The Power of Modernist Thinking

For a week in October the ballroom of the Isle of Capri casino hotel in Biloxi, Mississippi, was taken over by more than 200 planners, engineers, and architects, participants in a mega-charrette led by New Urbanist guru Andrés Duany. Invited by Mississippi’s Republican governor, Haley Barbour, the Mississippi Renewal Forum’s goal was to come up with a series of plans for the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast. The aim was to restore the 11 significant coastal towns that were ravaged by Katrina and make them more livable, more attractive to tourists, and—via New Urbanism’s special alchemy—more “historic.”

The ballroom had been converted into an immense design studio where archi-tects and planners worked at a furious pace, drawing pedestrian-scaled neighborhoods, bike paths, and transit corridors on big sheets of tracing paper. Everywhere—pinned to walls and to bulletin boards that served as room dividers—were renderings of traditional building types: shotguns, cracker houses, and craftsman cottages, along with some strange hybrids—the rustic American/Tahitian fishing village on stilts, the neoclassical Wal-Mart, the antebellum condo/casino/retail cluster.

In this room full of people intent on improving the past, I stumbled upon architect John Anderson, who was sitting at a table reserved for the charrette’s architecture team, a crew charged with supplying building types for all 11 towns. Anderson—a Modernist among the neotraditionalists—was busy drawing an overtly angular live/work building. He told me it was for Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, where he lived in a similarly modern house. Before Katrina, Bay Saint Louis “was almost okay,” Anderson said, echoing Robert Venturi’s famous assessment of the endearingly sloppy American vernacular: almost all right. “Downtown there was a quaintness, a realness,” he said. “It was a real historic place, not a manufactured one. It wasn’t Celebration. I don’t want it to be that.”

On the other side of a tall bulletin board—next to a woman drawing tiny dollhouse-scaled shotgun shacks—I met a second Modernist member of the architecture team. Her name tag read “Allison Anderson.” She told me more about their house in Bay Saint Louis, which she’d designed with her husband, John, acting as critic. “We moved in one month before the hurricane.”

The days I spent at the Isle of Capri hotel were overwhelming in their intensity, so it wasn’t until I got back to New York that I started thinking about how the only two Modernists I ran into that week were locals who had designed and built a surviving structure. The Anderson residence, on Citizen Street, is a relatively unexceptional building located about 1,000 feet from the beach. The 3,000-square-foot house is divided into a connected pair of two-story slanted-roof sheds clad in gray cement board, with corrugated metal under the eaves. It’s a nice enough house, but if it were located in, say, Venice, California, no one would give it a second glance.

However, Bay Saint Louis wasn’t exactly a hotbed of Modernism. Until August 29 it was a picturesque artist’s colony known for the row of stately homes that lined an oak-shaded beachfront boulevard and its charming early-twentieth-century downtown. So the Anderson house stood out. But the thing that makes it truly exceptional now is that it’s still there. It withstood Hurricane Katrina’s 125-mile-an-hour winds and the 20-foot storm surge, a fast-moving wall of water that roared in and out in the space of an hour, destroying most everything within a quarter mile to a half mile of the shoreline. Pre-Katrina this house did not have a water view. “Now there are no houses standing between us and the beach,” Allison said when I called to talk about her home. “You can see the sunrise over the rubble.”

“It was designed to be an environmental demonstration house,” she explained. “We were using some principles that we were trying to get our clients to do down here, things they’ve been a little bit suspicious of.” As it turns out, the environmentally driven design decisions—particularly the use of highly durable low-maintenance materials—helped deflect the disaster. “We used a lot of things that would limit redundancy. This is a slab-on-grade house so we did a polished-concrete slab floor. It cleaned up pretty well too.”

“We also have a green roof,” she said. “It’s something very new down here.” Just before Katrina the Andersons had seeded the roof with grass. “It hadn’t come up before the hurricane, but,” she laughed, “it came up afterward.”

John suspects that the weight of the rooftop sod may have helped hold their house together. He speculated that commercial buildings with membrane roofs—the Louisiana Superdome is the most obvious example—might fare better in hur-ricanes if they had green roofs. But the most significant survival factor, the Andersons agreed, was that it was built to the standards of the International Building Code, which Bay Saint Louis adopted after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. “That means,” Allison said, “very heavy-duty clips from the slab to the wall studs, to the floor joists, to the second-floor wall studs, to the rafters all the way up.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that our house survived because of its contemporary style,” John added, “but more to the contemporary quality of construction.” Maybe so, but there’s something deeply Modernist about the way the Andersons approached design decisions and material choices. For example, when they realized that they couldn’t afford full-height glass for the front walls, they installed smaller windows and used plywood instead. Because they felt the need to beef up the structure—and also because they’d made a philosophical choice to have structural materials double as finish materials wherever possible—they added interior buttress walls of birch plywood. The Ander-sons believe this layer braced the facade against the hurricane-force winds and the seven feet of water that rolled through the ground floor of their home. So although Modernist style didn’t save the Anderson’s house, a Modernist methodology may have helped.

The house on Citizen Street, built for about $106 a square foot, isn’t the sort that gets published in magazines. That’s a shame because it’s emblematic of an approach to Modernism that is less about high-gloss surfaces and more about design strategies. And while Modernism doesn’t have greater moral authority than any of the other historic ap-proaches embraced by the New Urbanist charrette, the house on Citizen Street should serve as a reminder that architectural style isn’t just style: design decisions have consequences that go be-yond curb appeal.

While Allison acknowledged that many of her neighbors will surely replace their lost historic homes with new faux-historic homes, she thinks that as long as historicism isn’t mandated by zoning any number of things can and will happen. “This is an artists’ community, and it’s a little bit funky. Part of the charm of this place is that it’s not homogenous—there is a great diversity among the houses and the people you see on the street.”

A lot of people, Allison said, are downloading cute traditional-style cottages from the charrette Web site, but she believes that since Katrina erased much of the town’s historical context some residents might consider rebuilding Modern. And the house on Citizen Street is a pretty good sales pitch for the power of Modernist thinking. “We’ve taught our children,” Allison told me. “When they are outside cleaning up the front yard and people drive by and ask, ‘Why is your house standing?’ we’ve trained them to say, ‘That’s because my parents are the architects.’”

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