, tar, lead, chrome salts, were used to keep wood from rotting.

    If pitt really wanted to help these people, he could just have gone to Home Depot and build 109 Cinderblock houses. Concrete block is unaffected by termites or extreme temperatures and is virtually soundproof, depending on construction quality. Concrete blocks also provide insulation against cold and heat and may reduce a home’s energy usage. And most of all requires little skilled labor to assemble.

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  3. David,

    Robert Steuteville wrote an essay on this fiasco, in CNU Public Square on 4 February.
    https://www.cnu.org/publicsquare/2022/02/04/pitt-proves-cutting-edge-design-and-affordable-housing-don’t-mix
    I posted a comment that perhaps might be of interest, so I’ll copy it here.

    “Brad Pitt lives in the media-driven world of fashionable images and spectacle, hence believes that our most famous starchitects are highly competent — would indeed be the best possible professionals for solving a serious design problem. This was clearly posed as affordable housing taking into account threats to resiliency because of periodic flooding. He was totally wrong, but it’s not his fault. Every media source in the world promotes the myth of architects who actually produce abstract designs but who ignore practicalities and the emotional sensibilities of the users. Much of their architecture is inhuman, but that flaw is never admitted because it would destroy the false reality that real-estate speculators thrive upon. Instead of losing their license to practice, those individuals win all the commissions and prizes, thus validating their weird products in the eyes of a gullible public. At the same time, both academia and the mainstream profession have been uncompromising in trying to bury the few professionals such as traditional architects and New Urbanists who really know how to get the job done. Michael Mehaffy told me how he and Andrés Duany faced vicious opposition at every stage while they were working pro bono in New Orleans after the Katrina devastation.”

    Robert added a nice remark in the comments. “You had many of the most celebrated starchitects, and would-be starchitects, designing houses for Make it Right. And the vast majority of them made very basic design mistakes that caused the houses to disastrously fail within a few years. That is pretty damning, not just a matter of execution, but an indictment of current high-brow architecture.”

    Does this story reveal an inconvenient truth… about systemic incompetence coupled with hubris? Where big money fuels dangerous fantasies, while the end-product is ridiculous and a total waste?

    Best wishes,
    Nikos

    Like

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