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Putting New Orleans On the Green Line

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 15, 2006; C02

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.

Mayne's proposed performing-arts center and park -- next to the Superdome and anchored by the National Jazz Center -- could do much more, converting the symbol of devastation into a world-class destination. The private-public project is sponsored by Strategic Hotels & Resorts, the Chicago-based owners of a Hyatt Regency Hotel at the proposal's center (the owners' inspiration came from Millennium Park, which transformed Chicago's downtown).

Reed Kroloff, Tulane University dean of architecture and a juror for Global Green's contest, points out that designers have volunteered and contributed money since immediately after Katrina hit. Architecture for Humanity is organizing rebuilding in Mississippi and Louisiana. Tulane is providing master-planning for free and helping to design five prototype houses to jump-start the rebuilding process. And a house designed with the Massachusetts Institute for Technology will include advanced technology, Kroloff said.

"We're hoping what will come to pass in New Orleans," Kroloff said," is a new vernacular for the city," one that accommodates "the historic precedents that are so strong and dear to us but that looks confidently and creatively toward the future."

(Kroloff served as urban design chairman of Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission, which in January completed a rebuilding plan. While standing on the front step of a house that no longer exists, Kroloff explained how a political tug of war halted action on the plan. Private developers are waiting to see what happens to federal funding, which has been appropriated but is not flowing, he said.)

Contests have emerged as the most prominent counterbalance to Habitat for Humanity kit-houses, which are rising in New Orleans. Experts believe higher-density housing might become the norm if parts of the city cannot be rebuilt safely. Tulane and Architectural Record magazine confronted that issue with a competition called "High Density on the High Ground." More than 500 architects responded with proposals for sustainable apartment living above the floodwaters, including avant-garde constructions with nary a French accent. In addition, architectural students designed post-Katrina shotgun houses and Creole cottages for a New Orleans Prototype House Competition. Entries to the competitions will be displayed this fall in the U.S. Pavilion at the 10th International Architectural Exhibition in Venice.

The value of contests might be largely symbolic, but as Mayne points out, they are hopeful signs that "things are going to take place, that it is possible to take this disaster and make something of it."

Mayne, who was last in New Orleans in November, said: "It is shocking how little has been done. It's an embarrassment."

If rebuilding only required the nod from interested designers, the Gulf Coast, especially New Orleans, would be humming with life.

"It takes economic tools to make it happen," Mayne said. "We're back at the White House. You can tout [ideas] in that room, and everybody would shake their heads. 'We agree. Next? What is your proposal?' "

© 2007 The Washington Post Company