July 1, 2008
Architectural education meets urban poverty in a TV series based on a design-build program at Tulane University.
No offense to MTV Cribs or Survivor, but it’s nice to have architecture featured in a reality show about something real. We’re getting just that in Architecture School, a documentary series airing in six half-hour episodes on the Sundance Channel beginning this August. The brainchild of Michael Selditch, an architect-turned-producer/director who recently gave us such reality hits as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, this series is about a lot more than sprucing up the pad to please one’s partner. It follows a year in the life of a class of Tulane architecture students building one affordable home, a host of New Orleans residents struggling to find places to live, and a city in chaos.
Selditch had long wanted to do a show about architecture, and the crisis in New Orleans provided the opening. “Katrina shed a spotlight on the city,” he says. “Nobody was paying attention to the plight of metropolitan areas.” He paired up with URBANbuild, a design-build program at the Tulane School of Architecture; students spend the fall semester designing houses and in the spring build a project chosen after a round of juries and critiques. We follow the process as students sweat late nights in the studio, then watch them cram three bedrooms and two bathrooms into a 1,200-square-foot structure on an oddly sited Central City lot.
The show cuts between the micro world of design decisions—porch dimensions, panel drawings—and the macro world of their implications: the way homes can weave together neighborhoods and communities, and even reconcile architecture students. “Hurricane Katrina is actually giving us a chance to deal with pre-Katrina situations,” says Byron Mouton, who directs the Tulane program. “At first there’s some competition on the job site, but then we watch the strengths of all the students emerge. Sometimes it’s not the ones who design well in the studio who do best in the building process. They start to appreciate how many kinds of talent it takes to get buildings made, and they learn to deal with imperfections.”
Meanwhile, as Katrina victims and poor New Orleanians navigate the city bureaucracy in an effort to get out of rentals—and, in some cases, cars—into homes of their own, we hear them talk about the barriers to homeownership. “It’s a moving portrait of what people are up against,” Selditch says. “As we were filming, there were days I almost cried.”
The struggle to build and obtain affordable housing turns out to be a natural subject for reality-based drama. Lauren Anderson, CEO of Neighborhood Housing Services, which funded the year’s URBANbuild project, says the program inspires her whether or not there’s a film crew around. “We watch two worlds come together,” she says. “There are the ‘Aha!’ moments of the students designing and watching their vision get realized in fully built form, then we show the finished houses to people who might live there, and they sort of light up as they think, This could be my home. We see that dream get realized too.”