Post Katrina: Why New Orleanians Overwhelmingly Choose Traditional Architecture

Richard Campanella, the Tulane University-based geographer and author, recently posted a terrific research paper on post-Katrina architecture in New Orleans. Appearing in the estimable Places Journal, the piece’s provocative title, 14-1: Post-Katrina Architecture by the Numbers, points to its overwhelming statistical conclusion: New Orleanians, when faced with the task of rebuilding their homes, choose “traditional” over “contemporary” architecture by that resounding margin. This finding is interesting in and of itself. It’s also particularly fraught, given the formal skirmishes seemingly endemic to the profession. But Campanella’s research uncovered a more troubling statistic, more damaging to all architects, regardless of their stylistic preferences: the fraying, now nearly broken connection between architects and ordinary people.


Campanella, one of the great chroniclers of post-Katrina New Orleans, makes a very smart observation at the outset of his paper. The vast majority of post-storm articles, films and associated compilations were, he argues, acts of self-selection. “Being both a consumer and a creator of Katrina-related literature over the past eleven years,” he told me in an interview at his Tulane office, “I’ve noticed that much of it’s cherry picked to make certain points: to shine light on how we want the city to be rebuilt, or warn against how we don’t want it to be rebuilt. Meanwhile, there was this gigantic gap in how it actually was rebuilt.” Indeed, an out-of-towner googling “post-Katrina architecture” might mistakenly think that the landscape of New Orleans was a modernist utopia, dotted with Make It Right-inspired houses. The empirical evidence, as Campanella the social-scientist might say, does not support that conclusion.


How did he come to his very different view? Campanella and his project collaborator, Cassidy Rosen, collected all of the construction permits issued between 2005 and 2012. The first one, remarkably, was issued before the flood waters had receded, on October 5 of that year, “an optimistic soul, if ever there was one,” Campanella said. All told, there were 6,296 permits issued over the next seven years.


Time and resources prevented him from examining every house, so Campanella created a 5% random sample. “My background is in the mapping sciences, so I’m pretty handy with GIS and spatial analysis,” he said. Using an algorithm, Campanella assigned a random number to all 6,296 permits, and then selected one out of every twenty. “But that still left gaps. Because what I’m trying to characterize here is the geography of architectural style. So what was I leaving out by focusing on new construction permits? The rebuilt housing projects. They were also part of the new residential.”


Once he and Rosen had assembled a random sample of 333 homes and apartment houses, they set out to document them visually. Although this was by no means an easy task, it’s one that would have been considerably more difficult ten years ago, before the advent of Google Street View. “Three-hundred-thirty-three times a metropolis of twenty miles wide would have been a whole lot of legwork,” Campanella said. “Street View was a very convenient research tool.” They supplemented those images with their own field work, physically documenting about one-quarter of the total sample. For each house, they had multiple photos, taken from different angles.


Making the assessments, Campanella soon realized, would be tricky. Initially he had set out to characterize each house by a specific architectural style (Greek Revival, Neoclassical, Italianate, etc.), but very quickly realized that was a futile exercise, given the stylistic mish-mash of many houses. The new “old” homes were “so intermixed and scattershot across their facades that the present day designers were not really invoking the original philosophies from a century or two ago.” Instead he placed each house on a 1 to 10 scale, with a range of contemporary structures assigned to the lower numbers (1, 2, 3 and 4), and a contrasting range of historically-inspired houses occupying the higher ones (6, 7, 8, 9 and 10). Purely functional houses with no discernible style split the difference and were labelled 5. “I kept handy calibration images to keep myself honest, to prevent what I call ‘interpretive drift,’” Campanella said.


To anyone who observed the rebuilding first hand, the final results should not come as a big surprise. Once he had eliminated the purely functional 5s—”there were a lot of those”—Campanella tabulated fourteen times as many traditional houses (6-10) as contemporary ones (1-4). The random sample, incidentally, included a handful of Make It Right houses. “Historicism clearly won the day,” he said. “But no one had put a number on it, because everyone was focussed on the exceptions.”


And so what are we to make of this drastic split? Traditionalists like Justin Shubow and David Brussat will predictably hiss, “We told you so!” But Campanella takes a more nuanced view: the neotraditionalism of New Orleans actually predates Katrina by decades, and was in fact a nostalgia-tinged response to years of population loss, economic decline, and white (and black middle class) flight. “In the 1960s people wanted ranch houses,” Campanella said. “They might not have been modernist, capital M, but they weren’t past-oriented. More lately, in the late 20th century and post-Katrina, retro became refuge. It became reassurance, for the bleak present of the immediate post-storm and its uncertain future. That’s the meaning I find in these cityscapes. And it’s why I’m probably less hard on them than some of my architect colleagues. I see them as having meaning, warts and all.”


But the 14-1 split, the “marquee finding,” as Campanella described it, obscures another perhaps more important figure in the study: just 3% of the new homes were the work of commissioned architects. It’s a difficult figure to establish, and Campanella admitted as much, but his finding here is in line with other studies that have come to a similarly dismal conclusion: the practice of architecture is increasingly a boutique exercise. When faced with the biggest architectural decisions of their lives, New Orleanians (like most Americans) didn’t engage architects. Forget style; that’s bad news, regardless of where you stand in the aesthetic divide.


Featured image: montage by Richard Campanella; photos by Cassidy Rosen or Google Street View.


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