Childless city: Seeing N'awlins as a phoenix

"Imagine a city without children," says New Orleans based architect Stephen Bingler, conjuring an image out of The Twilight Zone.

 "Recently I drove around New Orleans for four hours," he says, "and I didn't see one house that was habitable. I didn't even scratch the surface of the damage."

Bingler, a Charlottesville native and graduate of UVA's architecture school, pauses. "It's important to understand the scale of this event," he says somberly.

Indeed, for architects and urban planners, the task of rebuilding New Orleans is so daunting that just the act of imaging it can be difficult. Fortunately, there seems to be no shortage of imagination out there.

"I'm very impressed that the normally conservative environment in Louisiana has become very progressive," says Bingler, whose company, Concordia, has helped to plan and design communities across the country.

"There's a spirit of cooperation in New Orleans that I've never seen before. Even architects are cooperating," he laughs. "It took something like Katrina to make that happen."

In addition to protecting the city from the sea, which would cost billions of dollars and involve repairing coastal marshes, strengthening levees, and raising the lowest parts of the city closer to sea level, a true resurrection of New Orleans will require an understanding of the city's complex social fabric.

"Yes, of course, we need to improve the physical infrastructure in New Orleans," says Bingler, who says he was born "across the tracks" in pre-gentrification Fifeville. "But the key here is to engage the community in rebuilding the city. Without the concept of 'ground truth' in the rebuilding process, it's very possible we could do more harm than good."

One silver lining in the aftermath of Katrina, says Bingler, is the fact that the Louisiana State Legislature recently voted to take over the New Orleans public school system. "That means a clean slate," he says. "That means we could create one of the most creative, innovative school systems in America. That's now a real possibility.

"The conversation that is broadest now is that schools should be built as 'community centers,'" he says. "This is an opportunity. The mayor has agreed to this system, and so has the governor. Now the U.S. Congress has to decide this is a good idea. If they don't, it's just not going to happen. All of us in New Orleans hope that Congress wants to do it. "

New Orleans has always had the raw materials to be one of the most impressive cities in America, Bingler says. "Some would argue it's the most 'interesting' city in America– but if we can rebuild the right way, it could truly be one of America's most amazing cities."

"Ground truth" would probably mean something entirely different to Charlottesville architect Bill McDonough, one of the world's leading experts on environmentally sustainable design. In a recent issue of Fortune Magazine, McDonough says that cleaning up the ground itself may be the most daunting task.

Typically, McDonough has a few creative ideas in mind. "All the areas that are dead should be allowed to die," he tells Fortune. "We don't want to bring children back to where it's dangerous. We can use a process called phytoremediation, which uses plants like mustard or indigenous species to decontaminate instead of burying soil and burning."

McDonough is one architect who appears comfortable in The Twilight Zone. Like Bingler, McDonough sees opportunities for New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. For example, he imagines porous paving that would make parking lots like giant sponges. He also suggests that the city turn low-lying areas into lakes and wildlife areas and build "mounds" to create areas of higher ground for people to live on.

Although New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast are in need of big ideas from people like Bingler and McDonough, some planners think that smaller-scale projects are just as important.

Local architect Katie Swenson (see HotSeat, page xx) likes the approach that Charlottesville-Pearlington Relief and The Building Goodness Foundation (BGF) have taken in concentrating their efforts in rebuilding the small Mississippi community of Pearlington, population 3,000. BGF is a local non-profit organization founded in 1996 that sends skilled tradespeople around the world to help with rebuild projects. Presently, BGF is providing temporary shelters for Pearlington residents.

"I would like to see the local architectural community, including the UVA school of architecture and our Design Center," says Swenson (who directs the Center), "commit their efforts to developing a larger community development plan for Pearlington.

"I think that would help provide a larger vision for the rebuilding of the town."

On the big-picture front, two local architects are playing key roles in the Gulf's planning and redesigning. UVA architecture professor William Moorish (a finalist in the World Trade Center's Freedom Tower competition) was recently appointed to a panel that will advise New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's Rebuilding Committee, and which will issue recommendations by the end of December.

"The devastation is way bigger than you can even conceive," says Moorish. "It's the exact opposite situation of the World Trade Center bombing. In New York, a relatively small part of the city was destroyed. In New Orleans, the whole city was destroyed, leaving only a small part intact."

Moorish believes that FEMA and the White House need to let go of their power struggle over the city and start letting the local government act. However, according to Moorish, there are problems on the local level as well.

"No one trusts the existing system in New Orleans," he says. "The people down there need to start speaking with one voice. He notes that much of the decision-making needs to be made as early as June 2006.

In addition to Moorish, associate professor Maurice Cox was recently dispatched to the Gulf to provide mayors in the area with advice and guidance on planning and designing their rebuilding projects.

Since Katrina hit, Bingler and his family have lived in Houston, Atlanta, and three different places in New York City. He has until January to find yet another place, and he's still paying his mortgage in New Orleans.

But he considers himself lucky.

"We weren't one of the thousands who lost everything," he says. And he's optimistic about his childless city, even though it's hard to imagine a metaphor that represents so well the city's uncertain future.

"The New Orleans community is ready to rise to the occasion, " says Bingler. "New Orleans is coming back better and stronger than before– maybe even bigger."


"There's a spirit of cooperation in New Orleans that I've never seen before. Even architects are cooperating," says Stephen Bingler.
PHOTO courtesy of Stephen Bingler.