ON ARCHITECTURE- Hey, architects!: Brad Pitt needs your help

New Orleans has no shortage of potential celebrity saviors. Actor Sean Penn took a beating in the press for his boat rescue of Katrina victims, most reports chiding it as an egotistical publicity stunt. But as the New Yorker reported recently, Penn actually saved about 40 people.

Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil showed up at the Superdome, and John Travolta flew supplies down in his private jet. Red Sox pitching ace Curt Shilling opened up his New Orleans home to refugees, and Nicolas Cage, George Clooney, Celine Dion, Jay-Z and P. Diddy, The Rolling Stones, Steven Spielberg, and our own Dave Matthews Band each donated at least a million dollars to relief efforts.

Actor Brad Pitt, however, is taking a different approach, an architectural one.

"I believe we creatures are very susceptible to our surroundings. They can actually improve our mode of life, and I personally am very affected," he told the Associated Press recently, dodging questions about Namibia, fatherhood, and Angelina Jolie.

"When I walk through an intelligent building, it inspires me," Pitt said. "To me, it's like walking through a piece of art and, coupling that now with the green movement of the smarter architecture– of the healthier buildings with great design– is a very exciting prospect to me."

That's right, Brad Pitt's an architecture junkie. While other actors hang out with politicians and rock stars, Pitt likes to hang out with architects. In fact, Pitt says he has befriended architect Frank Gehry.

"My love for architecture led me to beating on Frank's door, and he graciously let me in," he said. "He's a favorite of mine– full of great innovation and great wisdom."

"Yes, Brad is familiar with Gehry," says Matt Petersen, president of Global Green USA, a national environmental organization promoting green design in New Orleans, "but he's also familiar with a lot of less well known masters like Steven Hull or Richard Meyer. He's become a real student of architecture."

Pitt recently teamed up with Global Green to sponsor a sustainable design competition. According to a Global Green press release, Pitt hopes the competition will "generate and uncover new and innovative ideas that will advance the practicalities of responsible architecture" and speed up the rebuilding effort in New Orleans.

"I met Brad at the Clinton Global Initiative conference last September," says Petersen, "and we were in the climate change section and were seated at the same table. We started talking about his love of architecture and his interest in climate change research, and he said, 'Hey, I'd like to work with you guys.'"

A few phone calls later, Pitt was on board– but not as just a name.

"Actually, the design competition was Brad's idea," says Petersen. "He has educated himself about architecture, and he understands environmental issues as well. He'll be sitting in with the jury and leading some of the discussions."

Petersen hopes the design competition– to begin in mid-June and be judged in July– will be an opportunity to show that green designs can be real alternatives, a way to make New Orleans an even better place to live. After all, Petersen reminds, the devastation in New Orleans happened in large part because of our neglect of climate change and environmental issues.

"As President Clinton said at the conference in September," Petersen recalls, "'we can make New Orleans the first true green city in America.'"

Petersen also hopes that Charlottesville will have some impact on Pitt's design competition.

"We're great admirers of Jefferson's architecture, and we think the architecture faculty there, particularly Bill Moorish, is doing great work," he says. "Of course, we hope the talented students and faculty at UVA will submit their work to the competition."

The architecture buff on a recent trip to South Africa