Can one house tell the story of an entire town? Not likely. But when a major American city like New Orleans is the victim of a natural disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, sometimes the best way to comprehend the enormity of the event is to break it down into small, digestible moments. Therefore, the compact, two-unit structure on Lowerline Street in New Orleans’s scruffy Black Pearl neighborhood seems as appropriate a place as any to try to understand some of the architectural feats that will need to be performed in this fractured metropolis in the coming decade.
Architect Byron Mouton and his wife and marketing consultant, Julie Charvat, first glimpsed the vacant lot that now plays host to this steel-clad, periscope-like structure in 2004. After a little wrangling, they were able to secure the purchase and begin planning a building that addressed the city’s immediate needs, namely affordable housing. "But that’s the thing," Mouton explains, "the city’s immediate needs have always revolved around the place’s relationship to water. So while you might want to focus your attention on making a house affordable—or luxurious for that matter—you’ve always got to be thinking about water." "But for a long time," Charvat chimes in, "the city just forgot about that."
Having memories more suited to elephants, perhaps, than New Orleans’s builders, the firm set out to construct a multiunit building along the banks of the mighty Mississippi—some of the highest and most solid ground in the city. This house, they hoped, would be built to withstand flooding and high winds while remaining affordable enough to be inhabited by college students.
Bild Design, in its eight years in existence, has always set out to develop multifamily projects responsive to their immediate habitat. To get a full grasp of what this means in New Orleans, a little urban history is a helpful guiding light—something Mouton, a New Orleans native and also a professor at Tulane’s architecture school, is only too happy to dish out. In 2004, a year before Katrina struck, the Louisiana State University architecture journal Batture published Mouton’s succinct description of what the architects and builders in the city would be facing in the years to come:
"Woven into [the people of New Orleans’s] lives is the knowledge of their proximity to and hence familiarity with the constant threat of water. Situated between the mouth of the vast Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, the second largest salt-water lake in the United States, most of the area in and around New Orleans exists below sea level. Tales of flooding, constant soggy ground, and sinking foundations have made in-
habitants acutely aware of their existence due to man’s hand in building the protective levee systems along the shores of the river and lake."
Continuing on, Mouton writes, "Confident in the levees, residents also learned to dismiss any further threat to the ability of the city’s numerous pumping stations that in the past have been able to accommodate additional flooding. With assumed resilience of these defensive systems, the shared attitude of residents became lethargic when dealing with the potential threat of water and downfall of the existing conditions. Furthermore, a level of tolerance for patina and imperfection was embraced as a familiar and loved attribute
of an increasingly deteriorating surrounds, the wear being justified as an authentic condition of an ‘aged’ place and often rightly considered as an expression of
the ‘local charm.’"
Acutely aware of these troublesome conditions, Bild set out to stretch people’s imagination of what housing in New Orleans could be, moving the aesthetics
of the Lowerline house far to the left of the norm while at the same time adhering to building principles that could only be considered completely traditional in their response to the landscape.
The Lowerline house’s form is derived directly from its industrial neighborhood, so much so that Bild nicknamed the project the Domestic Shed. Bordered on the south by the Mississippi and on the north by some of the city’s oldest districts, neighborhoods like Black Pearl, in the immediate vicinity of the river, have been largely neglected due to the amounts of industry that have gathered on its banks for centuries.
But to Bild, this neglect was a window of opportunity. In culling together the surrounding aesthetic of industry—the corrugated Galvalume siding on wood framing, the chain-link fences, the hurricane strapping, the height—the firm designed a home that wouldn’t be out of place alongside the cargo ships filled to capacity with shipping containers that traverse the watery terrain some 100 yards away. Though the structure’s appearance might seem foreign compared to the quaint cottages surrounding the home, its raised foundation, "shotgun camel-back" form ("One of the oldest building forms in New Orleans," Mouton states), and its embrace of the time-honored tradition of the stoop place it firmly amid the city’s most historic structures.
This fact, not surprisingly, seemed to be lost on almost everyone except the neighbors. As Mouton explains, "At first [the neighbors] would say, ‘What’s that?’ They’d ask me in this really great accent, ‘Hey man, what’s that you making?’ And I’d say, ‘It’s a house,’ and they’d say, ‘Naw, nobody’s gonna live in that." They were really shocked. And then, as it came up they started to take ownership of it to the point that we had no problems with theft, which is often an issue in this town. They would call me to let me know if there was something shady going on, if there was some activity that I should be worried about. I think that if I had come in here and proposed doing a faux historic cottage, the response would not have been the same. But as it was, I think the design was really accepted as an original from the neighborhood."
Working furiously through the spring and summer of 2005, Bild completed the 1,850-square-foot house (with a 750-square-foot studio apartment on the ground floor and an 1,100-square-foot multilevel two-bedroom unit on top) in late August, for about $90 a square foot. "We finished everything up the week before Katrina hit," Mouton says. As the storm approached that last week in August, Mouton and Charvat were, like many New Orleans residents, determined to ride the storm out. "I came home that Friday after working seven days straight," Charvat says, "and Byron told me the news was saying a storm was coming in and I just said, ‘Too bad, I want my weekend.’"
As Saturday, August 27, came around, however, it became clear that there would be no relaxing weekend spent enjoying the warmth of late summer. The couple anxiously watched the evening news that night. Mouton was up by six on Sunday morning and by that time, it was obvious they’d need to evacuate. "All our neighbors were out," Charvat says. "I asked them what they were doing and they all said, ‘We’re getting out of here,’ so I figured we’d better do the same." "We packed up our house," Mouton says, "and then we went over to Lowerline, where I basically just locked everything up and left it as is."
With Katrina descending on the city, the couple tried to navigate through the clogged roadways as best they could. "It took us six hours to get to Baton Rouge [about 80 miles away]," Mouton says. Charvat continues, "While we were heading out, we were stalled in traffic and I just had thoughts of getting stuck in the car, which was really frightening. And a lot of people did get stuck in their cars. Sitting there, I looked back at the clouds building over the city and it was just pitch black."
While Mouton and Charvat waited the storm out in Baton Rouge, the Lowerline house and all their other projects in the city stood strong. "It was pretty amazing," Mouton says. "Our house [featured in the October/November 2004 issue of Dwell] was fine except the fence had blown over. Lowerline was totally fine except that Ms. Doris, our neighbor there, her roof had flown off and it had dented the side of the building."
While Lowerline survived the first real test dealt by Mother Nature, one has to wonder how it has withstood its first few months with tenants. For that, a simple query to the occupants provides the answers : "It’s been amazing," says fifth-year Tulane University architecture student Kimberly Patrie, a proud resident of the second-floor unit. "The house has been great. My friends are really jealous." One of her housemates, Jeremy Claud, a student at nearby Loyola University, says, "Not only that, but the neighbors and the neighborhood have been terrific. The neighbors have really taken us under their wing."
As for this one project being representative of a city in recovery, that would be tough to say. The city is still, over nine months later, in shambles with relatively little rebuilding going on. But while this glimmer of hope and progress on Lowerline Street might not reflect the disheveled state of the great city of New Orleans, it does offer a crystalline road map to what the city could still become—a human habitat completely attuned to its surroundings.