Make It Wright

My undergrad school days at the University of Santo Tomas' College of Architecture were marked by memories of crossing waist-deep flooded streets of Espana Avenue while protecting my T-square and rolled-up drawings from getting wet. This flood-prone street has gained that reputation specially during the rainy season. It is amazing how the people living there have learned how to cope, survive, and still remained and chose to live in the area flood after flood after flood.

Across the Atlantic lies a similar flood-prone area. Nearly five years (circa 2005) since hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA), I was curious to see what development has taken place in the flood-devastated area.

"I wouldn't recommend you go there and walk by yourself" said the gentleman at the information counter of the Louis Armstrong Airport. "The Lower Ninth Ward is still pretty much an empty lot, with a few houses built by the Make It Right Foundation curated by Brad Pitt. There are no street signs yet up to this day. The best way to get there is by taking a cab."

I looked at my watch, in about an hour, one of my friends would be arriving at the airport and we would have a cultural experience of the south. I sent a text message telling my friend that I will be hanging out at the nearby terminal sports bar and would wait until her plane arrived so we could get to the hotel together. I took a seat and opened a map of downtown. As I mapped out where the Lower Ninth Ward was located (coming from the CBD where our hotel was), I acquainted myself on the housing project that was launched with a dramatic pink fabric resulting in a nickname called The Pink Project.


This was a metaphor that conveyed a message to disaster victims in this area that "they have not been forgotten".

It was a mild morning at seventy degrees Fahrenheit. In true N'Awlins fashion, we satisfied our pangs of hunger with freshly baked beignet and Cafe Du Monde over ice.

We took a cab that would take us to the territory of the Lower Ninth Ward. This was what greeted us.(photo by Mika Kondo)

We drove a little further down and I saw a glimpse of developmental hope.
(photo by Mika Kondo)

(photo by LL)

(photo by LL)

(photo by LL)

(photo by LL)

I have to admit, my immediate reaction upon seeing these houses in a deserted land was, "oh cool modern houses". I knew little about the cultural heritage of the Lower Ninth Ward, or of New Orleans in general. What I knew a lot about was architecture and modernism. I know a modern structure when I see one. There was not much time to digest the visual candy of the houses in the Make It Right project, since I was coasting along the empty streets while trying to imagine what had happened that fateful night when hurricane Katrina hit causing a breach in the levee. It was difficult to fathom that the area where we were driving was once flooded with water to up about twenty feet. For someone like me who does not know how to swim, that is downright frightening. So just like any normal architect would do when confronted with a camera and some modern houses in sight, I started filming and taking photos. Later I would share these with my architectural community which is mostly populated with supporters of Frank Lloyd Wright's Organic Principles. I was amazed with varying reactions.

"This has no warm feeling, a sort of regurgitated shot-gun house with a bris soleil. Maybe keep the railing, though (on one of the houses). Mr. Wright would have likely took the sledgehammer in his own hands and knocked this thing down...if not him, a band of able armed apprentices." says Michael Hawker, Principal at Zoetic Architecture & Design (St. Louis, MO) and former Taliesin apprentice. He posed a thought-provoking question: "Other than solving the flood issue (being on a pilotis), do these lift the spirits of the inhabitants?"

I went back and researched the history of the houses and the original submissions since it was my understanding that these were from designs by local, regional, and international architects invited by Brad Pitt. Most were to my liking as my architectural inclination leans more towards the modernist. Michael's comment brought my reactions back to the ground while my thoughts journeyed into outer space. It made me remember a trip to the cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the Netherlands nearly five years ago. My Dutch friend and tour guide explained to me that while Amsterdam kept and preserved the heritage of its cultural past, Rotterdam was devastated and bombed completely during the war so this city had no other recourse but to rebuild. Rotterdam today, is filled with modern buildings that probably inspired publications like Super Dutch. The city has no bearing on what it was pre-war in the literal sense, in comparison to what Amsterdam has preserved both pre-war and post-war. These two cities when compared side-by-side define contrast. Coincidentally, these cities are located below sea-level similar to New Orleans.

Could the Lower Ninth Ward have a similar future potential? "Wow, what a contrast...It's just that they have a great opportunity down there to do something amazing and it would be a shame if they miss that" shared Jochen Walther from the Taliesin Fellows Board (Scottsdale, AZ).

It was great that this neglected part of the country was brought to our attention by Mr. Pitt when he curated the submissions. We have yet to see what this portion of New Orleans would eventual become after more houses will have been built and a new neighborhood culture emerges. But right now, it is still an empty canvass waiting for architects and builders to take part in painting the town with its potential future, that could make it more Organic, emulating the principles that Mr. Wright used in harmonizing building and landscape. In true Organic-Principle-fashion, just "Make it Wright."


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