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.]