Best new architecture – our annual picks
by John P. Klingman
Over the last year there have been relatively few construction cranes in evidence in the New Orleans area, heralding locations of major new buildings. However, upon closer scrutiny we have found seven exemplary projects – four institutional structures and three new residences. Perhaps their low profile is an indication of a new phenomenon. Contemporary architecture is quietly infiltrating New Orleans with high-quality new buildings alongside our enormous stock of high-quality historic structures. Of course, we believe that they are complementary. Judge for yourself in our ninth annual survey of the best new New Orleans architecture.
Many people have noticed the new First Baptist Church while traveling west on Interstate 10, perhaps without recognizing its identity. The strong image of the complex, with its large entry façade, shiny metal roof and steeple, is memorable as seen across an open New Orleans cemetery landscape. Actually finding the complex is more difficult. The address is Canal Boulevard, but the church is approached via a long, curved drive and is invisible from the street. As you arrive by vehicle, two buildings appear. The first is the curved Education Building, containing classrooms and offices. Beyond is the church itself. The oblique approach shows the church form to an advantage with the entrance visible from the parking.
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The siting of the project is fundamental to understanding it. The congregation was previously housed in a midcentury-modern structure on St. Charles Avenue near Napoleon. With a growing regional congregation, the church sought a location more central and convenient than Uptown New Orleans. They found a large landlocked tract near the highway that would allow them to expand their facilities and provide for future growth. The architects worked through several alternatives with the client to arrive at the massing. The two buildings are different shapes, and their differing functions are apparent from the exterior. A spire provides vertical punctuation on the church’s west side. The Education Building, except for the somewhat monumental entrance colonnade, is a repetitively fenestrated, curved, metal-clad building. It is linked to the entrance lobby of the church itself.
The church building is also horizontal with a curving front, but the entry is more successfully scaled with a handsome glass-and-steel projecting canopy. The foyer curves along the back edge of the sanctuary. It seems vast and appears a bit stark, although apparently this changes after a service. Pastor David Crosby notes, “People tend to linger for fellowship much more in the new building.” He also says there is greater opportunity “for people to enjoy each other’s company in the bright and beautiful spaces.”
The transition into the sanctuary is direct; it is here, appropriately, that the architectural experience culminates. This space is a dramatic, large fan shape with a sloping floor that comfortably seats more than 1,400 worshipers in oak pews. The focus of attention is the large platform, with the church’s relocated organ as the sculptural backdrop. There is a large choir loft, and all of the accoutrements of stagecraft are integrated into the space. This allows for a variety of musical components in the services, a strong interest of the congregation, and the architects have created a live space that works well acoustically. The technical requirements for sound and lighting are housed a bit awkwardly in a lowered arc in the ceiling. Architecturally, the space benefits greatly from the tall windows that flank both sides, bathing the space in natural light. At one side near the stage is a large baptistery pool encased in marble. Above are special windows indicative of the importance of this element in Baptist ritual. And even higher above is the church steeple, relating inside to outside.
On Dillard’s traditional and coherent campus is a new building that challenges architectural complacency, while fitting into the ambiance strongly established by the horizontal white-brick buildings characteristic of Dillard. The project came about through the fundraising efforts and vision of former university president Dr. Michael Lomax and the design talents of New York architects Davis Brody Bond. A unique circumstance was that design principal Max Bond actually lived on the site as an infant; his father was a dean at the university. A limited design competition was held that also included two local architectural firms, and the Davis Brody Bond scheme was the strong favorite of students, faculty, administrators and trustees.
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The building is on an edge of campus, obliquely facing the Kabacoff quad, an important campus green space. The architects designed a two-story linear building. It is entered at the center under a large portico. Architect Bond notes that the portico is one of the typical Dillard design elements to which the architects sought to relate. Here the portico is dramatized by its full building height, slightly angled projection and slender steel columns. It acts as a unifying element for the building, extending the roof of the right side while the glass wall of the left side is continuous under the portico. It shelters the transparent lobby, which includes an open stair clearly orchestrating the building circulation. The lobby also acts as a gallery for art specially selected for this location.
Another important and contemporary treatment of the building is the glass curtain wall that forms the structure’s campus-facing left side. The wall is an elegant composition of vertical glass panels. Some of them are fritted, that is, coated with a pattern of translucent dots that charges the panels’ color and transparency. The liveliness of this subtle pattern was intended to evoke New Orleans shutters, according to Bond. On the other side of the portico, the façade is composed of the campus’ ubiquitous white brick. The treatment of the wall is contemporary, though; there are windows at corners and a huge opening from the second-floor boardroom that looks out onto the plaza.
Inside, the building contains spacious classrooms, departmental offices and a computer lab. There is a high-tech theme in each space with the latest computer technology well integrated everywhere. But there is also careful attention to more traditional architectural concerns. The building is very skillfully daylit, with no glare, ensuring lighting energy is minimized. The interiors are warmed by the judicious use of wood, particularly the blond birch panels that contrast wonderfully against the dark greenness of the mature live oaks just outside the building.
A handsome new structure has arisen on South Carrollton Avenue – the Whitney National Bank. It replaces the Oak Street branch, a well-loved local landmark, with a modern facility. Current trends in retail banking require lots of space for cars, and this ruled out the renovation of the older structure. But interestingly, the new building has been conceived as an urban structure with a strong presence on the street. This is accomplished not only by proximity but also by its generous scale and transparency.
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Architects Eskew+Dumez +Ripple have created a “lantern to the street,” in the words of principal Steve Dumez. The heart of the project is the banking hall -- a traditional component of bank architecture that has been designed as a transparent space behind a massive exterior colonnade. This monumentally scaled element is representative of historic bank architecture, while the slick glass box is a reference to the modern. The banking hall interior is well-proportioned with elegant materials and an outstanding use of light. The crystalline room holds the customer service desks and the teller windows. Chrestia Staub Pierce assisted the architects by choosing handsome furnishings that maintain the openness of the space. The office areas along the avenue edge also benefit from morning sun, filtered through the live oak canopy and the stucco piers. While the piers can look overly heavy when seen obliquely, their role in diffusing the light is important and successful.
On the opposite side of the banking hall there are linear skylights that balance the daylight and wash brightness onto a paneled mural high on the wall. The mural, by local artist Christopher Fischer, depicts an idealized bird’s-eye view of Carrollton from the river. At night, the mural is spotlighted, enhancing visibility from the avenue. The primary entrance is from the lake side, where the auto entry, a projecting canopy and a Japanese maple introduce the building. Another strong design idea is evident inside, at the end of the axis of the entrance is the vault with its monumental door.
Around the back, the character of the building changes radically, displaying its more suburban attributes. It is one story tall, surrounded by what seems to be an excess of parking. However, even this is perhaps indicative of a building well designed to reflect the dignity of past bank architecture but with the convenience and accommodation that are important for the future.
A new building has been slipped seamlessly into the Trinity Episcopal School campus on the corner of Josephine and Camp streets. It is the home of Les Enfants, the school’s nursery program, a fact immediately evident as one walks along the Josephine Street courtyard edge. The architects, Waggonner and Ball, successfully transformed two existing houses into the side wings of a new U-shaped plan. In contrast to the other Trinity buildings along Josephine Street, the new building does not have a wall at the street edge. Instead, the project creates an active play courtyard that enlivens the street. “It’s a good neighbor,” says headmaster Michael Kuhn, “ … and the kids love it!”
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The existing shotgun doubles were extensively renovated and restructured to remove the center bearing walls. They are linked to the new middle building with a large raised porch that wraps three sides of the courtyard. This element of New Orleans vernacular architecture provides great transitional space with doorways from all three buildings opening onto it. The center building’s porch also extends through the wings, providing a convenient, well-scaled, covered entrance on Camp Street, and a connection to the rest of the campus at the other end.
In the center of the new building is the large common room. It is a tall, rectangular volume with ceilings that slope up to a long ridge skylight. The structure’s trusses extend across the skylight well, creating a strong play of light and shadow throughout the day. In this room, as well as the classrooms adjoining it at either end, there are multiple doors and windows of different shapes providing natural light and a variety of views.
The spaces in the new building are commodious and delightful. On the outside, the building is contextual to a fault; in fact, it might have benefited from a clearer contemporary design element. The building is heavily used for both morning and afternoon programs. However, with the new facility, the school has not increased its enrollment; instead, Trinity is making a commitment to an enhanced environment for learning.
In places along the city’s northern boundary, Lakeshore Drive lies within an expansive esplanade, and at one location on the southern edge of this park-like space is a substantial new two-story residence. Projecting above the neighboring mid-20th-century houses, the front is made of brick, glass and steel. It is characterized by a central entrance with a canopy floating above. To the left is the slightly canted mass of the side of the garage topped by a birdwatching terrace behind its parapet. On the right, the second floor cantilevers out at the corner, and adjacent to the entrance is a full-height, steel-framed, glazed opening. Architect Lee Ledbetter points out that in New Orleans houses, the front façade is often overscaled and dramatic while the sides are rather simple, and that is certainly the case here. The strong front wall is also the first indication that the house has been organized as a series of three transverse zones, as opposed to the more typical New Orleans condition emphasizing an axis perpendicular to the street.
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Immediately upon entry, the space unfolds laterally; the entrance hall is open and spacious with an elliptical staircase to the right. Ahead is the middle zone, divided by parallel walls into an office area, a conversation area and a Pullman kitchen behind a wall to the left. The house was designed for an extensive art collection, and wall surfaces were carefully orchestrated to accommodate specific works and allow for more distant views of them. A tall, panelized, quarter-sawn white-oak wall, lit with reflected daylight by clerestories above, marks the next threshold architecturally. The wall is hollowed out for bookshelves in the office and storage in the kitchen. Toward the middle, a large opening with several steps drops down to the living and dining areas. One is drawn ahead into this third zone by midday sunlight streaming in from the back patio. The living room also benefits from the rich oak wall along its side. Here the ceiling is a floating plaster vault that is higher along the oak wall edge and slopes down to the terrace side. The spatial theme extends to the rear terrace, a long outdoor room parallel to the back wall of the house.
The dramatic stair, visible at night through the glass façade, is a handsome design beautifully crafted of laminated plywood. However, it is also a bit of a miscue. Despite its prominence, it leads to the much more private bedroom area of the house above the front entryway. These comparatively modest rooms are well designed, and they face the lake, just visible through the trees. In the master bedroom there is one more design flourish – a curved storage wall, relating in a complex way to the curved ceiling of the living room below.
A new house with an unusual street appearance has recently been completed on Tchoupitoulas Street Uptown. Designed by Jose Alvarez, the project was classified as a “renovation” by the architect to take full advantage of a large existing footprint. Since the ’60s-era building on the site was of little value, this renovation amounts to a replacement, with the earlier massing but with a contemporary design approach. The house was also designed to be sold, testing the waters “of a hidden market for modern architecture in New Orleans,” in the words of the designer. It sold almost immediately! From the street the building is an uncompromisingly severe box with a recessed ground-floor entrance, which provides covered parking. The house can be understood as a hovering building. Instead of posts it is supported on huge steel “V”-shaped struts, more reminiscent of elements from offshore platforms rather than typical residential architecture.
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At the threshold the project takes on a new dimension through its strong spatial character. One enters directly into a generous double-height space that seems perfect for entertaining. The island kitchen is along the left side, and the space extends visually into the single-height living room beyond. Strong daylight enters from the glass wall that looks into the rear garden. Clerestories line both side walls, producing a glowing interior volume and balancing the light downstairs. Another major element of the house is an artfully designed wood-and-steel open stair, rising along the side wall of the dining space. The stair leads from the living room to a second-floor bridge that connects the two front bedrooms with the master suite facing the rear garden. The detailing is minimalist in character and elegant throughout the house.
The house on Zimpel Street in the Riverbend has become rather well-known since its recent completion. It is the product of a collaborative design effort between two architects, Don Gatzke and Byron Mouton, and its form reflects the proclivities of the designers. Gatzke was interested in exploring a contemporary version of the shotgun house, and Mouton was interested in the opportunity to design a vertical dwelling.
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Like Siamese twins, the buildings are joined, but each exhibits an individual personality. They each have two private outdoor spaces, and the entrances work together off a fenced garden room. Consistent materials and a consistent color palette help unify the project. However, the similarities between the two units are less striking than the differences. To start with the most obvious, the forms are complementary but opposite. The horizontal building has a more traditional plan, starting with a front porch, a New Orleans element that faces the street in neighborly fashion. A covered gallery extends along the side, shielding the entrance. The plan is the familiar series of rooms; only the metal roof has an unusual asymmetrical shape, although it is pitched as in most New Orleans vernacular buildings. This building was designed as a rental unit for two unrelated adults, so there are garden areas both in front and in back.
The vertical unit entry is through a recess in its front wall. The ground floor is a home office, and above, the upper two levels are linked as a residence with the bedroom treated as a third-floor loft. The advantage of a vertical building here is that the river is dramatically visible across the tops of the surrounding buildings. Mouton explains that this influenced the house in two important ways. First, the large window faces down to the street, reflecting the importance of the immediate context, and there are high horizontal windows on the third floor that highlight the river and the horizon – the larger landscape. Similarly, the roof that pitches down toward the street relates to the neighboring buildings, while the flatter pitched roof emphasizes the broader context, as though the house were a kind of periscope. Although the house is fenestrated carefully, the size and shape of the openings are a bit odd, and the relationship between the large area of wall and the small area of openings is not so responsive to the traditional large openings, which can provide cross ventilation.
Again, though, it is the combination of the two buildings, the horizontal house linking up with the neighborhood and the set-back tower acting as an exaggerated camelback, that makes this project work particularly well.
Incidentally, the intentional misspelling in the house’s name corresponds to that on some city street signs. Mouton says they chose to use this version for the house “because it rhymes with simple.”
John P. Klingman is an architect and a Favrot Professor of Architecture at Tulane University. His most recent completed project is the redesign of the façades
of Monroe Hall, Tulane’s modernist 12-story dormitory. KDK were architects of record for the renovation.
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