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Design Sensations; Business and Residential
Architecture is one of those traits that defines some cities. That is certainly true with New Orleans with its history of early buildings as distinguished as Gallier Hall and the St. Louis Cathedral. But unless cities are to just be museum pieces they must keep up with the present and with an eye on the future, even in the design of the their buildings. Our annual architecture feature is one of our oldest traditions and certainly one that we are proud of as we monitor the continuously emerging new New Orleans. So what can be said of the current architecture scene: Hotels are continuing to be in demand in the city, and this year we feature two. Also included are two projects that bring toward conclusion those arising from the catastrophe following Hurricane Katrina: the Stallings St. Claude Recreation Center and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Ace Hotel New Orleans
(also pictured above)
The Ace Hotel on Carondelet Street is an enticing mix of generous accommodation and engaging architecture. It includes the adaptive reuse of a significant nine-story historic art deco-influenced building, most engagingly transforming a lofty furniture showroom into a comfortable contemporary dining space. The Josephine Estelle restaurant features outdoor dining that helps provide urban amenity on Carondelet and Lafayette streets. Up the street from the corner building is a handsome new four-story structure with an exterior façade of Kolumba brick – a long, thin European handcast masonry unit. The massive piers of this dark, textured brick are offset with sleek sheets of glass, some aligned with the brick and some that are set back. The proportions of the masonry openings are elegant and vary from floor to floor. On the first floor, the openings for the commercial spaces are wide, and the glazing is separated by horizontal steel awnings that shade the afternoon sun. On the second and third floors, a zinc planter box punctuates each guest room. The fourth floor caps the building in a dramatic way. The masonry piers become freestanding elements that frame the front edge of guestroom balconies. They extend upward well beyond the height of the rooms to become an open colonnade that interweaves with the sky.
If the new building constituted the entire project, it would be very successful. However, as a component in a tripartite composition, that also includes a nineteen twenties garage renovated into a coffee shop, it is even richer. In addition to this fine renovation, the space between new and old structures includes a roof deck at the second floor, a quiet respite from the excitement elsewhere in the hotel, most spectacularly the rooftop bar.
New Orleans Veterans Affairs Medical Center
Even larger than its neighbor University Medical Center, the VA complex has a formidable presence in the city. From the exterior along Canal Street and Tulane Avenue, its mostly dark and varying facades provide little indication of what lies inside. However, from North Galvez Street, the building begins to reveal its character. There is a large entrance court facing a similarly scaled one for the UMC across the street. This is the one element that successfully relates the two projects that otherwise have little in common except for their gargantuan scale.
As one approaches the main entrance, a variety of façade treatments is apparent. To the left there is the clear demarcation of the parking garage, and closer is a handsome blue reflective glass wall. To the right are a grey mass and a three-story wing of greenish fixed glass, vaguely reminiscent of a midcentury modernist curtain wall. Straight ahead, above the entrance canopy is a striking silvery wall projecting outward at a slight angle.
After passing through an enormous, vacuous vestibule, the dramatic interior is a complete surprise. The somewhat foreboding character of the exterior is ameliorated to a remarkable degree. Directly ahead is a large information desk. Unfolding to your left and right is a tall linear volume that could provide the backbone for the entire project. A glance at the many plan diagrams provided for orientation confirms that this is the case. This elegant space also is dynamic. Although consistently three stories in height, it is more open at the downriver end that leads to the inpatient facilities. It narrows on the upriver end, and along its length are many informal lounge and gathering spaces.
The first floor is reserved for uses that are less essential to the medical mission of the facility in the event of heavy flooding. Along the spine on the second and third floors, waiting rooms for various diagnostic and treatment departments alternate with more general waiting lounges. This is in response to a special characteristic of VA facilities: that it addition to treatment centers, they are a home away from home for veterans, who enjoy spending time there. Built into the project are a number of extremely stringent post 9/11 requirements, increasing the structural resilience but also adding significantly to the project cost. It is a credit to the designers that in spite of these hidden costs, the public spaces within the building have such a high level of amenity.
There is a sleek contemporary mixed-use building on Magazine Street that extends the shopping street downriver along the block beyond Felicity. It is a quiet building, and its design seems almost effortless. Upon looking more closely, one notices a great deal of subtlety. Although the three-story building is dominant horizontally, each of the structural bays contains a vertical emphasis. The continuity is similar to the rhythm of the galleried townhouses on the next several blocks uptown, and architect Wayne Troyer emphasized this in describing the genesis of the project. Also of import are the canopies shading the first floor commercial spaces from morning sun. These are modulated in conjunction with the Kolumba brick clad masonry walls above, which include a brick surround that encompasses both of the residential floors. The operable windows are paired, double hung units, forming square just-large-enough openings in the brick wall. Toward the downriver end of the building a taller canopy marks the residential entrance and commodious lobby. Beyond this is a section of stuccoed wall with a verdant green screen to mediate the scale of the building in relation to its 19th century neighbor next door.
One of the unintended consequences of the city’s post-Katrina base flood elevation requirement for ground floors has been to complicate the relation between the curb elevation and that of the building, sometimes a good deal higher. Here the designers have cleverly ramped up the entire sidewalk along the Magazine Street edge. They’ve included a planting zone with native grasses that help with stormwater management and also clearly separate the grade of the street from that of the pedestrian edge.
John P. Klingman is a registered architect and a Favrot Professor of Architecture at Tulane University. His book, New in New Orleans Architecture, is available at local bookstores.
Monroe Hall, Loyola University
This project is one of the most surprising and complex transformations on a New Orleans college campus in recent memory. Originally, Monroe Hall was an ungainly modernist classroom building along Calhoun Street with yellowish fiberglass wall panels and strange rounded windows inset from protruding concrete slabs. What we see in its place today is a larger building, two stories taller, sporting a handsome brick façade that complements the dominant exterior material of Loyola’s Uptown campus. Yet, almost miraculously, virtually no occupiable spaces within the old building were demolished, and the building remained in use throughout the expansion project. Loyola engaged the venerable Chicago architecture firm Holabird and Root for their programming and science facility expertise, and they partnered with the New Orleans firm Holly and Smith.
Words that come immediately to mind are “clever” and “deft,” including the intricacy of construction sequencing, building new stairways, an elevator core and rooftop mechanical spaces, before the old ones could be removed. Most surprisingly, a new façade was constructed completely around the old building, and the old exterior wall was then removed from the inside. The process is almost like the caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, and that metaphor is apt. The new façade is elegant and quite transparent, particularly on the quad side where a corridor abuts the edge. What seems to be a simple stack bond brick is actually an innovative panelized system of lightweight thin bricks that allowed the addition of two floors without overtaxing the foundations. Only at the outside corners where a cover strip is required, is it clear that the masonry is unconventional.
On the inside, the project is no less compelling. A cross-axial corridor system on each floor makes navigation simple, in spite of the fact that the building contains an astounding variety of activities. These range from academic classrooms to science labs to art spaces and even a rooftop greenhouse. Particularly successful has been the complete renovation of Nunemaker Auditorium into a high quality performance space with a dedicated new lobby. Even while accommodating the extensive program, the building has generous informal spaces built in on each floor. Lounges mark corridor ends, and are marked with a vertical band of glass on the Calhoun Street façade. A mark of special care are handsome benches along the corridors, fabricated from the wood of a single live oak that had to be taken down for the expansion.
Cambria Hotel and Suites
There are a few buildings in New Orleans with two fronts. Newcomb Hall and Gibson Hall at Tulane University come to mind, with their street- and quad-facing facades. However, the new Cambria Hotel in the Warehouse District has two fronts that are quite different; both act as major entrances, one on Tchoupitoulas Street, and one on Commerce. Surprisingly, it is the Commerce Street side that has the vehicular dropoff and the direct lobby connection. Urbanisticly, this is particularly welcome because Commerce has been underinhabited for decades, since the closing of the Economy, a popular bar adjacent to the hotel site. The activity in this block of Commerce also lends some presence to the rather underappreciated Piazza d’Italia arch.
Both street facades are brick, and each features the same protecting canopy. They are also the same height and display as the same industrially derived fenestration. However, the differences are significant. The Commerce Street wall is much longer, making for a horizontal façade relating to the historic warehouse buildings in the vicinity. The first floor is deeply recessed for the entrance drive. On the Tchoupitoulas side, the building presentation is more vertical, and its proportions are like a larger scale version of the townhouses nearby. From the street, looking uptown, one can see the stepping of the rooms that face downriver, clad in a handsome dark metal panel. Throughout the project, the window proportions also are designed with a vertical emphasis similar to the townhouses. This is achieved by combining two stories of windows in one large masonry opening. A line of white spandrel glass marks the floor division, perhaps with excessive prominence. While the glazing recalls the handsome steel sash of early twentieth century structures, here it is curtainwall, and there are no operable windows in the building, a disturbing trend in the United States.
The interior purposely displays a rugged air, with lots of exposed concrete. The floor-to-floor heights within the building are very compact, achieving seven stories within the 65 foot height limit. The first floor is a bit taller than the other floors, but hardly grand. Surprisingly, this contributes to a pleasant feeling of intimacy in the lobby bar and registration space. From here a skylit passage provides a comfortable, direct connection to the lively amenities on Tchoupitoulas and beyond.
Stallings St. Claude Recreation Center
Another of the new buildings emerging as a result of Hurricane Katrina is the Stallings Community Center on St. Claude Avenue in the Ninth Ward. Although it is a substantial building with a gymnasium and several large spaces, it fits comfortably with the context of traditional one- and two-story buildings along the street. The building comes directly to the street edge with a corner entry enfronted by a small plaza. From this location the major masses of the building are all identifiable, with the lobby ahead, a dance studio along St. Claude and the gym behind. Along the right side, one sees the meeting room behind an administrative core. An orange St. Joe brick wall with a sloping top frames each of the masses.
The intelligibility of the exterior is maintained inside. The lobby is the hub, a central connector providing access to each of the major spaces. It is a bright space with strong color and daylight from clerestories and the entrances. From the lobby, the activity along St. Claude Avenue is evident; so it that on the basketball courts, both in the outdoor space on the river side of the building and in the indoor gym directly adjacent.
The gym is a dynamic space with daylight from sloped clerestories on three sides. On the river side, a substantial roof overhang shields morning sunlight. Also noteworthy are the large volumes of the dance studio and the meeting room, situated diagonally across the lobby. On a recent visit, the building was buzzing with activity. A job fair was occurring in the gym, and a good number of people were transiting the lobby. Architect Lee Ledbetter emphasized that extensive engagement by the community and city councilmember Palmer led to a successful planning process. The resulting building and its obvious embrace by the public affirms that success.
Home Design: Top Residences
Prominently sited on West End Boulevard, this is an urban house in a suburban location. This is evident from the interior and the garden where the intricate interplay of indoor and outdoor spaces is very effective. Of special note is the covered outdoor room that connects wonderfully with the pool area, the kitchen and dining space and the first floor study.
A twelve-unit project now populates much of a block near the river in the Irish Channel. The rooflines of the buildings are particularly intriguing, providing a sense of continuity, both within the project and with adjacent structures. Three of the units are nestled within the steel frame of an old warehouse. The nine townhouses are narrow, vertical and closely spaced, a kind of metal-clad urban village.
A strikingly contemporary dwelling nestles with two mature live oaks along a tree-lined street Uptown. The full height living room provides the focus, around which all of the individual spaces revolve. The house is a study in contrasts, beginning on the exterior where dark wood and zinc play against a subtlely-colored stucco. There are also many special details, including a floating stair along the living room edge and handsome sliding shutters on the western side.
Extending the number of affordable contemporary dwellings in Gentilly are nine houses dubbed “The Goldfinches.” The projecting single-pitched roof on the front façade is matched by that of the high sidewall, providing a sheltering sense. Other spirited design moves include the covered entry breezeway, the panelized front windows, the bright multilite entrance door and a full height living space.
The Moon is the transformation of a WWII era surplus Quonset Hut, previously used for storage into a captivating residential enclave in Bywater. The heart of the project is a commodious outdoor room, partially covered by the hut’s original ribbed skin and shielded from the sun by a fabric panel attached to the original curved metal struts. A stained cedar screen and a fountain provide character to the space, a quiet unexpected urban oasis.