It’s blazingly hot outside and five summer fellows from the Tulane City Center are standing in a playground at a youth center in New Orleans. The architecture students diplomatically describe the playground’s design as “unintentional”: There’s no grass, trees or even much shade, and it’s surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The students, both graduate and undergraduate, are there to make the playground a little nicer.
“Right now, it feels like a prison,” says Maggie Hansen, the center’s interim director.
This project — one of about 10 the fellows are working on this summer — reflects a major change over the past 10 years at Tulane University’s School of Architecture. The architecture program, established in 1894, is one of the country’s oldest, but before Hurricane Katrina it was a little stuffy, known, if anything, for historic preservation, and not particularly prestigious. After the storm, the school reinvented itself as a destination for students and faculty interested in building in low-income neighborhoods and fragile environments.
Dean Kenneth Schwartz, who arrived at the school about seven years ago, says it’s fair to describe what happened after Katrina as a pivot.
“Yeah, it certainly was,” he says. “We are not the only school of architecture that cares about these issues, but our students get their hands dirty. They actually get involved in real ways with real problems.”
For example, in one of the school’s most popular programs, URBANbuild, students design a house in the fall semester, then build it in the spring. The final product goes to a low-income or workforce family. (The Sundance Channel featured the program in a 2008 series.) […]