Once there was an old hobo called Two-Hat who, after years of riding the rails, was offered shelter in an elderly Uptown lady's garage. There he devised a scheme to save the French Quarter by building an exact replica of it on top of the original, which would co-exist below. His plan was to shunt the tourists to the fake French Quarter while leaving the original to the natives, so the replica would suffer the inevitable effects of commercialism while the original, like Dorian Gray, remained the same. He never could persuade the city to adopt his plan, but the fake French Quarter idea took on a life of its own at Disney World, and later among advocates of the Disneyesque urban planning philosophy known as New Urbanism.
I thought of Two-Hat while at the Ogden Museum perusing the Sustainable Designs For New Orleans exhibit, sometimes called the "Brad Pitt show," after its instigator-in-chief. Not that there was anything fake about the designs, all of which oozed sincere high mindedness in their common goal of creating ecologically enlightened housing for the Lower Ninth Ward's Holy Cross neighborhood, but a few did share Two-Hat's boldness, his flair for the fantastical. Fortunately, the most fantastical were not among the six finalists, who tended to be fairly circumspect and common-sensical, leaving the boldness -- and sometimes folly -- to some of the runners up. But not all finalists were without flair.
For instance, Breathe, by Eskew + Dumez + Ripple of New Orleans, features a mazelike neo-modernist structure cleverly engineered to replicate the "porous condition" common to balconied French Quarter buildings with courtyards and the arrangements of shotgun houses in old New Orleans neighborhoods. A "veil of ionized porous metal" mimics the protective effects of shutters on old homes while an "umbrella" of solar panels on the roof augments the utilities. While a tad utopian, it's a plan that's as grounded in tradition as it is innovative and forward looking.
More dubious is Leveefill, a visually dramatic and seemingly ingenious proposal by a runner-up Memphis firm to create levees from shredded storm debris that would feature housing units built right into them like high tech caverns. Although any earthen embankment provides great insulation, we know from experience that organic materials make terrible levees and that any built-in holes or hollows are to be avoided at all costs. Taking Back the River, a proposal by a Seattle firm, involved recycling wooden pallets into framing for new housing stock. This sounds good and may have potential, but proper framing requires very uniform materials, and used pallets may be pushing it. But not all runners up were flaky. A Chicago firm's House Made of Cups proposal is a residential complex featuring modular panels made from concrete incorporating hollow plastic spheres as insulation. The kicker is that the plastic spheres are fashioned from recycled go-cups, an endlessly renewable resource in this city. Practical and ingenious, Cups wins the Two-Hat award for visionary local solutions.
The eternally fascinating shotgun house figures into a number of the offerings. In Where Y'at, by the runner up New Orleans firm of Wisnia Associates, "shotguns are abstracted into modules" in a complex featuring courtyards, green spaces and ecological flourishes. NOLA Shotgunloft, a finalist proposal by Frederic Schwartz Associates of New York, features stacked modular units with amenities such as vegetable gardens and even "a fruit-bearing orchard as a ... symbol of renewal." But a separate exhibition, Building Solutions II, offers some alternative approaches by local designers. Urban planner Robert Tannen takes the shotgun back to the basics in his MODGUN concept, where each room is a prefab unit that could be purchased separately as funds allowed. Put them together and you have a classic New Orleans shotgun. Not content with paper plans, Tannen had a model MODGUN installed in front of the museum. And if you're wondering what good is a single room see www.tumbleweedhouses.com for the California version replete with mini-kitchens and bathrooms. In an age of all too vulnerable McMansions, such approaches may not only be viable, they might just provide the lifeline that enables the flooded-out residents of the Gulf Coast to take rebuilding into their own hands.
- Seemingly modest modular housing proposals such as Robert Tannen's MODGUN may promise more than meets the eye.