Big Easy Living
The most unexpected thing about Byron Mouton and Julie Charvat’s home on Zimple Street in New Orleans’s Carrollton neighborhood isn’t its dizzyingly diverse surroundings of both upscale bistros and Section 8 rental housing. Nor is it that it’s a chartreuse and silver tower in a sea of more traditional, century-old houses. What’s most surprising is that you can drive right by without even noticing it.
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"I take that as a compliment!" says co-designer, builder, and owner Mouton, who runs his own firm, Bild Design. He and Don Gatzke, former dean of the architecture school at Tulane and now dean of the University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Architecture, envisioned the Zimple Street project as a way to inject a bit of spark into New Orleans’s historically minded architectural climate while remaining true to the city’s beloved character. Their goal was to create a new housing type that reinterpreted time-honored New Orleans architectural styles, capitalized on the city’s physical and cultural idiosyncrasies, and, finally, could be built affordably in a city where the median household income is about 35 percent below the national average.
The result is a unique design that combines three distinct interior spaces on one oversized urban lot, plus four small yards, which, in typical Big Easy style, really function as outdoor rooms and gathering spaces. Mouton is a laid-back yet energetic New Orleans native who has spent a lifetime studying his hometown; this project was an attempt to update two of the city’s most common vernacular housing types. The large ground-floor apartment, designed by Gatzke as a rental unit, is a modified version of the traditional shotgun shack—a rectangular "bar" shape seen all over this city of long, narrow lots. Mitigating many drawbacks of traditional shotgun house design, Gatzke and Mouton pulled the front door around to the side of the unit to facilitate the creation of private space within. They also slid the structure to one side of the lot, allowing for an entry courtyard shared by all three units, and creating a perfect gathering space when friends congregate to boil up a pot of Mouton’s gumbo.
As Gatzke explains, "I was more interested in the horizontal relationship of internal spaces to the outside garden, while Byron was more intrigued by the vertical organization and the view." The resulting "tower" portion of the project was designed by Mouton for himself, Charvat (who trained as an architect but runs her own architectural marketing and graphic design company), and their canine colleague, Schiele. It also boasts a local vernacular precedent. The camelback housing type was an enterprising creation of local residents constrained by narrow lots and New Orleans assessors, who historically levied tax bills based on the height of houses as viewed from the street. Pushing a second story up from the rear half of a small house allowed residents to maximize living space without enlarging their tax bills.
The base of the tower is a small studio apartment, currently an office for Mouton and Charvat. The floor above contains an open kitchen, dining, and living spaces, while a bedroom, utility hall, bath, and sitting area occupy the top floor. Although the tower unit measures only 1,000 square feet, careful design strategies maximize every square inch of the footprint. "We increased the experience rather than the volume," Mouton relates. "[There’s] a very specific route of circulation. You always step from that route into a room and from that room toward an outdoor space. That experience makes the smaller volumes feel much, much larger."
A three-story house risks seeming too tall for this neighborhood, but assiduous site design and a shallow roof pitch mean this structure is not much taller than nearby two-story houses with steeper roofs. From the top floor another design inspiration becomes vividly evident. "Most people live in this city and never see the Missis-sippi River, because of the levee," Charvat points out, adding that much of New Orleans is actually below sea level. The house is just blocks from the river and the design elevates the third story high enough to breach the levee. This view, to Charvat and Mouton, has become a tangible part of the house’s acknowledgment of New Orleans’s history.
"The house opens a dialogue with the old and the new and within the neighborhood," Charvat explains. "Everyone knows the house." Dialogue and amiable boundary-stretching are critical to the project. Despite the city’s socially liberal reputation, progressive architecture in New Orleans has been almost absent since a brief flirtation in the 1950s. The house may be visually daring, but it’s also an attempt to update familiar housing typologies by adapting traditional materials and design concepts to a modern paradigm.
One perhaps surprising proponent of this strategy is architect John P. Klingman, chair of the Architectural Review Committee of the New Orleans Historic Districts Landmarks Commission (and a professor at Tulane’s School of Architecture). "Byron and Don showed a great commitment to the future of the neighborhood and the city," Klingman notes. "I constantly see proposed new construction that is visually derivative of traditional New Orleans house types, but often underscaled almost to the point of parody. Instead, here we see expressive design with contemporary elements, but with materials and simple massing that are compatible with the New Orleans vernacular." The strong character of traditional local architecture has a powerful pull, and nostalgia can sometimes become paralyzing. Mouton and Gatzke’s design illustrates that residential design can be fresh and optimistic, yet still contextually appropriate.
Staying true to what makes a city like New Orleans so vibrant and alive is a challenge when you’re trying to be forward-thinking. The city has very few wealthy patrons for extravagant contemporary architectural showpieces, but it does have a large pool of potential clients who are young, adventurous, and urban-centric. Mouton hopes to cultivate this population by designing appealing products combining creativity, customization, and affordability for young home buyers. The Zimple Street project was his first ground-up attempt at developing a prototype.
Mouton and Charvat see the house as a small but powerful testament to the city they love so much. Mouton says, by way of explaining the project’s more subtle goals, "The trick as an architect is to think about social circumstance and physical circumstance. Here we have the opportunity to make a project that’s new, but still respectful of the scale and materiality of the place.
We wanted our project, in some ways, to be consumed by the context, but on the other hand to challenge our expectations of the context." For these two, what’s really important are the historical factors that shaped their city and the ways in which this project responds to those factors. If the neighbors’ favorable reaction to the chartreuse newcomer is any indication, Mouton and Charvat’s home just might serve as an inspiration and model for other progressive and contextually sensitive projects, not only in New Orleans, but everywhere.