Experimenting With Disaster

It would be a good premise for a cult horror flick: gangs of architecture students swarm the site of a natural disaster and prey on its victims with improbable designs that either cannot be built or collapse in ever more imaginative ways. That was more or less the fear of Dan Etheridge, a professor at Tulane University, in the fall of 2005, when his phone began ringing off the hook with calls from architecture schools around the country. They were all interested in putting together design-build projects to help New Orleans recover from the devastating hurricanes that flooded the city.

Etheridge had already established a network of connections with community organizations through his work at the Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research, and he was getting ready to head the Tulane City Center, conceived before the storm by the then dean, Reed Kroloff, to coordinate a new emphasis on urban research and outreach at the architecture school. The timing couldn’t have been better for a massive experiment in community-based design-and-build, but Etheridge was not entirely prepared for the onslaught of academics who came calling.

“We were this kind of informal dating service because we had a lot of relationships with community groups, both formal and informal, and we would just connect them,” Etheridge says. “And then a couple of schools behaved in ways that made us very uncomfortable. They got expectations up very high and then didn’t deliver. That was a bit of a scare to us, because we’re like, ‘Shit, we introduced them.’ We didn’t want people experimenting on victims of the hurricane.”

That was when Etheridge and a fellow professor, Doug Harmon, proposed creating a consortium of schools called CityBuild, hosted by Tulane but jointly funded, to coordinate projects. Harmon became the director, and each member chipped in $1,500 for expenses. “There was no real on-the-ground physical work being done other than planning meetings and charrettes, and people were completely exhausted by that process,” Harmon says. “You really have to earn people’s trust in New Orleans. One of the things we were able to do was partner schools with organizations that had a defined and active leadership.”

Eighteen schools participated in the consortium, which completed 20 projects, including the first building constructed in the Lower Ninth Ward after the hurricanes. A degree of stability has returned to New Orleans, even if the recovery is a very long way from being complete; in the meantime, interest on the part of the schools has waned. With a steady decline in members, CityBuild is transitioning into a new role this fall, partnering with the nonprofit Imagining America to extend Katrina’s lessons to new frontiers. “We’ve got this institutional knowledge now, and we don’t want to lose that,” Etheridge says. “We learned a lot about how to work together. We’ve had three different schools working on larger projects, groups sharing parts of their curriculum, schools that have engaged at a distance. It’s pretty phenomenal in contrast to the complete failure of government at any scale to get anything done.”

Last spring, students of Derek Hoeferlin, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and an original CityBuild member, delivered the consortium’s latest project: a prefab chicken coop in the Lower Garden District. Before the storm, Noel Jones had run the community garden as a recreation area for children. Though many families have not returned, his church is booming, and he wanted to emphasize that it’s still there. “I wanted a chicken coop that was at least twice the size of the one that we had,” Jones says. “And I wanted something that, if we needed to move—because everything is still up in the air—we could take apart.”

At first, the chickens didn’t like their modern dwelling, so Jones knocked down the old one and locked them into their new roost. They’ve adapted but are demonstrating no major signs of evolution. “They still chickens,” he says. “They’re still doing their thing. But I think they’re a lot more comfortable because they have a lot more space. So I think they are happier birds.”

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