I visited Lousiana recently to do some reporting on Sen. Mary Landrieu’s bid to win a fourth term in a tough political year. But before heading to the key parishes that will determine Landrieu’s fate this November, I stopped by New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward to see how rebuilding efforts are faring nearly nine years after Hurricane Katrina.
I visited one particular spot — the area where in August 2005 a flood wall holding the waters of the Industrial Canal broke, setting off a calamity that continues to this day. The destruction was total; the rebuilding is at best partial.
The first thing one notices today is that solar energy panels seem to outnumber people in this particular stretch of the Lower Ninth. The panels are perched in creative ways atop brand new, brightly colored, architecturally striking, ultra-modern houses. The scene looks completely out of place in New Orleans, although it might fit nicely on the California coast. One critic said the landscape resembles “a field of pastel-colored UFOs.”
The houses are the work of an organization called the Make It Right Foundation, created in 2007 by the actor Brad Pitt. The group has pledged to build 150 new homes in the area, and so far it has finished about 100. And the first thing to say about the project is: Good for them. Much praise should go to people who help others rebuild homes and lives after such a terrible disaster. Here’s hoping they will continue.
At the same time, what becomes clear after looking at the houses along the Industrial Canal is that they are the product of the same spirit of moral uplift and edification that in an earlier era led missionaries to house and feed the unfortunate while requiring they listen to a sermon or a series of Bible verses. The only difference is that now the sermon is about the environment.
Pitt enlisted a who’s who of world architecture to design the houses. One, a pinkish-lavender duplex with a roof deck shaded by twin canopies of solar panels, is by legendary architect Frank Gehry. The house, finished in 2012, is, according to Make It Right, “one of only 22 Gehry residences in the United States and the only Gehry home in Louisiana.” Nearby homes are the work of Shigeru Ban, David Adjaye, the German design studio Graft and other architectural luminaries.
The homes are what is known as LEED Platinum, meaning they meet the highest standards of “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” as determined by the U.S. Green Homebuilding Council. “We don’t just want to make homes ‘less bad’ for the environment,” Pitt said in an admiring profile in Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine. “We want them instead to have an environmental benefit.”
In the Lower Ninth neighborhood, a display constructed over the concrete stoops of two long-gone houses explains some of the homes’ features. They have metal roofs that absorb less heat than other styles. They have acres of solar panels. Concrete columns with recycled content. Decking with non-toxic coatings. Rainwater collectors. Eco-friendly fiberboard. Sustainable wood cabinets. Carpet made from recycled materials. And much more.
The problem is, the daringly designed, environmentally sophisticated houses don’t seem to appeal to the people they were intended to help. Last year, the New Republic published a critique saying “Brad Pitt’s beautiful houses are a drag on New Orleans.” Writer Lydia DePillis — she’s the one who called the buildings “pastel-colored UFOs” — reported that the redevelopment has failed to attract former Lower Ninth residents back to the area, which has in turn failed to attract businesses. Nearby commercial boulevards are “largely barren” and the neighborhood’s few residents “are living in futuristic homes that most Americans would covet, and yet there’s not a supermarket — or even a fast food restaurant — for miles.”
In a defense of the project, New Orleans-based architectural writer Martin Pedersen argued that Make It Right has been “aspirational from the start. It was never about building the most houses, the most expediently; never about rebuilding an entire neighborhood. ... It was about building for returning residents 150 affordable LEED Platinum houses by some of the world’s best architects. It was also about creating a model for sustainable development.”
That’s another way of saying the Make It Right enterprise is really about eco-evangelism. It’s not enough to house the homeless. The victims of Katrina — in this case, a very small number of them — must also be shown the benefits of photo-voltaic panels and special concrete and eco-decking (some of which, unfortunately, has already begun to rot). They may be trying to rebuild their lives, but they’re living in someone else’s agenda.