Dutch Institute, Tulane Welcome Visions for ’Newer Orleans’

Wed March 01, 2006 - Southeast Edition
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ROTTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) The new New Orleans could contain schools on hills, dikes thick enough to double as public parks, and a futuristic zigzag-shaped building with hanging gardens that will symbolize the city’s rebirth and summon home its scattered residents.

Dozens of architects, urban planners and scholars sketched out their post-hurricane recovery ideas at a conference and exhibition in the port city of Rotterdam Feb. 16, as the discussions on rebuilding the American Gulf Coast moves into the early planning phase.

Because of the similar engineering obstacles faced by the low-lying Netherlands and Louisiana delta, Tulane University and the Netherlands’ Architectural Institute jointly issued a challenge to the experts to develop plans to regenerate New Orleans in the wake of Katrina’s devastation.

Design ideas will be on display in Rotterdam through March 6 and will then travel to Washington, New York, and eventually to New Orleans, though exact dates and venues haven’t been scheduled.

“When you think that the population of metropolitan New Orleans before Katrina was 485,000 and it’s now 150,000, so two-thirds of the city is gone. The question of how to rebuild becomes very difficult,” said Reed Kroloff, dean of Tulane’s School of Architecture.

Kroloff is also heading the city’s recovery team, which will assess damage to neighborhoods and report back to the mayor with initial rebuilding proposals. But he said the projects on display would likely never be built. “They are intended as thought-provoking, visionary schemes,” he said.

“Gatherings like this allow us to begin to look at the whole range from individual buildings, to larger symbolic buildings, to the landscape itself,” he said.

Kroloff argued that rebuilding the city will require restoring trust in government at all levels, and the involvement of the people living in the city.

As an example of incorporating bottom-up ideas, the Rotterdam firm MVDRV drew inspiration from a drawing made by a New Orleans elementary school girl, of an imaginary hill that would have provided safety when her neighborhood flooded.

Inspired by the drawing, the firm designed a hill to be built from debris and wreckage, just across the freeway from the Superdome. It would contain an elementary school cradled in its heart.

“It could serve as a safe place when the city floods again, but it’s also a little cynical, a reminder that it can happen again,” said exhibition curator Emiliano Gandolfi. “It’s good to be critical, to remember that.”

A joint plan by Hargreaves Associates of Boston and West 8 of Rotterdam would use New Orleans’ City Park as an incubator during recovery.

First, fresh water would flow through the park to flush out salt water absorbed during post-Katrina flooding, and temporary housing would be set up on the park’s west side to house residents as they return.

Then, as people moved out to new, permanent homes, the park would be used as a tree farm. When mature, some trees would be used to replace those lost in the city’s destruction. Others would decorate new parks along thick dikes that will stand where the town’s old levies crumbled.

In the final stage, the park would go back to being just a park. But it would contain mini-river deltas capable of absorbing and pumping extra water out to sea in case the city floods again.

“The Ziggurat” — a zigzag-shaped building resembling ancient stepped palaces — was designed by UN Studio of Amsterdam in an attempt to create a unique and instantly recognizable building that would be a symbol of New Orleans’ rebirth. The Ziggurat would house a media library, city offices, a large auditorium — and have hanging gardens like those of ancient Babylon.

Tim Christ, from the Los Angeles firm Morphosis, called his team’s plan “a provocation.” Asked to design a project for an iconic building, they instead proposed a radical refocus of the whole city, condensing it into the historical city center.

“There’s not an architectural problem, the problem is displacement of people,” Christ said.

“Logic dictates, there’s no way to provide fire protection, police, teachers, schools, roads and street lights in all areas that were destroyed. There’s no tax base to pay for it.”

The Morphosis proposal would create a new park in the lowest part of the new city center, and allow other low-lying areas outside the center to return to marshy delta.

Houses built outside the approved zone, especially cheaply built houses constructed since the 1970s, would simply be left alone — vulnerable to future flooding and hurricane winds and impossible to insure.

Aaron Betsky, the U.S.-born director of the Netherlands’ Architecture Institute, said that while the Morphosis idea sounds extreme, there is also a danger the city will be rebuilt with little funding or planning.

“In that case, you’ll see people building on cinder blocks stacked six feet high,” he said.

“That will be the concrete nail in the city’s architectural coffin.”

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