The Kids Are Alright

Earlier this month I traveled to the great city of New Orleans to serve as a guest judge for the Billes Architecture Home Design Competition. The firm, which is working with Brad Pitt on the Make It Right initiative, gave architecture students a challenging brief, and they responded with youthful gusto. On April 11, principal and founder Gerald Billes presented $1,000 checks to the five winning teams at a ceremony at the Renaissance Arts Hotel in the Warehouse District. Later I learned that some jurors wrote lengthy assessments of the ten finalists, while I merely checked boxes. To correct that oversight I’m offering belated “judge’s comments” on each of the winners, along with a plug for one of my favorites that failed to take top honors.

First a little bit about the program. Students were asked to design a 1,500- to 2,000-square-foot home for one of four neighborhoods in the city: Uptown, Downtown, Gentilly/Lakeview, or New Orleans East. The home needed to be eligible for gold or platinum LEED certification; to be raised to what local officials call the Advisory Base Flood Elevation; and to come in between $150,000 and $225,000 (more on that later).

The contestants were either fourth-year undergraduates or first-year master’s students. Michael Jemtrude, director of McGill’s School of Architecture, incorporated the competition into his classes, which explains the preponderance of Canadians in the final five. Keep in mind, all of my comments are completely subjective (and quite possibly wrong) and done in the spirit of respect and constructive criticism. Congratulations all around!
Thomas Colosino/David Lachin
LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY

One of the two schemes that utilized repurposed shipping containers (a la Shigeru Ban). Colosino and Lachin—a pair of hometown boys—seem to understand the neighborhood they’re designing for. Lakeview, parts of which were devastated by Katrina, contains a lot of post-war housing stock that doesn’t feel particularly connected to anything, and certainly not to the past. This gives the designers a bit more leeway here, and they take advantage by turning the shotgun configuration on its side and nodding to the vernacular (the second-floor balconies reference the French Quarter). The result is a house both contemporary and familiar—a neat trick. Colosino and Lachin double-load the shipping containers artfully, creating a clean, rational floor plan and open inhabitable spaces. This looks and feels like a comfortable house to live in.” rel=”lightbox[billes]” href=”http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/001a.jpg”>Click here to view the slide show.


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Top: “The Breezeway House” by Hamaza Alhbian and Jessica Dan of McGill University

Hamaza Alhbian/Jessica Dan
McGILL UNIVERSITY

For what it’s worth, my wife’s favorite entry. Alhbian and Dan conjured up a gorgeous nighttime rendering, showing a glowing 24-by-76-foot house with a shotgun configuration. The slotted wood frame provides ventilation and daylighing, and two striking portals—also for ventilation—give the structure an almost nautical aspect. The design’s main conceit, however, was a touch problematic. The designers placed the porch on the side, running a breezeway through the house (hence the title).This creates a nice interior courtyard, but at the expense of the public realm. The porch, after all, is part of the social fabric of New Orleans, and the absence of one fronting the street here gives the house a slightly blank, imposing feel (see next slide).” rel=”lightbox[billes]” href=”http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/0021.jpg”>

Hamaza Alhbian/Jessica Dan
McGILL UNIVERSITY

The designers placed the porch on the side, which creates a nice interior courtyard—but the absence of a front porch gives the house a slightly blank, imposing feel.” rel=”lightbox[billes]” href=”http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/0031.jpg”>

Justin Boulanger/Ann Rogers
MCGILL UNIVERSITY

A terrible, theory-infected name for an otherwise attractive house. The design includes two floors of living space with the top one connecting to a garden out back, a cool ramping entrance that’s threaded through the structure and stands in for the traditional porch, and a generous, double-height, light-filled family room and kitchen. My main concerns here are cost and context. This house can’t be built, as drawn, anywhere close to budget. The elegantly executed section drawings have a distinctly Architectural Digest feel, when a bit more Architecture for Humanity might be in order. For budget reasons Boulanger and Rogers suggest swapping out the large expanses of glass with either wood or prefab panels, but I’m not sure the house would read as cleanly if second- or third-choice materials were used throughout. An undeniably sexy house, it feels more California than Crescent City.” rel=”lightbox[billes]” href=”http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/004a.jpg”>

David Dworkind/Andrew Hruby
MCGILL UNIVERSITY

This is the other shipping container concept. Dworkind and Hruby created an impressive set of renderings, with pleasing interior and exterior views, and a wonderful series of construction schematics detailing precise methods, schedules, and budgets. They estimate earning a whopping 97 LEED points (off the charts platinum!), which seems wildly inflated. (Try getting 97 points in the real world.) The final construction figure, $224,999.94, feels like a sly admission on their part that they don’t have a clue how much the house would really cost. Nevertheless, this is an unusually strong student project.” rel=”lightbox[billes]” href=”http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/0051.jpg”>

David Dworkind/Andrew Hruby
MCGILL UNIVERSITY

An interior view of Dworkind and Hruby’s shipping-container concept.” rel=”lightbox[billes]” href=”http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/0061.jpg”>

Michael Benkert
UNIVERSITY OF CINCINNATI

Benkert’s design is probably the most in-your-face of the whole bunch. Unfortunately there was nothing about his arresting form that said “New Orleans,” or even “new New Orleans” to me. I’m not asking for Katrina Cottage contextualism here, just some realization of what people returning home might actually want. The judge’s scorecard posed a series of six questions, in which we were asked to respond on a 1-10 scale (1 meant “No”; 4, 5, and 6, “Somewhat”; and 8, 9, 10 “Definitely”). Two of my responses sum up my misgivings. I gave a 7 to “you find the interior to be unique/innovative?”, and a 1 to “if you lived in the Gulf Coast and were affected by Katrina would you purchase this house?”” rel=”lightbox[billes]” href=”http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/0071.jpg”>

Lilia Koleva/Philippe LaRocque
McGILL UNIVERSITY

Sometimes new houses (especially attempts at Architecture) take time to weave themselves into the fabric of a place. No problem here. This was, I thought, the most contextual scheme, but one that avoided ham-fisted mimicry. The house is actually two structures; common spaces and bedrooms are separated by a breezeway (a Caribbean touch). The resulting interior spaces feel slightly pedestrian, but Koleva and LaRocque devised a smart, kit-of-parts approach to construction that might make the overly rational floor plan easy to construct (perhaps even on time and close to budget).” rel=”lightbox[billes]” href=”http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/0081.jpg”>

Lilia Koleva/Philippe LaRocque
McGILL UNIVERSITY

An interior view of Koleva and LaRocque’s proposal” rel=”lightbox[billes]” href=”http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/0091.jpg”>

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