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Brad Pitt and the Trouble with Vernacular Architecture

As an architecture buff, and one with an academic interest in the somewhat underrated field of vernacular architecture, I’ve been following the “Brad Pitt saves New Orleans” story with a healthy dose of skepticism. Yes, anyone using his celebrity and monetary largesse for a good cause is to be commended, and yes, I’m kind of psyched that Brad Pitt is into architecture and not just wine, women, and song. But a Hollywood celebrity swooping in to impose a distinctly modern taste onto an area known for its historic domestic architecture, a building tradition termed the “shotgun” house which traces its roots to Haiti and West Africa? Like I said, I’m dubious. And so is preservationist Clem Labine, writing about the issue for The CIVITAS Chronicles.

Brad Pitt is backing a modern take on the vernacular “shotgun” house residence so prevalent in New Orleans.

The Make It Right team has commissioned influential modern architects Thom Mayne of Morphosis, KieranTimberlake, Shigeru Ban) to reinterpret the vernacular tradition in the Lower Ninth Ward. And as modern architects, these firms do excellent work. However, when considered in the fabric of a community, the results can seem more like “individual sculptural objects rather than as part of an urban ensemble,” which makes for, as Labine argues, a “bad urbanism.” The new homes distract from the existing culture and building traditions of the very city they are being built to support.

And though modern design enthusiasts (of which, generally, I am one) have been quick to praise the project — which is building ‘em lean, mean, and green, after all — design professionals with ties to New Orleans are hesitant. The Times quotes James Dart, a New Orleans-born, New York-based architect who describes the houses as “alien, sometimes even insulting,” adding, “the biggest problem is that they are not grounded in the history of New Orleans architecture.” Local broker Jennifer Pearl chimes in: “Brad has the very best intentions. However, had he come here with houses that looked like what had been here before, he probably could have had four times, five times as many houses up by now.”

A typical shotgun house in New Orleans.

In contrast, the Katrina Cottage, a flexible prototype adhering to the vernacular New Orleans style, was designed by Marianne Cusato in conjunction with Lowe’s, which sells the building materials for 19 variations on a theme at a bulk rate (approximately $30,000 for a residence that sleeps four). Cusato’s plans were part of a larger initiative sponsored by the Governor’s Commission on Recovery in 2006, who decreed that the housing plans should be “FEMA trailers with dignity” — in other words, temporary housing that is good enough to remain in place as a “granny cottage, home office or workshop after the main house is rebuilt.”

Architect Marianna Cusato designed 19 blueprint variations on the shotgun theme, with building materials bundled at a discount price through Lowe’s.

Got opinions? Give ‘em to us straight.

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