The Design Observer Group

Posted 09.30.10

Tim Culvahouse

Stoop, Balcony, Pilot House: Making It Right in the Lower Ninth Ward

Left: Figure 1. Right: Figure 2. [Credit: All drawings and photographs by Tim Culvahouse; color by Ceara O'Leary]

The Make It Right houses are the most widely published and discussed rebuilding project in post-Katrina New Orleans. Their newsworthiness is unquestionable. The location, if comparisons can fairly be made, is the epicenter of the most dramatic of the catastrophic breaches of the city’s levee system, which devastated the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood of low-income homeowners. The mastermind of the project is a celebrated actor; the architects are an intelligent group of both established and rising stars. By comparison with the official response to the desperate need for replacement housing, a good bit has actually been accomplished: people have homes, and a neighborhood is reforming. And the projects are interesting to look at.

Yet Make It Right is not without flaws. Besides the fundamental error of rebuilding in the Lower Ninth at all — an unfortunate, if understandable, consequence of dozens or hundreds of individual, emotion-led decisions — the houses reveal a raft of unrealized opportunities, the most fundamental of which are typological.

The notion of typology is one of the babies thrown out with the bathwater of postmodern historicism. Like many of the theoretical formulations of the last third of the 20th century, the concept of type suffered from difficult language and association with suspect agendas. But it is at base a straightforward idea: as programs of use and methods of construction are executed repeatedly over time, effective patterns emerge. These patterns optimize relationships among the innumerable considerations of architecture — structure, construction economy and the configuration of social space, most regularly; but also light and ventilation, symbolic representation and other factors.

Left: Figure 3. Right: Figure 4.

The idea of typology can be applied at any scale. For example, because they follow the high ground, the historic land-use patterns of New Orleans coincide with environmentally sustainable development patterns. Such was made starkly visible as the earliest settled neighborhoods of New Orleans — the Vieux Carre, Faubourg Marigny, the Esplanade Ridge, the American Sector (today’s CBD), the Garden District, Uptown — stood comfortably above the flooding from Katrina. A long-validated understanding of the environment is instantiated in these neighborhoods, which constitute a planning typology. [Figure 1]

Other, equally valuable understandings are embedded in the building typologies of the Crescent City. Particularly instructive for the Make It Right houses are three pervasive types — the Creole townhouse, the ubiquitous shotgun house, and the shotgun’s odd variant, the camelback. What light might these historic types shed on the Make It Right houses realized to date?

The most widely recognized house type in New Orleans is the shotgun, so-called because of the purported alignment of doors between rooms, arranged en filade without a corridor, allowing a miffed homeowner to fire a shotgun the length of the house without damaging the trim. [Figure 2] In fact, few shotgun houses sport such an alignment of openings. More typically, the door between the first two rooms is aligned with the front door, recalling the front parlor/dining room pairing of grander homes. Beyond the second room, the doors shift to the other side, indicating the beginning of the private zone of the house — bedrooms and bathroom. [Figure 3] The kitchen is exiled to the rear of the house, to isolate the heat of cooking from the living spaces in the pre-airconditioned, semi-tropical city. The shotgun shares this environmental logic with the foursquare, central hall mansions of early New Orleans, which relegated the kitchen to an ell extending behind the dining room. [Figure 4]

Left: Figure 5. Right: Figure 6.

The shotgun plan is clearly less than ideal, requiring guests to pass through the private rooms to reach the kitchen and adjoining back yard — the logical spot for the keg of beer and the tub of oysters — or else to squeeze along the three-foot side yard setback. Yet it has at least two brilliancies. One is that conjunction of kitchen and yard, located amid the lush vegetation of the center of the block, a world apart from the street in front. [Figure 5] The other is the front itself. Whether in the tiny, two- or three-tread entry stair of many French Quarter shotguns or the more generous front porch of those in less dense neighborhoods, the shotgun stoop, overhung by the elaborate, mail-order scrollwork of the eave, deftly shapes a space for the casual meeting of homeowner and passerby. [Figures 6, 7]

This configuration of social space is amplified and extended in the typical two-story houses of the city, such as the Creole townhouse, in which the stoop, sometimes elaborated as a columned gallery, is surmounted by a balcony. The stoop remains the space for individuals to meet and converse; the balcony affords a broader but less intimate reach, for which the emblematic exchanges are those between parade watchers and float riders or between breast-baring balcony partiers and their eager fans in the street below. [Figure 8]

The balcony also affords an instance of a characteristic pattern of social initiation in New Orleans. Imagine it’s Mardi Gras, and you are standing on St. Charles Avenue, along the route of the Rex parade. You step back a little, out of the crowd pressed up to the curb. Behind you and overhead, you hear laughter and loud talking, a party on the balcony of a house. One of the women on the balcony is wearing a University of Tennessee t-shirt, so you holler up, “What about them Lady Vols?!”

“Hey, Sugah,” she replies, “you fum Ten-nessee?” and, if you have any sense, you say, “Yes, ma’am.”

Left: Figure 7. Right: Figure 8.

One thing leads to another, and pretty soon someone comes down (probably her brother, and probably his name is something like Chalmers Rivington Maxwell, but he goes by “Butch”) and lets you in and brings you up a dark, curving stair, and there you are on the balcony yourself. All of a sudden you’re big friends and there’s plenty of beer and boiled shrimp. Your view of the parade is better, but, really, you’ve ended up not so far from where you began. As far as catching the beads tossed from the floats, what you’ve gained in altitude you’ve lost in distance.

The social gain, however, is dramatic, and along with the beer and shrimp you get gossip about the Rex krewe and the latest on the fortunes of whichever Louisiana politician is (like the shrimp) in hot water today. On top of that, you have become part of the spectacle yourself, one of the privileged ones on the balconies. The folks down on the sidewalk are hollering up to you, now, and while you’re still part of the audience for the parade, you’re equally part of the show. [Figure 9]

It is worth underscoring that the two zones — the almost ground-level stoop and the balcony above — are discrete from one another, allowing a clear hierarchy of convivial privilege.

It is also worth noting that the traditional house, whether shotgun or Creole townhouse, faces the street without inflection to either side. The door is positioned asymmetrically, as a matter of internal utility, but the façade overall is resolutely frontal and symmetrical. It apprehends the street to be a continuous thing, and it insists on being a part of that continuity, because it is out of the flow of passersby, casual or festive, that a glance begets a conversation.

Top: Figure 9. Bottom Left: Figure 10. Bottom Right: Figure 11.

Taking just this small set of typological patterns — the front stoop in intimate contact with the street, its space shaped by the scrolled overhang above; the balcony as a celebrated re-emergence of privileged social space into the wider streetscape; and the interconnection of kitchen to the out-of-doors — we might suggest a starting point for any housing endeavor that aspires to widespread deployment in New Orleans.

As designers, we might not only provide a set of steps close to the street — as most of the Make It Right models do of necessity — but we might shade and shape those steps to embrace a sense of meeting.

We might think of the street-front outdoor space of the second floor not as a porch continuous with those steps, merely lifted above the floodplain, but as a balcony, a discrete space of heightened experience entered from within the house. The house by Kieran Timberlake does so with appropriately Carnival-esque, if unrepeatably expensive, ornamentation; which, however, leaves the entry stairs looking rather neglected. [Figure 10] Its down-budgeted replication is probably an improvement. [Figure 11] Other houses separate the balcony from the entry stair, as well, but in many cases the balcony is not a full story up; some of the Make It Right houses are raised a full story above grade, but, apparently for budgetary reasons, others are raised only five feet, or as little as three — an unfortunate inconsistency, both urbanistically and aqueously.

The Kieran Timberlake house comes closest of any of the Make It Right houses to maintaining a continuous street front. Typically favoring three-quarter, magazine-cover views and contemporary formal flourishes, the houses value individuality over community. They will not form the coherent streets so beloved — and so highly functioning — in New Orleans.

Figure 12.

We also might engage more thoughtfully the relationship of the house — particularly of the kitchen — to the ground floor outdoor space, both at the rear of the lot and beneath those houses that are raised a full story. Many of the Make It Right houses locate the kitchen mid-house, between the public and private spaces of the house, which makes sense as a purely interior matter. But the loss of easy access from the kitchen does not bode well for the enjoyment of the backyard, when it has once again blossomed into that semi-domesticated wilderness discovered behind every civilized façade in the Crescent City.

Long-standing typologies embody accumulated insight, the individual elements of which may not readily be recognized, their originating logic obscured by time. The wisest course — this is my conviction — is to follow the type except where obvious flaws have emerged. The forced public passage through the private space of the shotgun is such a flaw; it prompts the conundrum of where best to place the kitchen in new transformations.

A counter-argument might be that so many things have changed since the introduction of the shotgun and the Creole townhouse that altogether new types are called for. And there is at least some potential for new types to emerge through the Make It Right process. While the Make It Right models, designed as they are by diverse architects, are highly distinct, each is to be repeated many times. In the process of repetition, the design architects, working with executive architect John C. Williams, are seeking increasing economy, so that the houses should become somewhat more affordable.

Putting, as it does, the chariot before the cart, this method may not, however, be the best for designing affordable homes. It would be more rigorous — and less likely to invite the compromises of “value engineering” — to require the architect to meet an affordable budget in the first place. But the more significant problem is that this process refines only material selection and construction method, not spatial configuration. And it is in the optimizing of social space, hand-in-hand with the method of construction, that enduring types emerge.

Left: Figure 13. Right: Figure 14.

Nevertheless, the Make It Right program has, remarkably, inspired what could become a powerful new house type: the model designed by David Adjaye. This deceptively simple-looking box on legs is surmounted by a roofed patio, which affords the experience of a panoramic view of this relentlessly flat city. [Figure 12]

Precedents for such views from private homes are exceedingly rare in New Orleans; I know of only two precursor types. One is the variant of the shotgun known as the camelback. Prompted by a (short-lived) property tax formula that set the tax rate based on the height of the building at or within a specified distance of the street front, people figured out that they could keep their taxes low by keeping their houses low within that distance, beyond which a second story would add no tax burden. [Figure 13] Typically, the hump of the camelback houses the master bedroom and bath, a simple but delightful aerie rising out of the lush landscape at the center of the block. [Figures 14, 15]

Left: Figure 15. Right: Figure 16.

The second instances qualify as a type not based on their prevalence — there are two of them — but on their clarity. These are the twin Doullot steamboat houses located on Egania Street, in the Lower Ninth Ward but close enough to the Mississippi to have been above the floodwaters. Built between 1905 and 1913 by a former riverboat captain for his daughter and son, they adopt the festive idiom of those craft, complete with wrap-around porches festooned with swags of wooden balls. At the top and center of each house is what is often referred to as a widow’s walk but is really more of a pilothouse — an elevated perch with views in all directions. [Figure 16]

Following the camelback and the steamboat houses, the Adjaye house advances a readily replicable approach to the elusive panoramic view in the City That Height Forgot. It meets the street no more successfully than many of its neighbors — at least not so far — but its rooftop is a typological gift. Such gifts are almost always discoveries from within the texture of the already given; to give generously, we first receive. (Le Corbusier: "Pleine main j'ai reçu, pleine main je donne.")