Some celebrate the failures of “Make It Right”, Brad Pitt’s patronage in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina wrecked New Orleans in 2005, celebrated architects like Frank Gehry, David Adjaye and Thom Mayne created art for a foundation set up by Pitt. A local architect, John C. Williams was hired to turn designs from those starchitects into buildings with a directive to use the best sustainable materials available.
Some of the homes that were built have dramatically failed, including those materials, to the point of demolition. Twice so far. Others are abandoned, lawsuits are in play for others. Williams has been fired and sued. Some found solace when these buildings failed and fell short of their aspirations. Beyond the factoids of technical failure, those who rooted for the failure reflect a much larger conflict.
Good intentions are not outcomes. Intentions ruled this effort’s creation. The implementation of our most precious possession, our homes, ended up threatening, rather than protecting. Beyond rot and toxicities, the failures of “Make It Right” were baked in the cake of its creation.
A recent Harris poll found that 3/4 of America preferred what “Make It Right” is not: traditional architecture. But these preferences are not just about “Style.” The role of art in architecture is most often found in the attempts for the privileged (like Brad Pitt and those starchitects) to “virtue signal”. The power of the message that elites do not run us was in full force in the 2016 election.
Art in architecture threatens some, actually causes hostile and angry responses, abetted by recent science that calls out some of modernist architecture’s less-than-comforting consequences. The threat of the intelligentsia compromising our well being is made personal when our homes are involved.
The threats are not just stylistic, but comfort can be. When Katrina wrecked thousands of homes, over 4,500 were built by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, including Marianne Cusato’s “Katrina Cottages”. These homes are almost universally “traditional” –evoking memories of a time before the generic post-World War 2 housing it often replaced “Make It Right” was virtually an art exhibit in a sea of banality. We all want relief from our fears, so for most of us the solace of the past, of known icons gives us comfort. Especially in the places that protect us, especially our homes.
But homes also should aspire to transcend our expectations and give those who live in them joy beyond protection. Anecdotally 97% of the homes that are built in America, year in and year out, are not touched by an architect and are replications of a soft, comforting design, lightly traditional, or benignly contemporary. Homes that challenge us do not reflect most of us. But homes that are not traditional, from our memory, often threaten some of us.
The schadenfreude in hailing the fall of art at “Make It Right” is just another fulfillment of the fear that we cannot live into our best hopes. In the face of any fear, humans assert control. “Make It Right” asserted that Art, in the form of housing (for those who never live in art – who had been victimized by a hurricane and our culture), and Sustainability could manifest humanity’s potential to “Make It Right”. But some of those attempts have failed. But most have not.
These are horrific failures, but the vast majority of the 109 homes (out of the 150 planned) in the “Make It Right” live on. Those who failed aspirations are betrayals of trust and money. But what about those which are not failures? They seem to be forgotten, as a few bad apples do poison the whole bunch in the general perception.
The failure of these homes is not stylistic. The ones that ceased to protect were simply designed more like art and less as architecture. One fundamental misfit in all buildings is a connection to their context. “Make It Right” homes clearly ignore New Orleans in their aesthetics, to the point of making cheap thrills “statements”, but that is not why they failed. They ignored the physical context of the environment. So they degraded. Many (many) homes, everywhere, have that fate, designed or undesigned, in any location.
But “Style” is what has sentenced “Make It Right” to the judgment of failure beyond the obvious inadequacies of those that have failed. And that is a sad reality.
Real Estate Agents used to assemble their listings in endless local newspaper inserts touting them as “The Parade of Homes!” and their banality augured for sustainable home values before “sustainability” was ever conceived. These parades were never intended to be an art gallery, but their availability gave the hope that “Make It Right” aspired to.
Today, residential architecture is caught in apartheid between art and product –it should be both. But art in the Real Estate market in the form of experiment and innovation does not sell as well as the comfort of the familiar. When that same Art also physically fails and threatens, publicly, in the full spotlight of celebrity, it wrecks our hopes and validates our fears. When our fears are validated, our humanity is diminished.