The postdiluvian landscape contains little cutting-edge design but rather an abundance of familiarity and replication. What does this reveal about New Orleans society?
Last year the world media converged noisily on New Orleans to mark the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. This year marked a quieter but still significant milestone: it’s been a decade since the actual start of the structural recovery, which began tentatively in early 2006. So this is an apt moment to assess the results. How have the citizens of New Orleans been choosing to rebuild their residences? What do the reconstituted cityscapes look like? What do the choices reveal about the various homeowners, builders, developers, architects, authorities involved — and most of all, about New Orleans society?
These fundamental questions have gone curiously unaddressed in the substantial and growing archive of post-Katrina literature. In general this literature, from scholarship to the trade press to ambitious long-form journalism, falls into three main categories: theoretical discourses on the philosophies that ought to (or ought not) inform the rebuilding, including sustainability, resilience, localism, historicism, modernism, equity, social justice, gentrification, neoliberalism, entrepreneurism, tactical urbanism, New Urbanism, and landscape urbanism; critical analyses of official plans and programs (such as the Bring New Orleans Back Commission and Louisiana Road Home), of the privatization of public housing and hospitals, flood control and insurance, coastal restoration, various recovery schemes, and urban planning in general; and journalistic stories of innovative initiatives and proactive citizen engagement, usually with an eye toward the above narratives.
The literature, in other words, has been theoretical, didactic, critical, and/or prescriptive in its framing — and for good reason: there was much to critique during and after Katrina, not to mention before, and much that begged for improvement. What’s harder to find are expository studies aimed at characterizing and explaining how things have actually been playing out, based on broad empirical evidence. To put a finer point on it, everyone seems to have an opinion of what post-Katrina architecture and urbanism ought to look like (consider the very name Make It Right, for Brad Pitt’s project of developing sustainable homes in the Lower Ninth Ward), but no one has conducted an architectural census and analyzed what, ten years later, it actually looks like. […]