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Onward and Upward: Architects Envision New Orleans Rising From the Waters

A design for a school set within a mound (foreground), by the Dutch firm MVRDV, part of the
A design for a school set within a mound (foreground), by the Dutch firm MVRDV, part of the "Newer Orleans" exhibit. At left, the child's drawing that inspired the concept. (Images Courtesy Mvrdv)

Morphosis, the firm of 2005 Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Thom Mayne, tackled the real-world issue of who should live in the new New Orleans. Mayne adopts the highly controversial idea that the city should shrink to its most prosperous neighborhoods. Maps show a densely populated zone on high ground surrounding the French Quarter. Flooded areas extending from the Ninth Ward north and west along Lake Pontchartrain are marked for a "strategic return" to wetlands.

The blueprint is grounded in research that Mayne did for a client before Katrina struck. He already had determined that the city lacked the tax base to sustain, much less rebuild, infrastructure. "Radical subtraction" would alleviate the burden on city services, the plan suggests, while the central core could be revived as a cultural destination. The cost of establishing Category-5 levees has been put at $32 billion, at the least. Morphosis compares that figure with the projected $9 billion cost of buying out displaced residents.

The opposite position is taken by George Hargreaves, a master planner and past chairman of the landscape architecture department at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. He notes that 70 percent of homes in the area that Morphosis consigns to wetlands were owner-occupied. That suggests to Hargreaves that if people could be made to feel safe, they would return. In his view, the opportunity to restore the city's "soul" outweighs the cost.

"Newer Orleans" opened in Rotterdam in January. The exhibition was brought to Washington through the efforts of Dutch Ambassador Boudewijn J. van Eenennaam, who traveled to New Orleans in November and organized a tour of Dutch flood protection systems for Louisiana officials in January.

Betsky hopes the exhibition, which will travel to New Orleans, New York, Chicago and Louisville, can generate discussion beyond the problems of New Orleans. Cities without defining elements such as Washington's Mall, Chicago's Millennium Park or Seattle's new public library could find strong arguments here.

As for schools, they serve as safe havens for children everywhere, but unfortunately, designs rarely live up to their potential to foster well-being.

Newer Orleans: A Shared Space runs through July 30 at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. Hours. Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 202-272-2448. Free.

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