I was recently asked by the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans to comment on our city’s long standing architectural traditions, and on which local architects, ideas, and inspirations might have most influenced my own design thinking. It’s an interesting question, and not just because New Orleans includes such a rich array of cultural traditions and architectural styles. I believe that it’s also an opportunity to think about the ways in which our unique history of inclusion and fusion might help us take on some of the seemingly intractable challenges that lie ahead.
New Orleans is famously the birthplace of jazz, an art form comprised of an array of sounds and rhythms that come together to create a uniquely collective sound. In the words of Wynton Marsalis, “The blues, American folk music, gospel, American popular song, hillbilly, bluegrass, country western, and jazz are root styles of our national music.” Jazz also employs a special method of collaboration: improvisation. Instead of following a predetermined script, players are often free to create their own personal expressions, while at the same time “riffing” on each other’s direction. The underlying give and take—the call and response between the musicians—makes jazz a uniquely democratic and American artform.
New Orleans is also known for its culinary arts, where combinations of French, Spanish, Afro/Caribbean, and, now, Vietnamese ingredients are fused together to create so many of our unique local delicacies. The ultimate example, of course, is gumbo, an occasionally wild amalgamation of essences and ingredients that create a collective and distinct result.
Although the full body of New Orleans architecture includes many forms and traditions, there are two styles that deserve special attention. One of them embodies a classicist set of design principles that embrace logic and clarity. Included in this style are an assemblage of many rational elements: nature-based geometries, divine mathematical proportions, bilateral symmetry, and other nuances. These are found in the work of architects such as Benjamin and Henry Latrobe, James Gallier Sr., and Henry Howard. Different kinds of rational classicist principles also play significantly in the work of the city’s modern practitioners: Nathaniel Curtis, Albert Ledner, and, more recently, in the neomodern works of other local design firms.
New Orleans architecture also includes a body of work whose designs are more inclusive and fanciful, and created in intentional defiance of the rational classicist tradition. These designs first appeared in the late 19th century as derivations of a more intuitive, emotional, and quixotic artistic movement known as French Romanticism. One French architect, Pierre-Francois-Henri Labrouste (1801–1875), was a leading proponent of this integrated, lyrical, and inclusionary style. His design for the Sainte Genevieve Library in Paris is a fusion of natural and industrial motifs and includes a collection of architectonic works by visual artists (and even some allegorical references from the work of Victor Hugo).
Labrouste was a student of the École Royale des Beaux Arts in Paris while the Romantic era was emerging in opposition to the Enlightenment’s more rigid classicist ideologies. In the late 1860s, noted New Orleans architect James Freret (1838–1897) studied at the same institution, as did Louisiana born Henry Hobbs Richardson (1838–1886). The works of both architects are rooted in the Romanesque style, which blends Roman, Carolingian and Ottonian, Byzantine, and local Germanic cultural traditions.
There is a lot to learn from the traditions of inclusion and fusion, lessons that I believe can inform our thinking about contemporary design. With a more intentional focus on integration and collaboration, architects, artists, and other craftspeople can cultivate more purposeful design responses to the intractable issues of social equity, climate change, and other challenges of our time. While this may seem like a sharp departure from the modern design profession’s obsession with personal style, it is actually aligned with the inclusive spirit of political and artistic ideals that Walter Gropius first espoused in the closing lines of his 1919 Bauhaus manifesto:
“Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting, and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come.”
My own firm, Concordia, has found this kind of work to be meaningful and personally rewarding. For example, our design for the Ursulines Academy: Early Learning Center incorporates a whimsical version of the nature-based geometries of Gothic arches in the facade of a large student drop-off pavilion in a way that also serves as a tool for teaching high school geometry. At the New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center, we fused architectonic works by five prominent visual artists into the design of the building’s four-story lobby space. Another multidisciplinary collaboration for the New Orleans Ashe Cultural Arts Center included a collaboration with master djembe drummer Luther Gray and jazz musician Jason Marsalis that resulted in a distinctive architectonic structure called the “Bamboula Wall.”
The spirit of inclusion and collaborative decision making can also be useful at the scale of community planning and urban design. It’s here that a commitment to codesign can engage with the creative input of the hundreds or even thousands of the citizen stakeholders whose lives will be most impacted by the planning outcomes. The need to embrace a more collective decision-making process is nowhere more critical than in the planning work needed to address the challenges of rising sea levels, affordable housing, Black Lives Matter, and other social concerns. For example, Concordia’s team for the design of the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP) after Hurricane Katrina incorporated the creative energies of 12 national and local urban planning firms whose work was integrated with the voices of more than 9,000 local residents, the majority of whom were African American. Among many outcomes of the UNOP codesign process are a citywide master plan with the force of law, schools designed to double as resilient community hubs, and a codified New Orleans Neighborhood Participation Process (NPP) that requires citizen review and input on all public and private real estate development projects.
At the same time, David Waggonner, co-founder of Waggonner and Ball Architects, was busy organizing the Dutch Dialogues, an international collaboration of scientists and designers aimed at resilient nature based planning and engineering solutions for stormwater management. This process resulted in a new city ordinance to mitigate future citywide flooding by requiring all real estate projects to provide pervious paving, vegetative absorption, and drainage of the first 2 inches of rainwater on site. More recently, Bryan Lee and his firm, Coloquate, have focused their collaborative work on issues around race and equity, while local photographer Tina Freeman, multimedia artist Dawn Dedeaux, and visual artist Ron Bechet have turned their creative talents to addressing other complex climate and social challenges.
Let’s face it: Some of the most demanding issues of our time—climate change, environmental sustainability, global pandemics, economic inequities, divisive identity politics—do not offer simple solutions. They will require a more adaptive, inclusive, and collaborative approach to problem solving. In planning and design, these constructs of fusion and inclusion reside somewhere in the balance between logically classical and lyrically romantic ideals, and at the radical center that exists between the common ground of universal truth and the creative edge of discovery and innovation. It’s in this unique place of aesthetic integration and authentic collaboration—where all of us are smarter than any of us—that the solutions to some of our toughest challenges can be found.
Featured image via Wikipedia.