Design in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward


One of the shotgun houses under restoration through the PRC

Last month on an appropriately rainy day in New Orleans I had the opportunity to tour the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the areas most affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I was amazed by the resilience and dedication of those involved in rebuilding. Five years later large spray-painted “X”s still adorn many doors indicating all residents have been evacuated and have not returned. There is still a long way to go.

The Preservation Resource Center has done a great deal of work in the Holy Cross Neighborhood in the Ninth Ward.  Since Hurricane Katrina, Operation Comeback has invested $2 Million in purchasing, renovating and reselling vacant historic properties to help restore and repopulate the community.  While it is estimated that 100% of the buildings in this area were damaged by Katrina, because of the elevation most buildings are still standing and many are candidates for restoration.


Before and After: 3900 Annunciation Street

When buildings cannot be saved, the PRC heads a salvage program that saves reusable ornamental items such as mantels, doors, windows and wrought iron. We had the opportunity to visit the salvage warehouse… a candy store for designers and architects! Here preservation and going green work hand in hand.

The shotgun house restored on This Old House.

The shotgun house restored on This Old House.

In addition to viewing much of the restoration work of the PRC in this neighborhood, we also got to see the shotgun house that was featured in This Old House. This restoration is an oasis in a still very damaged neighborhood.

In the northern edge of the Lower Ninth where the Industrial Canal flood wall collapsed and pretty much everything was destroyed something completely different is happening. Brightly colored contemporary structures dot the landscape that is now a large construction zone. Frustrated by the slow progress in rebuilding, in 2007, Brad Pitt set up a foundation called Make it Right and invited 13 architects to design sustainable contemporary homes based on traditional the New Orleans “shotgun” and “duplex”.  The criteria given was to “use the city’s existing narrow lots (that is, no aggregating lots and building large complexes—rumors had circulated after Katrina that Donald Trump wanted to buy the whole Lower Ninth); elevate houses out of the way of future flooding and include rooftop access to simplify rescue; feature prominent porches or front stoops for socializing; and use materials that are tough enough to survive hurricanes but that also approach “cradle to cradle” reusability. The standard house was to be 1,200 square feet, have three bedrooms and two baths, and cost no more than $150,000. Homeowners would pay what they could, and the foundation would help with the rest.” (Wayne Curtis, The Atlantic) One design by architect Thom Mayne even created a float house” that will float upward up to 12 feet in the event of flooding while guideposts will keep the home from floating away.

The resulting designs are groundbreaking and unlike anything in the area. The initial plan is to complete at least 150 homes. I got the sense from locals that they wish this had been done as more as a joint effort with local planning groups, but New Orleans clearly needs all the help it can get and it will be interesting to see what kind of community emerges here.


Four very different contemporary structures that are part of Make it Right.

Excellent Eats in the Big Easy

August Restaurant

August Restaurant

I had heard New Orleans was all about food…one of my favorite TV shows, After Hours with Daniel Bouloud, spent part of a season in NOLA… but I was still surprised by the amazing restaurants a group of friends and I experienced last weekend. We had three very distinct and fantastic dining experiences.

First off was August with celebrity chef John Besh at the helm. August is located in the Central Business District in a historic 19th Century building. We sat in the elegant and cosy two-story wine room complete with mahogany paneling, white tablecloths and chandeliers. Wanting to experience Besh’s culinary creations but also trying not to break the bank, I did a bit of research before the trip and found that August serves lunch on Fridays only and offers a $20.09 prix fixe. It wasn’t hard to convince my 5 companions to join me at this rate..honestly the best deal around!  We started off with an amuse bouche of seafood custard with truffle oil served in an eggshell. This set the stage for three courses of french cuisine with local influences. In my post-food-coma, I remember fried lobster tail surrounded by salmon carpaccio, a shrimp and sausage stew and pastries filled with chocolate. Yummmmmm.

totsOn the opposite end of the dining spectrum, next up was burgers at Yo Mamas, a local spot off Bourdon St known primarily as a tequila bar. The burger was hand-formed, cooked to perfection and unbelievable… and the tequila wasn’t so bad either. They were raising money for a local kids charity through a “Tequila for Tots” promotion (only in NOLA! ) Needless to say, we did our best to help out the kids…

Cochon Restaurant

Cochon Restaurant

Our final stop was in the Warehouse District. After the salesguy at a fishing tackle shop and the owner of an Italian clothing store asked  “Have you been to Cochon?”, we had to check it out. Cochon (pig in French) is in a very hip rustic contemporary space in a converted warehouse space. Chef Donald Link cooks authentic Cajan cuisine with his own signature style. He has his own in-house boucherie and the homemade Boudin sausage is to die for. We started off with some of the best cocktails I’ve ever had… not too sweet and definitely original… my favorite was moonshine with blueberries and tea. Some of the highlights of the meal included fried alligator with chili garlic aioli, catfish courtbouillon, an oyster & bacon sandwich, smothered greens, oven-roasted local redfish served “fisherman’s style” and the previously mentioned fried boudin with pickled peppers. This was comfort food with a surprisingly sophisticated twist. wow. did I say… wow.

Check out the After Hours episode filmed at Cochin below.

Keep Calm and Carry On

keep_calmOn a recent trip to London, I picked up one of these posters at the gift shop in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The strong graphic and message appealed to me.

Rob Walker of the The New York Times published an article today on the origins of the poster which I found interesting so I thought I would share it. The original can be found here.

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Remixed Messages

A blunt slogan and a simple image: these basic elements of persuasion, protest, propaganda or making a point have been used in tandem and to great effect for as long as anyone reading this has been alive. Presumably, these messages have always been received in a variety of ways. But these days, it seems, when a slogan and an image reach a significant audience, that’s not the end of the process. In fact it’s just the beginning.

For example, when red posters bearing the sans-serif slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” underneath a simple crown icon started catching on in Britain a few years back, Bex Lewis knew their provenance. Now an associate lecturer in history and media studies at the University of Winchester, Lewis wrote her Ph.D. thesis on British propaganda posters devised for the home front during World War II. The “Keep Calm” poster, meant to be distributed in the event of a German invasion, was extremely obscure for many decades. So she was interested, she recalls, to see it turning into “sort of a consumer item.”

That process began with a fluke: in 2000, Stuart and Mary Manley, owners of a shop called Barter Books in north England, found one of the original posters folded up in the bottom of a box of old books and framed it. Customers liked it, and eventually the Manleys decided to sell reproductions. “Part of it is that it does have this sort of intrinsic British feel about it,” Mary Manley says, adding that the poster evokes a “nostalgia for a certain British character, an outlook.”

On a less romantic note, the design is in the public domain, meaning it can be remade and sold by anybody. A British freelance television-production manager named Mark Coop, for one, decided it “would be a brilliant idea to put it on a T-shirt.” In 2006, he bought the domain name, and offers the slogan and design on a variety of goods, including cuff links and duffel bags. Around the same time, Victoria Smith, a San Francisco Bay Area design blogger and photographer, bought one of the Barter Books posters secondhand and ended up producing her own silk-screen “Keep Calm” prints in a variety of color variations that she sells on Barter Books has added mugs and mouse pads to its lineup. (Relations among these sellers are not particularly friendly; each complains of copycats selling low-quality versions.)

It turned out that the “Keep Calm” merchandise resonated all over the world. “Germany’s really big on it, oddly enough,” Coop observes. The banking crisis, Smith adds, brought a wave of orders from people working for American financial firms (and, more recently, advertising agencies). In fact, the travails of the global economy seem to have given the slogan fresh relevance to many — as reassurance for some but as creative fodder for others. For instance, one T-shirt design tips the crown upside down and reads “Now Panic and Freak Out.”

Possibly the best-known response graphic was created by Matt Jones, a product designer with the British-based firm Schulze & Webb. He was “in a grumpy mood” when he happened to read an article in The Guardian about the “Keep Calm” trend. “It was full of this sort of British fatalism,” he recalls. Being of the mind-set that “we have to invent our way out of trouble,” he started sketching. His design — the slogan “Get Excited and Make Things” under a crown that includes wrenches — became a Web hit, leading to a T-shirt from Howies, a Welsh clothing brand, and a set of prints sold on 20×; Mule Design in San Francisco is bringing out a version of the shirt in the U.S. (Jones has given his chunk of the proceeds to nonprofit groups.)