The Year's Best Architecture

6 projects worth examining

Certain light conditions create a highly animated contrast in the glass and steel surfaces.

JEFFERY JOHNSTON PHOTOGRAPH

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This year marks the end of projects designed before Hurricane Katrina and the preponderance of those that have been conceived and executed after the storm. With the new construction there is a change in building types and an increasing number of public facilities. There is another building type being represented this year: we’re featuring two apartment complexes – a medium rise and a high rise. Two high-profile projects with significant high tech aspects, the Regional Transportation Management Center and the National World War II Museum Expansion, bring our architecture into a distinctly 21st century mode.
 

The National World War II Museum Phase 4

Perhaps the highest profile project this year is the substantial expansion of the highly regarded National World War II Museum. Although this project doesn’t complete the campus, it establishes a new architectural vocabulary and offers a substantial increase in the program. Both inside and out, this project is highly successful. On the exterior, it conveys a kind of tough urban façade while also successfully integrating with the smaller scale historic structures along Magazine Street. The palette of enormous precast pieces, corrugated steel, aluminum and glass is reminiscent of the industrial underpinnings of the U.S. war effort. There is a lively new façade with great views toward Lee Circle; this will eventually face the Parade Ground, a central museum courtyard.

Inside, although the industrial vocabulary continues, even to the concrete floors, a lively program has induced other architectural responses. While the major public spectacle occurs within the high-tech Solomon Victory Theater, architecturally three other spaces are even more noteworthy. These include the double-height lobby space that orchestrates current and future entrances, including future upper level pedestrian bridge connections. Also noteworthy is the Stage Door Canteen, which evokes a 1940s USO club and the adjacent restaurant and cocktail bar, The American Sector. This interior, easily one of the most memorable contemporary establishments in the city, has a complex, undulating metal mesh ceiling that plays well against a historic brick wall and a new green trellis on the exterior terrace facing Poeyfarre Street.

The project represents combined design effort of Voorsanger Architects of New York together with the venerable New Orleans firm of Mathes Brierre. Together, the designers have created a project appropriate to its national stature and its New Orleans place.

Voorsanger Mathes LLC; Voorsanger Architects, Bartholomew Voorsanger, Masayuki Sono, Martin Stigsgaard, Peter Miller, Jim Macdonald; Mathes Brierre Architects, Edward C, Mathes, Peter Priola, Tony Alfortish, Nichole Chauvin, C. H. Palm Jr.
 

Regional Transportation Management Center
DOTD/Regional Planning Commission Office Building


This building has become an instant landmark; located on the neutral ground of West End Avenue, it’s surrounded by major roads, perhaps the perfect location for a state transportation building. Because of its position, the building has a public presence on all four sides, rather like the U.S. Custom House. Architecturally, the building is contemporarily exuberant. The palette of exterior materials is metal and glass, with a good deal of visual interest from all directions. The design of the building was completed in Summer 2005, but after Hurricane Katrina the site was modified so that the building would be elevated above potential flood level.

Inside, the building houses the regional office of the state Department of Transportation and Development on the first floor, and offices of the Regional Planning Commission on the second floor. It includes public amenities as well, in particular a conference room large enough to be used for meetings of the agencies that can routinely include officials from as many as seven parishes. Architecturally the most successful space is the well proportioned, double-height lobby. It has a transparent connection to the most unusual space that characterizes the building: the dramatic traffic control monitoring room. Here, a gigantic screen displays real time traffic conditions from a multiplicity of regional locations. Throughout the building the offices have fine natural lighting, and all of the interior spaces are commodious and efficiently planned.

Sizeler Thomas Brown Architects; Thomas M. Brown, principal-in charge; Mark Brupbacher, Ken Zito, Julia Stefanski, Robert Boyd, Julie Schroeder, Jean Kelly
 

930 Poydras St.

This is easily the most audacious building among this year’s group. A project of local developer Brian Gibbs, it is the first residential building downtown on Poydras Street. Although officially completed in December 2009, the building is undergoing finishing touches prior to apartment occupancy. The exterior is marked by a highly unusual, very dark grey façade (yes, that’s the finished condition). Narrow vertical multistory windows are sprinkled across the façade, matching the width of adjacent steel panels. The apparent randomness of the façade glazing has caused a good deal of public comment: “I get it; it’s like jazz,” says graphic designer Tom Varisco. “It’s like an apartment building at night, with the randomness of lights indicating who’s at home,” says Eleanor Burke, assistant director of the HDLC.

Architect Steve Dumez of Eskew+Dumez+Ripple explains that there was a design issue here of promoting visual interest in two ways: the color value of the tinted glass and the steel are very close, leading to a perception of singular surface across the façade and the reflectiveness of the glass, under certain light conditions creates a highly animated contrasting surface. This is a building of subtlety.

Unfortunately the shape of the building when seen from Poydras Street makes it appear to be a cubic mass rather than a 22-story tower. In fact, above the extruded square eight-story parking garage, it’s a thin “L”-shaped structure. The ninth floor sky lobby is the heart of the design’s strength. Although visible from the exterior, with a clear glass façade and a projecting bay window, it’s only from the interior that this floor’s character is fully revealed. At this level is a shift in elevator cores that requires all of the residents to engage the space. It is a well-proportioned double height living room with amenities and a spectacular view of the city. Outside is an equally generous court terrace with pool, outdoor kitchen, fitness room and five special two-story townhouses opening along one edge.

In contrast to the sky-lobby the units appear rather mundane; but with the extraordinary degree of amenity for residents, this building is setting a new standard for cosmopolitan dwelling in New Orleans.

Eskew+Dumez+Ripple; Steve Dumez, principal-in-charge; Chuck Hite, Jose Alverez, Jack Sawyer, Wendy Kerrigan, Bob Kleinpeter

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