December 1, 2005
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, something strange happened: architects kept their mouths shut and their hands off their pens.
About a month after the brown waters of Lake Pontchartrain breached the levees and inundated New Orleans, I found myself listening to a long discussion on NPR about the plight of the Formosan termite. This is a terrible bug, capable of eating its way not only through wood, as one expects of its kind, but also, an on-air entomologist informed us in the direst tones, vinyl siding, lead sheets, concrete, and copper—in short, not just the cellulose bones and skin but everything that makes up a home. Before Hurricane Katrina this creature had been eating New Orleans. The termite smuggled its way back from Asia in palettes as the military infrastructure of the Second World War was dismantled, and like the plagues of gypsy moth caterpillars in the Northeast and zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, it ran amok in its new ecology. The storm was a reprieve; the entomologist, citing his research, noted that the population would be much reduced: Formosan termite colonies can’t survive more than a few weeks underwater.
By that point the Katrina coverage was clearly ebbing with the flood waters. The damage from the storm had been described by panicked pols as worse than September 11 and Hiroshima, an “American Pompeii,” and with infamous overstatement by the mayor of Biloxi, “our tsunami.” Unwatchable images of government neglect and tales of official malfeasance were everywhere. Who could begrudge the radio pundits and producers their attempt to find a silver lining? New Orleans had ceased to be…but the termites were dead! It was a classic example of late-cycle media overreach; with the flood and the reaction to it dominating the news for a month, all other tales had been told. A city had been submerged, its people had been scattered, its buildings and infrastructure were at that point defunct. Cue the bug guys. And we still hadn’t heard from the architects.
Something very strange, and perhaps salutary, took place last September: architects kept their mouths shut and their hands off their pens. As of this writing, in early October, I have not heard of a single provocative statement made by a would-be taste leader of the profession. Richard Meier has not risen to claim that the city must be rebuilt in white panels. Diller and Scofidio have not pleaded, as they did within days of September 11, to preserve the poignant “erasure.” Rem Koolhaas has not gone on the record to tie the storm to American imperialism. Daniel Libeskind, perhaps most surprisingly, has not yet profitably emoted. Just as miraculous, there has been no eye candy. No plans for walled or walking or floating cities (A true American Venice! Think of the possibilities!) are making the e-mail rounds. There has been some under-the-radar action—the Rural Studio reacted with an idea for reusing shipping containers, Gregg Pasquarelli and a team from SHoP Architects flew down to help out in Mississippi, another New York architect was in talks with Halliburton to produce her innovative shelter design—but there was a marked absence of star-caliber grandstanding. Do you hear that? Listen close: it’s the sound of humility. In New York glib visionary talk had started just hours after the World Trade Center became Ground Zero, and noted architects—Norman Foster among them—got busy with specific designs. But about the desolation of an entire city? The greats had nothing to say, and amazingly, they said nothing.
Along with the genocide of the termites, that is the best news so far. The star architects’ instant response to the attack on the World Trade Center was more than just an appalling breach of good taste laying bare the mercenary gotta-get-me-that-job-first soul of the profession. It also functioned to queer the future of the site. By polluting the public discourse with promises of healing form at a time when productive discussions would have centered on land use and financing and ownership (perhaps even pressuring Larry Silverstein to make public his loosely worded lease), the failure of the cursed site, still playing out, was ensured. Much of what we have seen downtown in the last eventful year was merely a shaking out of those features—name-brand architecture and “culture”—that were from the beginning incompatible with the realities of the place and its financial and political context, realities that would have been evident had our starriest architects kept their towers in their pants and given urban planners some space to do their considerably less flashy thing.
Remember planners? They were the big losers at Ground Zero, cut out of the official process entirely after the implosion, in the summer of 2002, of Beyer Blinder Belle’s ill-fated attempt at evenhanded postdisaster sobriety. White papers were circulated and panels convened, but from that point on it was an architectural game. A game for which, excuse my French, the architects involved were utterly unprepared.
The obvious—and telling—reason that architects have not yet stormed the media and stolen the discourse this time around is that there are no signature buildings to be built, no sodden monuments to raise from the mud for the glory of the city and the great personal gain of the designer. Certainly there are exceptions (very quickly by its standards, FEMA sent out panicked calls for preservationists to help the agency assess the patrimonial value of what was lost), but the lion’s share of buildings that will need to be replaced are houses—homes for poor people—and that has not been an important focus of architectural energy since Pruitt-Igoe fell.
In the professional response to New Orleans, architectural hubris has met its match. Savor the moment; good sense is prevailing. Planners—stolid, number-crunching, pros-and-cons-balancing city planners—have taken the lead, securing space on the Op-Ed pages and time with Jim Lehrer. Whether they can now get the ear of public officials is an open question. No planners (or architects) have been named to sit on Mayor Nagin’s 17-member Bring New Orleans Back Commission; and the South, as any member of the APA could tell you, is a notoriously unfriendly environment for well-considered urban growth. But with the architects out of the way—momentarily humbled by the scope of the disaster—there’s a chance that order can be restored to the public-space universe: plan first, design later. It’s a no-brainer. And for that the people of New Orleans, wherever they are, should breathe a very small sigh of relief.