Putting New Orleans On the Green Line

(By Thom Mayne -- Morphosis)
By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 15, 2006

Laura Bush couldn't have been more effective if she'd waved a magic wand, but it's hard to compete with Brad Pitt when trying to turn the nation's attention to "green" design.

At the White House on Monday, the first lady appealed to a gathering of National Design Award honorees, urging them to get involved in rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Their legacy, she suggested, would be determined by their efforts to improve the devastated region. She also put in a surprise plug for sustainable design, saying that Hurricane Katrina "gives us the chance to build 'green' buildings and to build energy-saving buildings" -- which made her sound like an early-warning siren for global warming.

By Thursday, Thom Mayne -- recipient of the Smithsonian's architecture prize and last year's Pritzker Architecture Prize -- had traded a gold chair in the East Room for a seat on a bus roaming the Big Easy.

Mayne's firm, Morphosis, is already a major player, having recently completed the master plan for a $716 million, 20-acre jazz park near the Louisiana Superdome, the first major redevelopment proposal to emerge since Katrina struck in August. On this occasion, Mayne, a rock star among architects, was touring the Lower Ninth Ward and talking small-scale housing and child-care centers with Brad Pitt, aka the world's most recognizable actor-turned-architectural activist.

"We want to rebuild intelligently," Pitt said yesterday at a news conference.

The timing of their New Orleans visit was coincidental, but the purpose was right in line with the first lady's plea, which might be all that matters to the displaced residents. Pitt invited Mayne to judge a contest to create affordable housing and a community center as models of energy-efficient, ecologically friendly design.

The contest sponsor, Global Green USA, has committed to building such a "green" complex in the Holy Cross neighborhood. Pitt, an architecture fan and a green-design advocate, had met the group's president, Matt Petersen, through the Clinton Global Initiative, and signed on as head of the jury.

Winners of the contest ("Sustainable Design Competition for New Orleans -- Advancing the Sustainable Rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast") were to be notified over the weekend and their designs unveiled Monday on the "Today" show. (Beginning Monday, Global Green will open the voting to the public at Globalgreen.org.)

Mayne called during the judging to put the week's imagery in perspective. A leading practitioner of "green" technology, Mayne says he was eager to respond to Laura Bush personally but didn't get the chance.

"I was next in the receiving line when they pulled her away," he said. "I was going to say to her: 'You should encourage your husband. This administration isn't exactly famous for that.' "

In her remarks, Bush acknowledged that many designers were already engaged in such work, but she encouraged them with textbook-worthy savvy about urban design.

"The planning of buildings, city blocks and public spaces determines how businesses, governments, civic organizations and neighbors come together and interact as a community," she noted. By creating communities that "integrate schools, homes, cultural centers and commercial enterprises," designers also would entice displaced families back home.

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