“So you’re a design junkie too?” Brad Pitt said to me, leaning out the door of an RV parked in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans one evening in December. I was his last interview of the day, and the lines around his blue eyes were thick with fatigue. Outside, a street party was starting up, with a zydeco band and a gumbo truck. There were flashbulbs and Angelina Jolie with Maddox, and Jerry Lee Lewis taking a turn at the piano. But the guests of honor were the people from the neighborhood, dispersed by Hurricane Katrina. Pitt’s new nonprofit, Make It Right, wants to help them “get a house” by providing the difference between their assets and the cost of rebuilding. The catch was that they had to choose one of the sustainable designs by 13 different architects—an amazing list that included Thom Mayne, David Adjaye, Shigeru Ban, and Kieran Timberlake.
“Our idea was, OK, these people need help rebuilding, so let’s bring in the great minds that we can find. And that was really exciting for me, being the fan that I am,” Pitt said, perched on the edge of the RV’s banquette. Are you bringing these architects here, I asked, because you enjoy working with them? “That’s one of the benefits certainly, but it’s not the driving factor.” So why do it? Why bring not just architects here but some of the world’s best? “I’ll tell you why,” Pitt said, leaning forward and rubbing his hands together. “Because these people suffered a horrific event, and truthfully great injustice in the aftermath, and they’re still suffering that injustice.
So what are you going to follow that injustice with? Crap houses with toxic materials and appliances that run up their electricity bills and may lead to a foreclosure? I mean, really. This to me is a social-justice issue. And to create something that’s equitable and fair and has respect and provides dignity for the family within is absolutely essential to rebuilding here.”
Since when do movie stars have a better sense of architecture’s possibility than most architects? Post-Katrina New Orleans—like post-9/11 Ground Zero—was supposed to be a moment when architecture would prove its relevance. Instead, architects and planners came in like the cavalry, full of expert opinions about what New Orleans should look like and where it should (or more to the point, shouldn’t) be rebuilt. The result was that rather than providing houses, they seemed—in the name of good planning—to be taking them away. “It felt to me that architecture was trying too hard to make its point,” remembers Steven Bingler, founder of Concordia Architecture & Planning, in New Orleans. And was anyone really surprised? Architecture has always had trouble connecting with the masses. There’s that famous, perhaps apocryphal, statistic—architects design two percent of American homes—and the bald fact of the contemporary American landscape, with its big-box stores, chain restaurants, and bland condominiums.
But if architecture has failed society, Pitt never heard the news. In 2006, after a few years of high-profile design dilettantism—during which Pitt famously wielded Frank Gehry’s glue gun—he chaired the jury for an architecture competition, sponsored by Global Green, to rebuild a block in New Orleans’s Holy Cross neighborhood. The project itself was forgettable at best, a one-off that’s still under construction. But according to the architects involved with the jury, Pitt was fiercely committed and empathetic—he even had a good eye for design. (Then they giggled like schoolgirls.) With Make It Right, Pitt—founding a new organization this time, not just being a spokesperson—has massively multiplied Global Green’s effort, setting an initial goal of building 150 houses. Architecturally, it’s equally ambitious, with 13 different designs offered for each homeowner to choose from. All were encourged to include sustainable features like solar panels and rainwater collectors, and they’ll be safe from future flooding—raised up off the ground, with escape hatches to the roof and waterproof safes for valuables. Whenever possible, they’ll use Cradle to Cradle–certified materials (although early talk of the houses themselves being certified hasn’t worked out). At press time, Make It Right had raised more than $10 million, on top of the $10 million committed by Pitt and Hollywood producer Steve Bing. It is enough to subsidize 70 homes, with construction on the first group of five to begin this month.
If Pitt can pull this off, he will have transformed a swath of the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood symbolic of everything rotten in America, into one of the world’s most design-intensive sustainable communities. Modeling it after the Case Study Houses, Pitt wants Make It Right’s architecture program to raise the bar for “answering a new set of challenges,” as he puts it. “It can be such a proving ground for so many things. It’s ready for the next evolution. We can actually advance the discussion and practice of intelligent design—and I’m not talking about creationism.” If all that succeeds, and the Lower Ninth Ward does indeed become for the single-family green house what Seaside was for New Urbanism or Pacific Palisades was for California Modernism, then our assessment may need to shift: rather than architecture’s most famous dilettante, Pitt could become one of its most important patrons.
The architects involved were (no surprise) thrilled by this notion. The list of 13 had been assembled by William McDonough + Partners and Graft, the L.A.-based firm that serves as something like Pitt’s in-house architecture wing. Pitt signed off on each selection. They wanted architects ready for the constraints—those willing to keep the costs low (about $150,000) and work with William McDonough + Partners to bring a Cradle to Cradle “framework” into the design process (although what that means isn’t exactly clear). “We didn’t want somebody who said, ‘I understand that the means of the homeowners are so modest that the design has to be modest,’” McDonough said. “We didn’t want modest designs—we didn’t ask for immodesty either.” Nearly every architect they approached said yes; they’re in the process of signing contracts that allow their designs to be replicated in the Lower Ninth Ward. They worked for a pittance, and some gave it back. “The only thing we gave them was a coach flight and a crap lunch,” as Pitt, no coach flyer himself, put it. But that’s being a bit disingenuous. What the architects got instead of money was Pitt.
On the set of the new David Fincher movie in New Orleans last winter, Pitt found himself standing in front of a bright-pink canvas house, meant to be digitally replaced in postproduction with computer-generated images. He called Graft’s L.A. office with an idea: What if we filled a few blocks of the Lower Ninth Ward with these houses as a symbol of what’s still missing? They could pick up the roofs and scatter them around, as if by the storm, then reassemble them as donations for each house arrived. In the meantime, no one could look at these houses and think life here had returned to normal. McDonough, no stranger to big ideas himself, is in awe of Pitt’s sense of possibility: “Who thinks like that?”
More to the point, the man can pull a crowd. The day of the press conference, Pitt started on the Today Show with Ann Curry, who was wearing her disaster costume of boots and cargo pants. Larry King showed up around noon, and Entertainment Tonight came by after lunch. In between, Pitt (with McDonough at his side to talk details) fit in USA Today, NPR, and the wire services. In the following weeks, he was on Charlie Rose and the Ellen DeGeneres Show. (DeGeneres asked people to sponsor houses in honor of her 50th birthday.) That first evening, Google News listed 194 articles. And when attention waned a few weeks later, Pitt took Maddox for a ride around the pink houses on a little tractor. The resulting paparazzi pictures were everywhere, with the pink in the background as an instantly recognizable symbol of the project, of what still wasn’t right in New Orleans. Pitt wields the media like a magic wand.
Yet there’s the paradox: this isn’t only about the Lower Ninth. The media circus was the point. Make It Right may be about helping a handful of families get a house, but it’s also about calling attention to the Gulf Coast. “Make It Right, like so many other private organizations and community and church groups, is doing its part to move the Gulf Coast further on the path of recovery,” Hillary Clinton said in a statement. “But while the American people continue to step up, the Bush Administration continues to fail.” As much as perfect little houses, Pitt’s program here is overtly political—and that goes for the architecture as well. These 13 houses are meant not only to shelter but to communicate.
At the press conference, held on a stage wrapped in pink bunting, Robert Green, a former Ninth Ward resident, told his harrowing story of the storm, of how he helplessly watched as his mother and young granddaughter slipped beneath the floodwaters. Then it was the architects’ turn. Large flat-screen monitors had been set up on the stage to show renderings, but they were invisible in the bright sun. Stripped of their images, the architects had to rely on tone—on their ability to connect to the people who would live in these homes. Adjaye talked about his desire to move social life up to rooftop terraces shaded by photovoltaic panels. Joe Osae-Addo, an architect from Ghana, talked about the cultural links between New Orleans and Africa. Richard Maimon, a senior associate at Kieran Timberlake, said his firm hoped to develop a local prefab factory. Mayne said his house floats like a boat. Graft’s Lars Krückeberg showed the firm’s updated shotgun, which morphed from a gable roof in the front to a tilted Modernist box in the back.
There were cringe-worthy moments when one architect or another slipped into the incomprehensible lingua franca of high design. Shigeru Ban—famed designer of elegant disaster shelters—sent a young guy from his New York office who gave a presentation so tone-deaf it would have embarrassed a first-year architecture student. Ban’s rendering, on display later in a shipping container turned into a gallery, didn’t help: on the house’s front porch was a white man in khakis. John Williams, a prominent New Orleans architect who is serving as executive architect for all of the houses, acted as emcee, adding bits of colorful commentary as he went. “If you can’t tell, these are some of the brightest minds in architecture,” he cheerily reminded the audience. Pitt watched from the edge of the stage, slapping each architect on the back as he finished.
The tone was upbeat, but there was no doubt that this was a popularity contest—although just who was the judge wasn’t so clear. The architects had been given the impression that at least one of each design would be built, but Tom Darden III, the young nonprofit developer who is director of Make It Right, said only, “The current plan is to build the houses that are selected by residents.” So far, the first phase has one by Graft, two by Billes (from New Orleans), and two by Concordia, also from New Orleans. “I don’t want any of the national people to leave here without learning at least one word of the local language,” Concordia’s Bingler said in his light Louisiana drawl during the press conference. “It’s called ‘Lagniappe.’ It means ‘a little something extra.’” (“For free!” the woman behind me shouted.) “The citizens of the Lower Ninth Ward have been accustomed to getting less than regular, so this is an opportunity to go beyond the normal. Not just the regular stuff—something a little bit extra on top of the regular stuff.” Concordia raised the Lagniappe House eight feet above the ground, with a pitched roof to collect storm water, a big front stoop, a wide porch, and a second “family porch” midway back from the street. Like all of the houses, it meets existing zoning regulations. Bingler recalled what one of the residents told him at a design charrette held with the community: the house should accommodate multiple generations. “Maybe the baby is asleep in the back bedroom, Mamma’s making some gumbo in the kitchen, and Grandpa’s on the front porch entertaining the neighbors.”
The pitch was right on, but it highlighted the challenge of the situation: the people in the Lower Ninth Ward need perfect houses to come home to, but the ambition is also for these homes to be prototypes for the near future—and look good on the Today Show. “We’ve got the devil on one side and the deep blue sea on the other,” Bingler said later. “If we design for the community, we’re going to be in jeopardy of not pleasing our peers, but if we design for the architectural press, we’re going to be in jeopardy of not reaching the community.”
The Lagniappe House may succeed at both, but not all the projects do. Some look like barely updated shotguns; any optimism they possess is wrapped in nostalgia. Others look like an ad executive’s minimalist loft. People found the design by MVRDV, from Rotterdam, offensive. It takes a shotgun house and breaks it in the middle, sending the ends up into the air to form a V. (The floors stay level.) It’s startling and original: “They really put forth an idea to think bold, to be grand in our ideas, not to be caged-in in any way,” Pitt said. But with a car parked underneath, the design looks like the aftermath of the storm, with houses tossed on top of cars. Winy Maas, principal at MVRDV, made no apologies. “People said, ‘Is this a joke?’ And we said, ‘No, it’s serious.’ Because it takes Katrina even more seriously and monumentalizes itself, and it shows that it was there.” No doubt, MVRDV knows how to design functional housing. They just didn’t think that was the point here. “People say, ‘Why would Brad want to do this?’” Maas said just before catching his flight back to the Netherlands. “It’s to address a wider perspective, isn’t it? And then maybe our design embodies that. Provocation is good because it pushes people. We need architectural Michael Moores.”
It’s hard to imagine that any of the residents will choose to build MVRDV’s house as their own. And if nobody chooses it, has it failed? At what? “If somebody designs a building that people don’t want to live in, then I would argue that it’s sculpture,” Bingler said. “And maybe that gets to the point about architecture’s role in the twenty-first century: Are we going to continue to create monuments to ourselves, or are we going to start listening? Are we going to develop a different kind of respect?”
That evening during the street party, I sat down with Reverend Charles Duplessis at a cocktail table wrapped in a pink tablecloth. Before the storm, he was pastor at the church on Flood Street in the Lower Ninth Ward. Since then, he and his wife have been living in Tuskegee, Alabama. I asked him which house he would choose if he were thinking about rebuilding, and he corrected me. “Oh, no, we’re not thinking—we’re going to.” The summer before Katrina, he built a deck off the back of his house on Tennessee Street with his grandsons. This month, construction will begin on their Lagniappe house, part of the first batch. “I’m a pastor, and so I believe that it is part of our calling to restore the neighborhood and to rebuild the community,” he said. “And you got to show up in order to do that. We need to be on the ground as a catalyst to get people home. It’s safe to come back home. It’s OK. And we’ve got people who want to help us, so let’s capture that help and build this community better than it was before. I tell people that he who owns the land owns the destiny.”
Find out more facts about this story on the Reference Page: March 2008