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Rubble Rouser

August 28, 2006

Mary Ann Travis
Michael DeMocker

levees and lethal failure

It thundered and lightninged
and the winds began to blow
There was thousands of people,
they had no place to go....
Backwater blues, it caused
me to pack my things and go
'Cause my house fell down.
And I can't live there no more.
There ain't no place
for poor old woman to go.

tulsum_06_destructionIn the dark days after Hurricane Katrina, Queen of Soul Irma Thomas recorded this powerful Bessie Smith song, "Back Water Blues," summing up the sadness and destruction of the storm of '05. Eight feet of water had flooded Thomas' own house in the New Orleans East neighborhood. Smith originally sang this song about another awesome flood, the one of 1927. Katrina staggered New Orleans, leaving more than 1,000 people dead, 250,000 homes damaged, the city's infrastructure in shambles.

It was the worst catastrophe the city -- and the nation -- has ever experienced. In the confusion of the aftermath, as the city struggled to find its way out of the morass, Mayor Ray Nagin appointed the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, calling on high-powered individuals for advice. Reed Kroloff, dean of Tulane's School of Architecture, was one of those individuals. Kroloff served as co-chair of the Urban Design Subcommittee of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission's Urban Planning Committee.

By January, the committee had submitted an "action plan" that laid out in stark terms the extent of the city's devastation: "108,731 households had over 4 feet of floodwater; 50 percent of all New Orleans households." The Bring New Orleans Back urban plan called for more green space in the city, including more parks and playgrounds, a new light-rail transit transportation system, and a moratorium on rebuilding in unsafe areas. Safety and danger in New Orleans had taken on a new meaning, post-storm. Safety used to mean safe from crime; now it meant safe from flooding.

"If not for failures in the levee system, flooding would have been minimal and short," the plan unequivocally states. Reeling like everyone else from the storm's effects, Kroloff says Katrina "knocked the pins out from under us."

tulsum_06_kroloffKroloff came to Tulane to head up the School of Architecture in October 2004. His curriculum vitae is well-suited to a top academic appointment, and he brings experience as an insightful writer and iconoclastic commentator to the post.

He was editor-in-chief of Architecture magazine and associate professor and assistant dean at Arizona State University. He has a master's degree in architecture from the University of Texas and an undergraduate degree from Yale University. He won the Prix de Rome from the American Academy in Rome in 2003. He's been an architecture consultant, lecturer and jury member and adviser for more than 40 national and international architecture competitions.

Affable and articulate, he looks you right in the eye when he talks, even when admitting a miscalculation regarding those now infamous "green dots." The Bring New Orleans Back urban plan stirred up a hornet's nest among citizens struggling to figure out how to revive their neighborhoods. The focus of much consternation, ire and derision were a number of large, green, circular dots displayed across several neighborhoods on the plan's stylized map of the city. The green dots represented proposed green spaces. Thinking that their houses would be supplanted by parkland, people in neighborhood planning groups around the city loudly and emphatically said that they were not going to be run out of town by the green dots.

Kroloff explains the presentation as "graphics gone bad." The committee only meant to indicate general areas of town that lacked adequate parks and natural drainage, not specific streets. He says the dismay of neighbors could be attributed to the failure of the committee to present its proposals clearly. "We should not have done it as green dots but that's why we made them so large. We hoped people would recognize that, no, we're not intending to eliminate five huge sections of the city and make them into big circular parks."

But the alarm and distress expressed by rebuilding New Orleanians might also be blamed on the fact that everyone in town was feeling like Dr. John when he sings, post-storm:
I've turned so many ways
I'm spinning like a top
I'm a stranger and afraid,
in a world I never made.

Kroloff published his own version of Dr. John's sentiments in a piece in Artforum, where he describes what it was like in the weeks after the storm to walk "for five or six hours easily and still be in the killing fields." "All the trees are dead (even those still standing); so are the bushes, lawns, shrubs, and any other landscaping. The streets around you are littered with debris -- furniture, bedding, clothes, large and small appliances, art, books, personal papers.

Cars sit in driveways, on sidewalks, in yards, on trees, on top of each other, anywhere and everywhere. They're covered, inside and out, in a fine layer of silt, and they stink. The streets are covered in the same toxic grime.... Houses have their windows bashed in, their doors missing, and much of their interiors torn apart."

black like me

While remaining calm immediately after the storm, Kroloff says he's brittle now. He's gone through all the phases that most Katrina survivors have -- "despair, anger, frustration, fear and loathing -- all of those things passed over me in waves. Depression. My temper is short -- and I'm usually an easygoing guy." In March, Kroloff published a piece entitled "Black Like Me" for Metropolis magazine. In the article he writes that after the storm all New Orleanians became metaphorically black, that is, "ignored and neglected," experiencing "the slow-burning frustration of being at the table but not invited to sit down, of people talking right through me to some other audience. In other words, I've never known what it means to be invisible -- until now."


Kroloff explained that, "Americans do not turn their backs on Americans. I am sick to death of being told that this is our fault. That we live in the wrong place. That we are corrupt or venal. That we're sinful folk. We didn't build the levees and we didn't maintain them. The government did."

a lightning rod

Kroloff is not afraid to speak his mind or take a stand. He says, "I think it's the dean's responsibility, among many things, to take advantage of the bully pulpit that comes with the job." Lightning rod is a role he embraces. Take, for instance, the strikes he's absorbed from the New Urbanists, a cohort of architects and planners who develop tightly controlled neighborhoods of faux Victorian architecture that hark back to "simpler" times.

Kroloff admits he made some "somewhat intemperate remarks -- but not incorrect" about New Urbanists, saying that he finds what they do to be intellectually limited. Not to mention rigid, reactionary and backward looking. "They espouse a particular theory of how one makes cities that I don't agree with," says Kroloff. Well, all hell broke loose on Internet web blogs sponsored by New Urbanists attacking Kroloff. Personal, vicious attacks that he says exhibit unethical professional behavior.

But Kroloff shrugs off the acrimony, and in a gesture of no hard feelings he allows that New Urbanism is a far better option than the unplanned, hodge-podge development of suburban sprawl. "I would trade in Veterans Boulevard for a New Urbanist community tomorrow," says Kroloff, referencing the long stretch of strip malls, billboards and daiquiri shops that runs all the way from Metairie to Kenner, La.

lessons from the past

"You learn from the past," says Kroloff. But most people wouldn't want to live there. "The present is authentic. We live in the present. The minute we start to move backwards, culturally or another way, we always suffer. We don't want to go back to segregation, or earlier medicine or primitive science. "We want to move forward to ameliorate the continued suffering that our society faces every day. The 30 percent poverty rate in New Orleans: you dont solve that with a 1927 model of the economy."

Architecture is the same. It must progress, moving forward, says Kroloff. "It must represent the problems that we face today and solve them with the accumulated knowledge of the past filtered through contemporary understanding. And that's what creates a better environment, which creates a better world." Look around and see the places in the world where people are doing extraordinary things to make new, interesting societies and building upon great history, says Kroloff. He's particularly fond of Spain and Holland, where there are well-established, beautiful historic contexts.

"And inserted in it, adjacent, above, below, in-between are contemporary architectural responses that are breathtaking, not just for their beauty, but for the intelligence of how they make streets and plan districts and encourage human interaction and build upon what are already rich cultures."

And Kroloff wants all Tulane architecture students to spend part of their fourth year overseas, if at all possible. New Orleans' own historic context is fragile, says Kroloff, and should be preserved "with every ounce of our strength." Because "it can go away," if not protected. "And that would be a terrible loss." The city is blessed with abundant representation of various types of Victorian architecture, Creole cottages and French townhouses.

"Over history," says Kroloff, "there have been many good, thoughtful architects and builders and a building trade that respects that and has learned from it." He points out that a Victorian building built in 1870 was modern in its day. "They were building then what they knew to be contemporary architecture." And modern architecture of today, "can be the best friend of historic architecture because it can show it off through contrast."

Kroloff's vision for the city is one that's "based gloriously and abundantly in its past and confident enough to embrace and be excited about its future, architecturally and otherwise." Kroloff says that it's easy enough to do -- incorporate contemporary change within the historic fabric by developing "a contemporary vernacular" for the city. New Orleans is, Kroloff has written, "a city waiting to hear its greatest days are not behind it."

house of resurrection

On a Friday night in early April, students, professional architects and the general public buzz around Kroloff, Ila Berman, associate dean and professor of architecture, and associate professor Scott Bernhard and his wife, Carrie, at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in the gallery district of downtown New Orleans. Out in the rest of the city, progress is marked by debris piles consisting of torn-out sheetrock, splintered wood and pink insulation as residents go about the tasks of repairing, renovating or relocating.

FEMA trailers, hopefully temporary housing for families flooded out of their homes, have sprouted up in yards and playgrounds. And while two more bodies will be found in the next week in the wreckage of a flooded house reduced to rubble, green, the expectant color of spring, peeks out again in new growth (although much of it is evil-looking weeds) in yards and neutral grounds.

Talk is, the levees are being rebuilt better and stronger then ever, if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can deliver on its promise. Tonight's occasion is the opening reception for an international architectural competition exhibition co- sponsored by Architectural Record magazine and Tulane's School of Architecture. People dart around the gallery's third floor, perusing the winning design proposals (from more than 500 entries) for the themes -- "High Density on the High Ground" and "New Housing Prototypes for New Orleans."

Kroloff, Berman and the Bernhards, along with others in the architecture school, have worked tirelessly to bring off the competition. And tonight, they beam at its success. Juried by an international group of architects, the winning proposals from architects around the world have names like "Shotgun Chameleon," "Flood House" (easy to clean up after water intrusion) and "Floating Landscape." The entry "Resurrection House" states that its design is "applicable to the immediate crisis and throughout the city's history." Imaginative, hopeful and colorful, the visionary proposals for places to live, work and play draw on lessons from Katrina and pull from the city's cultural roots.


The Mississippi River and New Orleans music vie for influence in designs such as "Rhythm: A Prelude to Rebirth." "Rhythm," the text says, "is a part of life that never ceases to exist. It is our underlying order in everyday life." Berman and Kroloff have a rhythm going, too. She's focused on the internal happenings at the school -- a new curriculum and new programs such as URBANbuild and Tulane City Center. He's concerned with those issues, and he deals with external audiences. The competition and exhibition -- the fruits of their labor -- link the school's internal mission and outreach.

"We are pathological optimists," says Berman, about herself and Kroloff. "And two peas in a pod." Wendy Sack, assistant dean of architecture, calls them "two mad geniuses." During the fall semester-in- exile, Berman and Kroloff arranged for 40 students and five faculty members to relocate to Arizona State University until the return to Tulane in January. Back on campus, Kroloff sees new energy among the architecture faculty members. "We have a very dedicated faculty," he says. "They've lived here a long time. Our faculty understands the city and what makes it tick." The faculty is moving forward, seeing opportunity in the ruins -- and responsibility. "That's what I want," says Kroloff. "Recognizing responsibility and taking it."

From John Klingman, who works with the Historic District Landmarks Commission; to Errol Barron, who has designed landmark buildings in the city, including the Ogden Museum; to former dean Ron Filson, whose urban design work has beautifully impacted New Orleans; to Karen Kingsley, who codified Louisiana architecture in her comprehensive work; to Gene Cizek, "the father of preservation in New Orleans," and to all the other architecture faculty members, Kroloff says the faculty talent is an incredible resource.

But the Tulane architecture faculty comprises only about two dozen people, so sponsoring outside competitions opens the door to the hundreds of thousands of architects and urban planners in the world bringing ideas about the rebuilding of New Orleans. Kroloff hopes to leverage ideas into responses that are grander than the size of the architecture school might suggest.

"We hope to be the mouse that roared," he says. Design competitions -- and Kroloff expects the architecture school to sponsor many more -- fulfill an aspect of the school's educational mission, helping educate the general public on what it can demand in the creation of a new New Orleans and all of the Gulf Coast.

build, build, build

The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., research and policy group, has been monitoring the recovery of New Orleans. In its April findings (220 days after Katrina made landfall), the group reports that new housing construction took off in the state of Louisiana during March. Nearly 400 new construction permits were issued in the New Orleans metro area--a four-fold increase from the month before. The institution also reports that 181,000 people had returned to New Orleans (down from the pre-storm population of 485,000).

Kroloff wants to show people as they rebuild that they have dozens of choices that could work for them. He hopes the school and the design competitions that it sponsors will create housing plans that many builders can use -- including developers. "People will be able to evaluate us by what we do, not by what we say," he says.

An irony of New Orleans is that this city has so many advantages -- a good climate, big labor force, plentiful land, major educational institutions, a vital position in the national and global transportation and distribution network of goods and services, and cultural richness that other cities would give their eye teeth for -- yet, other cities have become healthier and larger and do better economically. "We have so much more to offer," Kroloff says. But New Orleans has shot itself in the foot so often that "now it's beginning to take its own ankles," says Kroloff. The city requires leadership to help it build upon its resources. "Build, build, build," Kroloff says.

For starters, the shipping and container industries in New Orleans need to compete more aggressively. Beyond that, the city could become a center for manufactured housing with several native industries already here, including the raw materials imported through the Port of New Orleans. "We can build ourselves out of this crisis by creating new industry--and that does not mean the smokestack kind," he says.

Pre-Katrina, the city had 30,000 derelict, blighted and abandoned properties. The number of ruined buildings post-storm is through the roof. Kroloff says the city's condoning of a little bit of decay as attractive is a slippery slope to the inexcusable disrepair of so much housing stock. With housing in critical short supply and evacuees longing to come home but stymied without a place to live, incentives in the form of tax breaks and other financial carrots for repairing houses could foster growth in the building industry and create affordable housing.

A stick should accompany the carrot, says Kroloff. The city already has ordinances in effect that mandate that if property is blighted, owners must fix it or the city takes it away. "Civil society does not allow property owners to let their properties rot," he says. In the current post-Katrina landscape, though, block after block, mile after mile of flooded, vacant, ghostly, gutted houses line the streets of New Orleans. yes we can "I'm not a politician," says Kroloff. "I have no interest in being one. I don't like being attacked." But, he says, "If there were 50 architects in this country who were mayors of big cities, we'd have a better country."

Architecture, by its very nature, encompasses a commitment to the public arena. "This profession is all about making a better environment." The mission of the architecture school has shifted. "We are no longer just trying to train professionals. We're educating and creating a generation of civic leaders." Architecture is a grand endeavor, a grand enterprise, says Kroloff. And Tulane architecture students, he adds, are eager to jump in and make a difference in the built environment. Architects are trained to look and to see what's around them, trained to be open to influences from all sides -- economic, artistic, political, physical, environmental. Kroloff ranks New Orleans as one of the best cities in America, along with New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco.

"Despite the city's every effort to kill itself, it won't die. It's got this spirit to it." Truly great cities "feel different," says Kroloff. "These few cities are highly self-aware, and as a result, they view the world around them quite differently. Life in those places is as much internal as it is looking outward." A city that is "culturally self-sufficient is a real city," says Kroloff. "A great city has a great physical character to it, a great architectural presence." Great cities also have a long view of history, a sense of timelessness.

So when current-day experts from think-tanks like the Rand Corp. project that not even half of New Orleanians will come back by next fall, Kroloff doesn't believe them. Why? "Because they love it here. Because we all love it here," he says. Even in the desperate trouble we're in. Yes we can, sings native-son songwriter, pianist Allen Toussaint, post-Katrina:

Make this land a better land.
I know we can make it work.
I know we can make it if we try.
Why can't we if we try?

Does Kroloff believe that New Orleans can rebuild its economy and physical environment? He says, "I am cautiously hopeful. We are surrounded by forces that would limit that. We face challenges to that everyday." But we can, if we try.


Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000