Home > Uncategorized > Brad Pitt’s Houses: Good Intentions Gone Astray

Brad Pitt’s Houses: Good Intentions Gone Astray

April 27th, 2010
ALIEN FORM #1: This angular Modernist house, designed by Graft, a Los Angeles architecture firm, is one of the new homes built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation. The house is raised on piers to protect against the possibility of future flooding. The design, however, intentionally sets it apart from New Orleans’s architectural tradition. Photo: Virginia Miller for Make It Right Foundation

ALIEN FORM #1: This angular Modernist house, designed by Graft, a Los Angeles architecture firm, is one of the new homes built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation. The house is raised on piers to protect against the possibility of future flooding. The design, however, intentionally sets it apart from New Orleans’s architectural tradition. Photo: Virginia Miller for Make It Right Foundation

The Brad Pitt Houses in New Orleans’s devastated Ninth Ward are a frustrating example of what happens when buildings are considered as individual sculptural objects rather than as part of an urban ensemble. Brad Pitt has been extremely generous with his time and money in attempting to provide new homes for victims of Hurricane Katrina. And the houses resulting from his foundation’s well-intentioned efforts so far have made eye-catching photos for the design magazines.

But viewed in their context, unfortunately, many of the new homes are bad urbanism. The majority of the structures are alien forms plopped down into a city that already has a well-established look and a rich history of vernacular architecture. Many of the Brad Pitt houses built so far detract from the character of the place they are meant to help.

ALIEN FORM #2: Also designed by Graft, this house has the same basic footprint as a Shotgun House – but has purposely been given hard-edged styling to make it distinctly different from its historic progenitor. Photo: Wayne Troyer

ALIEN FORM #2: Also designed by Graft, this house has the same basic footprint as a Shotgun House – but has purposely been given hard-edged styling to make it distinctly different from its historic progenitor. Photo: Wayne Troyer

The aim of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation is to design affordable, earth-friendly, flood-resistant houses for residents returning to the Lower Ninth Ward. Pitt has commissioned 13 well-known architecture firms to design prototypes for what is hoped to eventually be 150 new homes. Not unexpectedly, the design firms engaged by Pitt’s foundation were anxious to show off “cutting-edge” designs. The results so far are primarily brightly colored Modernist alternatives to the traditional New Orleans Shotgun House.

GOOD NEIGHBOR: The Lagniappe House by New Orleans-based Concordia Architects has been designed with many green features – but its reassuring visual connection to New Orleans architectural tradition has made it the most popular of the Brad Pitt prototypes. Photo: Concordia Architects

GOOD NEIGHBOR: The Lagniappe House by New Orleans-based Concordia Architects has been designed with many green features – but its reassuring visual connection to New Orleans architectural tradition has made it the most popular of the Brad Pitt prototypes. Photo: Concordia Architects

Also not terribly surprising are the reactions to the prototypes. Design mavens have in general been lavish in their praise of the designs. However, people with deep connections and affection for New Orleans’s tradition, while praising Mr. Pitt’s intentions, have been less enthusiastic. For example, James Dart, an architect who was born and raised in New Orleans, told the New York Times he found the houses “alien, sometimes even insulting,” adding, “the biggest problem is that they are not grounded in the history of New Orleans architecture.

HISTORIC PRECEDENT: This vernacular Shotgun House is typical of the historic architecture that gives New Orleans its style and flavor. It is puzzling why so many of the prototypes for the Lower Ninth Ward sponsored by the Make It Right Foundation have purposely distanced themselves the city’s unique architectural character. Photo: Katherine Slingluff

HISTORIC PRECEDENT: This vernacular Shotgun House is typical of the historic architecture that gives New Orleans its style and flavor. It is puzzling why so many of the prototypes for the Lower Ninth Ward sponsored by the Make It Right Foundation have purposely distanced themselves from the city’s unique architectural character. Photo: Katherine Slingluff

Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation is a synthesis of his generous impulses combined with his enthusiastic interest in design. He is well-known for liking to pal around with “starchitects” (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). One can only praise Brad Pitt for his spirit of generosity and caring. But we can also hope that he’ll soon add some New Urbanist planners to his circle of friends.

Uncategorized

  1. Barton L Robinett
    May 25th, 2010 at 15:26 | #1

    As an architect I don’t have a problem with what Brad Pitt is doing. There’s nothing wrong with his attempt to inject a new “vernacular” into New Orleans architecture, if for no other reason than to mark, in the historical context, the event which hurricane Katrina was. 50 years from now these houses will be a visual symbol of his good works and an attempt to append some “new design” to the city. I’m not a fan of “new urbanism” either, since it’s main focus is to try to recreate the past, which is manifestly impossible. We live in a nation which, since the “modernism” of the 30′s thru the 50′s fell out of favor, has regressed into a residential design standard of “retro” houses. They look like one thing on the exterior and something else on the interior. They are, in other words, designed from the outside for appearance only.

  2. May 25th, 2010 at 15:29 | #2

    I certainly understand the need for contextural architecture. I practise it myself. But to stick blindly and stubbornly to the past is pathetic. If you carry that to its logical conclusion, we would all be living in caves, wattle and daub mud huts, and teepees. The ninth ward, in the totality of its destruction, actually provides an opportunity for intelligent growth and new thinking. The real questions are, then, are the new houses good to live in, are they better built than their predecessors, will they stand up to the forces of nature better than their predecessors? By the way, you did choose one of the worst examples of idiocy in design. You might look at some of the other houses built under the Pitt Program.

  3. Pat Maley
    May 25th, 2010 at 15:37 | #3

    AMEN! the writer of this article was gentle in comment in comparison to the observations made and heard during the APA conference in New Orleans in April.

    My husband and I specifically drove to the lower Ninth Ward to view the aftermath of Katrina 4.5 years after the fact. These brightly colored fantasies springing up in what had been architecturally modest neighborhoods (and which are now open fields with slabs of concrete and ruins of former dwellings) makes about as much sense as if they had let the large local Mardi Gras design company mate with a builder. I can see some of these “Pitts” someday being uprooted and taken to the Henry Ford museum in Deerborne MI as examples of architectural anomalies from a time when there was more money than good sense. MAMA!

  4. John M. Corbett
    May 25th, 2010 at 15:44 | #4

    “It is puzzling why so many of the prototypes for the Lower Ninth Ward sponsored by the Make It Right Foundation have purposely distanced themselves from the city’s unique architectural character.”

    Perhaps designers haven’t been taught to understand or utilize the proven livable virtues of vernacular architecture, preferring to produce “look-at-me” roadside objects. Perhaps they’d do better if they lived an example of the vernacular for a few months before they attempted to innovate.

    BTW, the period building shown is extreme shotgun, looks like the footprint of a modern trailer! Hmmmm…

  5. sharon hinson
    May 25th, 2010 at 16:07 | #5

    I can’t agree with this criticism — I love New Orleans — think of it as my second home — but I believe that the city needs new ideas and designs — I want my favorite city to be a constantly developing urban landscape, not just stuck in the past. I believe that the scale and adherence to consistent placing of houses on their lots is the key to a coherent neighborhood. I want to see a better way of building houses in floodplains than these ” houses on stilts” that occur in every coastal community — looks to me that one of these designs accomplishes that.

  6. Jon B Blehar
    May 25th, 2010 at 16:30 | #6

    Yes, the houses may be ‘disturbing’, but remember there is not just one style of architecture used throughtout the city. There are (or were unfortunately) Victorian, Greek Revival, Craftsman, Spanish Colonial, Spanish Revival, etc. Yes there are entire neighborhoods that are predominately just one style, and those neighborhoods are the ones that most architects and the public as well love. However, why can’t the Lower Ninth Ward be the Modern neighborhood?

    New Orleans has always been rather conservative in its selection of architecture for their homes. But, if Mr. Pitt wants to donate just one style, and people are glad to live in it, then lets continue. Maybe the Lower Ninth Ward will become the only nieghborhood in America with an incredible collection of Modern homes.

  7. Jo Ann Kostik
    May 25th, 2010 at 16:44 | #7

    I can’t agree with you more. Pitt’s designs have taken away from the charm of the of our city. We can still have traditional housing that is built off the ground. Look at Lakeview and Uptown New Orleans.

  8. B Pontabla
    May 25th, 2010 at 17:45 | #8

    To evolve, there is a place for new designs in this city. These new buildings will evolve and the fabric will develop so that the two do not seem like strangers. This will take some time. In the meantime, I am happy to know that while across the metropolitan area organizations and individuals are busily restoring the health of the iconic New Orleans urban fabric there is also an organization on the case for something new to contribute to the rejuvenation of the urban fabric.

  9. J Grossman
    May 25th, 2010 at 17:59 | #9

    i think the Pitt Homes reflect an architectural firm’s idea of what should be built, rather than an opportunity to build what the families want or need. Where is the voice of the residents in these homes? The structures look more like an Architecture 101 project rather than a home. New Orleans is quaint, its residents a reflection of down-home sensibilities. Was this really the opportunity to project a modern agenda?

  10. B Pontabla
    May 25th, 2010 at 18:28 | #10

    It is significant to this discussion that Make It Right works within the context of several other organizations and individuals often taking approach to building in New Orleans presented by the blog author and many comments. The residents of the Ninth Ward have options one of which is Make It Right. Design is not their only concern in selecting among these organizations; options for timeline and funding vary among the recovery and non-profit programs. Still, residents choose Make It Right of their free choice from a collection of organizations and programs. Check out the article “Houses of the Future” by Wayne Curtis, the Atlantic Monthly, on this subject.

  11. Martin Tangora
    May 25th, 2010 at 20:13 | #11

    I don’t like the modern designs. But it’s not up to me. As long as the local people can choose between several designs, including modern ones and also traditional or neo-traditional ones, that’s cool. Mr. Pitt is doing a wonderful thing; but I agree that it would be unfortunate if his own design ideas were imposed on the old city without an alternative.

  12. May 25th, 2010 at 23:06 | #12

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I live in Seattle and have seen the degradation of our city’s architectural history and the loss of it’s unique and special character happen at an alarming rate.

    This is a good deed that will no doubt provide shelters for families but will in no way provide the long lasting, beautifully designed archtitecturally thoughtful communities that New Orleans has been famous for and that have stood the test of time.

    Your voice and thoughts are much appreciated!

  13. Lesley Gary
    May 26th, 2010 at 01:52 | #13

    Architects beware – while I am sure Mr. Pitt’s heart is in the right place (and he reportedly spends a lot of time in New Orleans)…Anyone desiring to design a home for New Orleans should first visit. It is quite possible to design new homes that still are in fitting with a city architectural heritage. These new buildings will not evolve and anyone who thinks they will is sorely out of touch with the distinct vibe of New Orleans – the same vibe which makes this city a national treasure. I am NOT suggesting we rebuild ramshackle shot gun houses, but new construction in keeping with the general look and feel would work far better. Shame on the designers who aren’t doing their homeworl.

  14. Ivey Henton
    May 26th, 2010 at 13:59 | #14

    What everyone – Pitt, the architects, supporters and detractors alike, has apparently forgotten is input from the residents (past and current) of this neighborhood. What happened to the visioning process? If it occured I cannot believe it included 9th Ward residents. I am sure there are many valid structural and environmental ideas incorporated into these houses but they are mostly excercises in design ego. Who on earth would want to see their lifelong neighborhood rebuilt so totally out of it’s historic character? Mr. Pitt owns a historic home in New Orleans – I suspect he would not be too happy to find his home surrounded by 150 such out of character structures. Haven’t these people lost enough without taking away the context in which generations of their families lived their lives? Selfish, selfish, selfish.

  15. Steve Matthews
    May 26th, 2010 at 14:08 | #15

    This analysis is at best a superficial misrepresentation of what most probably understand “modern” architecture to be (see: alien). All architectural value is ultimately reduced to the simplistic notion that “it doesn’t fit in,” while patronizing Pitt as a misinformed do-gooder. Previous posters suggest a “New Orleans” style (meaningless) while acknowledging that New Orleans exists as confluence of many cultures and styles (meaningful). Architecture designed with a modern language must be included; if you want an artificial recreation of an idealized past, Disneyland already exists. Give New Orleans credit as an evolving urban area that can absorb and inform a contemporary language for architecture. Don’t castrate the aesthetic heritage (one that is hopefully still evolving) through the misguided desire to produce the appearance of what was.

  16. Clem Labine
    May 26th, 2010 at 18:07 | #16

    @Steve Matthews
    Mr. Matthews’ post suggests that the purpose of new construction in an urban area is to provide an arena for expressing “contemporary architecture” – and by that I assume Mr. Matthews means radical Modernist experiments. The idea of “fitting in” with existing urban context is far from a “simplistic notion.” For example, designers who follow the journal “Environmental & Architectural Phenomenology” published by the Architecture Dept. at Kansas State University know that the interaction of human beings with their surrounding is a complex psychological process – an interaction that architectural training normally does not address. The creation of architecture that is beautiful, humane, and emotionally satisfying to its users should be a primary design imperative.

  17. May 26th, 2010 at 18:10 | #17

    I’m just wondering how much cost differential there is in these “architected” cottages, versus simply reproducing one of the many, quite acceptable, examples in Steve Mouzon’s “Katrina Cottages” pattern book. Are we seeing “the most expensive house on the block” or are these modest homes also able to be modestly priced as well.

  18. P. Kane
    May 26th, 2010 at 19:21 | #18

    The only thing surprising about the situation is that it wasn’t evident before the boxes were built. Unfortunately, too many architects are all about the flash, the ‘me’ and the notoriety. They forget, or choose to ignore, context and the emotional needs and personal desires of the potential client. — I, too, respect Brad Pitt and the many thousands of other souls who are helping to rebuild homes and lives in New Orleans. Egos must be left at the door, however. New Orleans is not a place to self-promote; it is a city of neighborhoods. Stranded residents don’t want to come back to New Orleans because they miss their stainless steel corrugated boxes, or their pink San Diego beachy type of home; they want to go ‘home’ to what was familiar and comfortable and nurturing, not jarring and sterile and impersonal. This is clearly evidenced by the overwhelming number of people choosing the most traditional New Orleans style of the Pitt homes. — This venture, sadly, feels like great intentions gone maybe not awry, but certainly sideways.

  19. Matt T
    May 27th, 2010 at 01:19 | #19

    Architecture is not a monument fixed in time, it tells the story of a city. Katrina is certainly one of the most important chapters in that story. It’s one thing to tear down a historic home, another thing completely to create anew from what Katrina destroyed. Pitt’s generosity has helped put a roof over the heads of hundred of families, home dwellers and builders both. His contribution has become part of the rich architectural fabric of a great city (that I have never visited!)

  20. Steve Matthews
    May 27th, 2010 at 02:25 | #20

    “The creation of architecture that is beautiful, humane, and emotionally satisfying to its users should be a primary design imperative.”

    Agreed. What makes traditional design more capable of achieving this? You presume modern architecture to be incapable. And psychologically, what makes a home “emotionally satisfying?” These architects considered multiple criteria in designing these homes, being able to survive the next Katrina being chief among them. So some architects chose to expand upon the formal language and decided to not make french-colonial, etc. The question i would like to pose is why can’t these new homes expand on the tradition of the New Orleans house? New Orleans shouldn’t be aesthetically static. I allow that many will prefer traditional designs, but to negate the contemporary expression as a failure b/c you don’t like the way they look is unfortunate.

  21. Clem Labine
    May 27th, 2010 at 16:48 | #21

    @Steve Matthews
    I agree that it‘s fine to “expand on the tradition of the New Orleans house.” And, in fact, that’s what the most popular models — the two “Concordia” versions – do. Concordia is new design – but retains recognizable echoes of established vernacular forms. Most of the other prototypes don’t expand on tradition, but rather deliberately depart from it. For many of us Traditionalists, what constitutes “humane architecture” depends on context. A building that stands totally alone can be judged solely on its own merits. But a building in an urban neighborhood should also be judged on whether it enhances or detracts from the character of its place. My disappointment in many of the “Make It Right” prototypes is that their radical departures in form create disruption rather than harmony in New Orleans neighborhood character.

  22. B Pontabla
    May 30th, 2010 at 20:59 | #22

    Images included with this article do not show the context of the MIR homes. In fact the new Make It Right homes do not exist among adjacent traditional homes. The area was leveled in 2005. There is no physical neighborhood fabric of buildings to establish an adjacent architectural context.

    Still, it is clear that Make It Right has made it a point of their project to embrace the history of the area and to bring it into the future. This decision is expressed in features associated with architectural and urban fabric of this region of New Orleans. 1) MIR homes are of a similar scale-height, width, and length- for single and double homes as the New Orleans traditional residential building stock. 2) MIR homes respect the traditional property lines, extending the cultural heritage of individual home ownership essential to the lost landscape into the future incarnation of this neighborhood. 3) MIR homes provide outdoor porches, verandas, and stoops necessary for homes built preceding conventional AC that so influences the character of the neighborhoods. 4) MIR uses paint colors, roof materials, siding materials, trim detail, and punched windows are features familiar to the Holy Cross neighborhood across St. Claude.

  23. sabinesgreenp
    August 28th, 2011 at 23:13 | #23

    Just seeing the green community in action makes me confident of the future! Think of how far green building products have come and how far they will go in the future! http://sabinesgreenproducts.com

  1. May 25th, 2010 at 20:35 | #1
  2. June 17th, 2010 at 18:15 | #2
  3. June 29th, 2010 at 14:28 | #3
  4. August 11th, 2010 at 12:37 | #4