After Hurricane Katrina, movie star Brad Pitt descended on New Orleans to help rebuild the Lower Ninth, one of the city’s hardest hit neighborhoods.
With him, came a retinue of star architects: Thom Mayne. Shigeru Ban. Frank Gehry. Among others. Each has won the Pritzker Prize, sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize of Architecture.
Now, ten years after the storm, one might ask: What has all that talent achieved?
The answer, in the most basic sense, is that Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation has built more than 100 houses, all equipped with solar panels and other eco-friendly flourishes, for families who otherwise might not have been able to afford a home. The group has plans to build at least 41 more, and in many blocks of the Lower Ninth, it is the only active builder.
But what the “starchitects” have achieved is considerably less. In fact, the vast majority of the homes built so far came from designs created by other, lesser-known architects that Pitt hired. In fact, none of those three most celebrated architects – Mayne, Ban and Gehry – can claim to have built any more than one prototype home out of the scores that have been built.
What happened? With the Mayne and Ban efforts, at least, the story is of the kind that gives contemporary architecture its aura of Alice-in-Wonderland elitism: the designs proved to be too clever to be built on a budget – that is, in reality. The two may be visionaries, but they appear to have fallen well short of what the Lower Ninth needed. […]