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02.27.2008
Hammer Time
California firms begin work in New Orleans
Scheme by Pugh + Scarpa
Courtesy Pugh + Scarpa

Two-and-a-half years after flooding devastated New Orleans, a home designed by Los Angeles firm Graft will break ground in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward in March, marking the construction phase of Make It Right, a highly-publicized philanthropic effort to create new homes headed by actor Brad Pitt. Designs by LA firms Morphosis and Pugh + Scarpa are also among the 13 offered for over 150 houses to be built over the next two years. New Orleans-based John Williams is serving as executive architect, with designs contributed by an international cast including Adjaye Associates of England, Constructs of Ghana, MVRDV of the Netherlands, and Shigeru Ban Architects of Japan, along with several local firms. In addition, a core advisory team consists of Graft from Berlin, Germany, and William McDonough + Partners of Charlottesville, Virginia. 

Make It Right was announced last September but given a huge financial boost when funds of $5 million each were pledged by Pitt and producer Steve Bing. An even larger publicity boost came when Pitt, a huge architecture enthusiast, assumed a large creative role in the project, personally selecting firms to participate. The results, said Pugh + Scarpa principal Lawrence Scarpa, are houses that combine innovative modern design and an ability to address displaced residents’ needs. He equates it to a modern-day Case Study House program. “There was an idea to give people an opportunity to have a new and different way to live. To provide normal people with quality design.” 


Scheme by Graft. COURTESY GRAFT

The firms were instructed to incorporate green building features into a 1,200-square-foot home to be built for about $150,000. Residents can choose their design, which has made them incredibly curious about the process, said Graft associate Neiel Norheim. Many firms modernized elements of the traditional shotgun houses that existed in the area before the hurricane. Graft’s design reinforces community, with wide stairs on the front porch that can be used for seating and a single hallway connecting the entry to the back porch, uniting the social areas. Pugh + Scarpa’s unique spatial organization is inspired by patchwork quilting, with abstract geometric shapes defining large, family-oriented areas. The exterior is shaded with inexpensive recycled wood pallets and perforated cement board screens to maximize light, while deep roof overhangs create wide porches to further insulate the interiors. Morphosis’ design, which at first appears to be a bright yellow modernization of a shotgun house, actually feels more like a boat inside. Buoyed by polystyrene foam encased in glass fiber-reinforced concrete, the foundation will actually float in high water. 

One concern from the architecture community was whether Pitt’s celebrity would eclipse the work of the designers. But Alejandra Lillo, partner at Graft, whose firm has a longstanding relationship with Pitt and was brought on during the earliest brainstorming stages, said Pitt’s commitment has actually been the driving force. “Brad is an incredible philanthropist with keen architectural vision and the determination to elevate the quality of design in this neighborhood,” she said. Scarpa agreed. “Clearly he is more than the public face of the project,” he said, noting that Pitt attended every meeting, sans entourage. 

To further spur donations and to help visualize the magnitude of destruction in this neighborhood, Graft also spearheaded a large-scale art installation called the Pink Project, where a team gradually assembled and illuminated 150 structures in a 14-square-block area to represent the number of donations needed to restore the neighborhood. The structures, which looked like giant Monopoly houses when flipped upright, were covered in hot pink Earthtex fabric to be recycled into tote bags. Stefan Beese, executive associate of Graft and executive producer of the Pink Project, said the response to the architects’ presence has been overwhelmingly positive in the community: “The residents of the Lower Ninth were very happy to see that the focus and attention was being brought back to an area that felt like it had been abandoned and was still in such need.” 

Alissa Walker