The majority of New Orleans’ residents want a vision from the past in order to face the future. Since Hurricane Katrina damaged so much of the historic building stock of the city, it seems only the purest forms of heritage are acceptable in new civic structures and houses.
Architecture produced under an idealizing theme is a form of propaganda – the promotion of a doctrine or set of beliefs. In the case of New Orleans, it is a set of beliefs that exaggerate the influence of one period – the late-1800’s to early-1900’s shotgun house – to the exclusion of all other types and immigrants and periods of occupation. Initially, these modest houses were not highly regarded as masterpieces, but economy of construction led to their proliferation in the last half of the 1900’s, and resulted in rows of cottages with a rhythm of projecting steps and porch overhangs, shutters and brackets in a wild profusion of colors. They were built on narrow lots for with pre-manufactured pieces, and often replaced hand-built cottages.
Now, the city seems to be a factory intent on mass production of these replicas from the past. In the current rebuilding, the nature of the propaganda becomes muddied and unclear: are the new builders romanticizing a past in which classes and races were segregated? Does it mark a desire to return to a hallowed time without motorcars (since there is no room on the tiny lot for a car) and without electricity, a time when the porch was the living room on a street of neighbors, and all the fans were self-powered? (The percentage of space devoted to plumbing in bathrooms and fitted kitchens precludes a desire to return to the days of the privy in the garden.)
Architecture embodies our hopes and aspirations. How stunted, this society, acknowledging publicly that their best days are past, their glories behind them; that no measure of inventiveness can spark creative adaptation of these stable forms. Architecture could instead reflect possibility, creating a direction for a society sensitive to issues of resource use, social justice, and human kindness.
“It is perhaps when our lives are at their most problematic that we are likely to be most receptive to beautiful things.” – Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness
The single and double shotgun houses and camelbacks that make up the fabric of this city are widely acknowledged as beautiful. In the darkest days of the city, it is not surprising that people turned to these survivors as precedents for the grand revival of their culture. Now, the deepest fears – the managed retreats, the “green dot”, crime, lack of infrastructure – have receded. Perhaps it is time to take up the challenge of building authentically for this time, in ways representative of our ideals and our values, rather than the pale pastel replicas of another time. It is this story, written in the bricks and boards of centuries, that may inspire future generations to innovation when their own dark times descend.