I didn’t expect a pink house, but perhaps I should have. After all, we’re talking about Frank Gehry, an architect who is hardly run-of-the-mill. The house is part of a larger project that itself is far from ordinary. In July, the Make It Right Foundation unveiled the starchitect’s contribution to its effort to construct 150 sustainable and storm-resistant homes in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The Make It Right Foundation’s efforts have garnered much buzz since Katrina, with the fanfare spurred in large part by celebrity endorsements—not just that of founder Brad Pitt, but also of the big-name architects attached to the projects.
Make It Right’s website ( makeitrightnola.org) describes the initiative as “a unique laboratory for testing and implementing new construction techniques, technologies, and materials that will make green, storm-resistant homes affordable and broadly available to working families in communities across America.” The benchmark for each development is LEED Platinum certification. They are certainly all respectable goals.
Of the 21 architects and firms signed on to the project—among them green-building veterans William McDonough, KieranTimberlake, and Brooks + Scarpa (formerly Pugh + Scarpa)—the name with the most star power arguably is Gehry’s. Architectural critic Paul Goldberger dubbed him the foremost architect in the United States in the August 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, and this type of praise means that the completion of the duplex was much-anticipated.
Green advocates such as myself have also been curious about how Gehry would approach sustainable design. His work is rarely highlighted for its environmental performance, and the architect himself ignited debate in April 2010, during a public talk in Chicago, by commenting that LEED certifications are overhyped.
If you ask me, it’s Gehry’s duplex that is overhyped. The New Orleans Times-Picayune dubbed it “the undisputed prima donna” of the Make It Right development, and that’s troublesome. Too much attention is paid to Gehry’s name and too little on the actual design and environmental performance of the house.
Those expecting the kind of playful curves and innovative materials that Gehry employed at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles surely received a surprise. The NOLA duplex is a blocky clapboard-sided structure topped by hard-to-ignore solar arrays that look like they were thrown onto the roof as an afterthought. It’s as if the architect is saying, “See, it’s green. Are you happy?” And if the form and PVs don’t get your attention, there’s the color, or colors: pink for one unit and lavender for the other.
Many reviews of the house applaud the design and color choices (the colors were chosen by the residents of the two units). Lavender and pink aside, the house appears severe and unwelcoming to me, with its harsh angles, and even more problematically, it looks cheap (at least judging from photos of the exterior—the interior seems slightly more refined). For all the attention the project is generating, it does a disservice to the green-building movement.
I also take issue with some aspects of Make It Right as a whole. While I fully respect the foundation’s intentions, its PR pairing of sustainability and starchitecture undermines its stated goal of making sustainable housing widely available in an affordable and timely manner.
The green-building movement needs fewer show homes and more large-scale adoption. The Make It Right development amounts to a green-building tourist attraction, a shiny cluster of high-performance houses.
What is the probability that these houses will serve as models for non–Make It Right construction projects in the neighborhood, elsewhere in New Orleans, or in other hurricane-prone areas?
And what is the likelihood that builders and homeowners will adopt any of the innovative technologies and materials of the Make It Right houses? People might look at features such as the custom-fitted Kevlar sheets used in lieu of traditional hurricane shutters, and simply think: “Unrealistic!” Do these people realize that the sheets may, as the foundation claims, save time and money by eliminating the traditional technique of boarding up windows with plywood? Do they care?
The Make It Right website reports that, as of press time, 14 families have moved into completed homes—in a neighborhood that lost more than 4,000 houses. I wonder whether builders, developers, and homeowners who are considering green-building investments will look at Make It Right’s pace of development and draw the false conclusion that green building is far too time consuming.
High-performance buildings should not be seen as too complicated, too expensive, or simply as a one-off effort in a big-name firm’s portfolio. Instead, sustainability must be integrated thoughtfully and effectively into every building. We don’t have the luxury of limiting our most resource-efficient structures to a small number of specialty projects or developments. Until the green-building industry, building owners, and occupants accept that high-performance buildings are a large-scale, worldwide necessity, we won’t be making it right for any of us.