The feel-good story: The first six houses funded by Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation have been completed in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. They include homes designed by New Orleans architectural firms Billes Architecture and Concordia; plus KieranTimberlake of Philadelphia, and a couple of prefabs by Los Angeles-based Graft. Soon to come are the balance of Pitt's all-star lineup, including Adjaye Associates, Morphosis, MVRDV, Pugh + Scarpa, and Shigeru Ban.
The story behind the story: Pitt's deep pockets, Mother Nature, and FEMA have enabled a truly remarkable architectural happening, one that arguably hasn't been seen since 1945, when the Case Study Houses were commissioned by Arts & Architecture magazine.
Make It Right was established to build new housing in New Orleans for families displaced by hurricane Katrina. The first six (of 150) lucky families will soon move into their experimental, even groundbreaking, houses designed by young and cutting-edge architects; houses that have gone from drawing board to turn-key in record time, and with little to no meddling by local bureaucrats and their restrictive codes, or demanding owners and their annoying personal tastes.
This perfect storm of architectural accomplishment could only have happened in post-diluvial New Orleans: take a huge celebrity with bags of money, add a city desperate and grateful for (any) help, and sprinkle in soon-to-be homeowners who aren't the usual kinds of folks who commission made-to-order homes. Add it all up, and you get something remarkable and new.
The splashiest claims of the Make It Right experiment are the least important: the supposed per-house budget of $150,000 is a fiction, made possible only by several more magnitudes of donated materials and labor. Which is fine, since the Make It Right houses are high-quality buildings that don't cut corners or make compromises. They're stuffed with pricey LEED-certified goodies like sustainable-wood cabinets, photovoltaic panels, rainwater collection systems, and groundwater heat pumps.
In this economy it's remarkable that any new houses are being built anywhere, let alone in a Petri dish of New Urbanist experiments. But questions remain: Will these houses—most of which would look at home along the Venice, California, canals, rather than the 17th Street Canal—fit in their New Orleans neighborhood? And will they be useful to their owners? Only time will tell. The physical landscape may be a tabula rasa in the Lower Ninth Ward, but the people certainly aren't.