Best of Architecture
Rarely have so many works of contemporary architecture come online in New Orleans in a single year as they did in 2019. The new airport terminal, the great enlargement of Historic New Orleans Collection gallery spaces, the new Children’s Museum and the Pavilion in the greatly expanded New Oreans Museum of Art Besthoff Sculpture Garden are all projects that significantly enhance the community. They are, coupled with several others of note, with a variety of uses, that also extend our tradition of architectural excellence.
Framework New Orleans
There is a new mixed-use complex on lower Magazine Street that demonstrates an innovative way of orchestrating commercial spaces. It utilizes a familiar organizing element, but one rarely seen on Magazine Street; it is the courtyard. From the street, two brick two-story masses create a court between them that extends public space toward the rear of the site. The court extends to the sidewall of a historic brick warehouse building that has also been incorporated into the project.
Felicity Property Co., the developer, has choreographed the complex to encourage a rhythm of activity throughout the day and into the evening. In the morning a coffee shop acts as a magnet; in late afternoon/early evening it’s a wine bar that connects at the rear of the courtyard, away from the noise of Magazine Street traffic. There is also a health clinic, retail shops and two health and wellness tenancies.
The two-story buildings feel a bit over-scaled on the street although exterior horizontal siding helps the scale feel more comfortable along the courtyard edges. Behind the street facing commercial spaces in each building is a stair lobby entered from the courtyard and providing full accessibility to the first floor and the offices above. Behind the stair each building contains another ground floor destination accessed from the courtyard. A whimsical element is the treatment of the courtyard ground plane. In consultation with landscape architect Wes Michaels, the court is conventional hardscape with planters at first; this treatment gives way to a “lawn” of synthetic turf that also provides stormwater storage below. Developer Patrick Schindler describes the intention to create “A Third Place,” a kind of home base away from home, and the project breaks new ground in that direction.
North Terminal Louis International Airport
The long-awaited North Terminal at Louis Armstrong has opened, with a complete, sudden transfer of all commercial airline operations. The change has been dramatic, both in operational terms and with a dramatic architectural reimagining. Although the long swooping building form is best appreciated from the runways, many people will experience the terminal primarily from the interior; and here the spatial success is apparent.
One great aspect of the new terminal is its clarity. Upon entry, at the top level, all airline check in counters are arrayed along a curving edge with daylight dropping from above. The generous volume has curved strips of white ceiling that reinforce the swooping curvolinear theme of the structure. One can then proceed down to an open, sky-lit, central TSA checkpoint that looks out toward the runways to the south. After the checkpoint three concourses are directly accessible. They depart from the normative airport condition by including the eating and drinking amenities along the center rather than interspersed along the concourse length. These venues represent some of the fine New Orleans establishments although their designs are a bit cacophonous. The concourses are also shaped with shallow curves and dark metal, wood-like ceilings that correspond to the path of movement. These curves relate perhaps to the circumferential streets common in historic sections of our city. A special treat is the terrazzo floor with sparkly bits of mirrored glass in the matrix. The concourse edges provide an orchestrated system of seating, and the linear gates have excellent electronic graphics displaying relevant information.
The terminal is unusual in that it has three levels; the lowest floor is dedicated to baggage retrieval and ground transportation connections. There is plenty of natural light helping this area feel commodious rather than the on-grade basement of the old terminal. In fact, the plethora of glazing is a mark of the entire project. The curtain walls are designed for hurricane force winds of up to 150 mph with a unique, visually interesting system including steel tension rods that allow for substantial movement of the wall without failure.
There are some issues, of course. Although compactness is advantageous in the new structure, the drop-off area is too tight; and the weather protection is inadequate. Then there are the traffic issues, that partially arise from the inexplicable delay in construction of a direct connection to the interstate. Architecturally, the construction of a boxy, extremely awkward parking structure adjacent to the flowing terminal undercuts the visual success of the ensemble, at least until plant material grows up the walls to soften the appearance.
Overall though, the region has gone from having an adequate, but disjointed facility to having one with a spirit more commensurate with our hopes for the future. It is rare for a work of architecture to reach this level of aspirational embodiment; the last time was in 1975 with the completion of the Superdome. Like the dome this project will be enjoyed equally by visitors and residents.
On a wide lot in Carrollton near the Mississippi River, a surprising new project has recently been completed. From the street it appears to be a bungalow with a new addition producing an “L” shape. However, upon entering, the larger scope of the project is immediately apparent. An extension appears, a kind of outdoor double parlor that frames an edge to an expansive outdoor space. The extension even has a punctuation point: a 2nd floor studio at the far end.
Louisiana Children’s Museum
The LCM has moved from the Warehouse District into a new home in City Park. When approached from the south via a new pedestrian bridge (with a mist sculpture) across a WPA-era lagoon, the building presents itself as a long, light pavilion. The siting is excellent, locking the building into place, with the long louvered porch creating shade and shadow along the front facade. Here the main entrance is framed in blue glass, providing an effective visual cue and evoking a memory of Julia Street. At the entrance are some child-specific elements, a miniature entrance door and a highly tactile live edge to the wooden countertop at the reception desk.
The building is a two-story H-like shape in plan; the entrance leads into the fully glazed middle bar. This double height space links the loft-like volumes along either side. It also provides an edge to two outdoor areas, lushly planted to the east and designed as an expansive play space to the west. This outdoor space is not as commodious as the front porch however. Umbrella shading will need to be augmented for comfort in hot or wet weather, whereas the porch shading will be effective throughout the year. Visible from the play area is the most child-centered element of the design. In the exterior wall facing this outdoor space on two levels are projecting “kindows,” a thickening of the wall enough to allow for inhabitation by small people, either sitting or reclining. These window boxes are surfaced with cork, a friendly and sustainable material.
In fact, according to Director Julia Bland, who has been dedicated to the project for over 10 years, sustainable design was at the forefront of selection criteria as the Museum embarked upon a national search for an architect. West coast based Mithun Architects in conjunction with Waggonner and Ball, has achieved that goal although many of the sustainable strategies are achieved through efficient but mostly invisible systems rather than a more visibly didactic approach. One novel example is hydronic cooling of the concrete floor slabs. The exhibition spaces are well designed, flexible in terms of change over time, with visible steel structure and building systems exposed overhead. The steel structure is marked by beams that are at oblique angles to the orientation of the spaces, providing visual interest but complicating the overhangs as they protrude beyond the exterior wall. The volumes are generous, perhaps overly so; more small-scale elements could have added additional vitality to the design. Among the best of the exhibit spaces is “Move with the River,” an interactive miniature Mississippi water world.
Another highlight of the project is the café on the southwest corner. This pleasant space, entered independently from the south porch, has light and views on three sides and connects to a shady outdoor seating area. This outdoor space provides a view of the extensive outdoor play areas that develop the edge between the building and the lagoon.
This is an unabashedly contemporary house on a substandard lot deep in the Irish Channel, designed as her family residence by local architect Mary Gilmore. While the open plan interior is rather straightforward, it includes well-designed details; and the house extends upward to include a third level loft. The exterior is handsome, also with careful detailing, including an exposed wood side hall porch entrance, careful window placement with narrow projecting surrounds and even a red painted vent pipe.
Historic New Orleans Collection Exhibition Center, 520 Royal Street
This project is a labor of love. It involves an intricate restoration of the 19th century Seignouret-Brulator house, across Royal Street from the HNOC’s original building, combined with a contemporary architectural design of galleries and service spaces deep within the French Quarter block. From the street, the appearance is serene, featuring a careful, historic, although not original, facade restoration. However, upon proceeding through the porte cochere into the old courtyard, one is confronted by a three-story glass wall that heralds the new construction. In some ways the iconic courtyard is the heart of the project. Maintaining its original perfect proportions, each side reflects the complicated history of the project. The side closest to Royal Street is the original loggia, enclosed long ago. On the downriver side, a service wing with a picturesque historic stair has been restored. The stair has been famously documented in dozens of drawings and paintings, notably by early 20th century members of the Arts and Crafts Club. The upriver side consists of an early 19th century structure with an added third floor roof terrace constructed by pioneer preservationist William Irby, who bought the building and engaged in a renovation during the 1920s. Even the courtyard floor demonstrates its history, with a newly-discovered historic well and earlier brick paving revealed below a glass panel.
The new wall on the river side of the courtyard is a complex assembly of wood and glass with cast-in-place concrete piers just behind. The glass is very reflective, mirroring those in the courtyard framed against the back of the Brulator facade. Only in the evening is the glass transparent enough to provide a visual introduction to the new spaces beyond. The public spaces of the Tricentennial Wing are an ensemble of assembly and gallery occupancies. Immediately connected to the courtyard is a double height lobby with a suspended balcony around the edges. Above that is a gallery space that provides courtyard views; it is topped with a fine clerestory element highlighted with projecting wood slats. Culminating the new spatial experience is a large clerestory lit gallery on the top floor just behind an open L-shaped stair.
With exponentially expanded space for changing exhibitions, HNOC has put the area to full use. Interactive exhibits expand one’s understanding of the city and particularly the Vieux Carré, with its rich and complex history. The exhibition in places almost overwhelms the architecture. In the new main top floor gallery for example, shades mask the daylight in deference to the exhibits, as in many museums, and similarly in the third floor gallery space overlooking Royal Street, a wonderful French Quarter view is masked by artifacts and drawn shades.
The amount of coordination required for this project was astounding, and the construction took more than five years. Some of the best work is quite subtle. One of the finest elements is the handsome historic wooden stair in the Brulator loggia. It was taken apart piece by piece, its solid wood treads meticulously restored and rebuilt to such current standards that it is a legal fire exit. Another important aspect of the project is the commitment to sustainable design. For example, this is one of the first in the Vieux Carré to completely account for the rainwater that falls onto its large roof area. This combination of respect for the past, judicious editing and sympathetic contemporary design epitomizes the best in creating an ongoing tradition. According to President/CEO Daniel Hammer, the completion of the project is a giant step toward HNOC’s mission: affecting visitors’ experience of the French Quarter, leading to an enhanced awareness of the importance of its preservation.
Lindsey Residence Camelback Addition
On a quiet block of Constance St. uptown, Marty McElveen has created an extraordinary ensemble that combines a 1908 shotgun renovation with a highly energetic addition. It could be characterized not as a shotgun camelback double but rather a single shotgun double camelback. While the interior includes several terrific rooms, the project also sports six porches, three on each level, providing unique “places to be.”
St. Michael Special School Chapel
Near the river in the Lower Garden District is St. Michael Special School, which provides services to over 200 children with special needs. As part of a campus renovation, Holly and Smith Architects were presented with an unusual design challenge, to design a new chapel connected to the back of a large historic townhouse double. Because the building in on a corner, the new chapel would also have a strong street presence. The renovation of the townhouse was also a major part of the project. Thanks to a historic photograph, reconstruction of a full double gallery on the front of the building could be achieved.
The project has succeeded admirably. The scale of the new chapel building is commensurate with the monumentality of the townhouse. The chapel’s roofline corresponds to that of the reconstructed townhouse service wing, that contains building services. Most appropriately, the chapel uses painted wood exterior elements in a major way, like the historic building. However, here the wood elements are treated in a more contemporary manner, as a frame and a series of horizontal louvers that control sun entering through clerestories on each side of the new structure.
Inside, the chapel is a tall, serene volume in which natural light abounds. Clerestory daylight reflects onto the white walls and also enters through square windows holding the stations of the cross, designed by the students. The sides of the front wall provide a surface upon which images can be projected and also conceal long openings that reflect additional daylight onto the alter. Lectern and alter details include laser-cut wood ornament in the school’s blue rose motif. The space has been carefully designed for music; and according to reports, the chapel has a special ambiance when the students are singing and/or engaging the school’s well-regarded bell choir.
Sculpture Pavilion, Besthoff Sculpture Garden, New Orleans Museum of Art
Elliptical plan buildings are rare; two fabulous 17th century churches in Rome come immediately to mind, but there are few to none in New Orleans, until now. The new Pavilion at the expanded NOMA Sculpture Garden is instantly memorable. It was designed to house sculptures that would not fare so well in the outdoors. The structure is simple and elegant. There is the exhibition space, an open entrance lobby and a service zone forming a garden edge with a spectacular mural along a curved wall. The glazed ceramic mosaic artwork is by Teresita Fernández, who describes the work as a marker, “a landscape within a landscape.”
The exhibition space exudes simplicity; its pure form and floating ceiling provide a quiet, but not neutral, backdrop for the works of art. Natural light washes the walls from skylights above a reveal between the walls and the ceiling. A curved glass wall looks out onto the Garden and provides direct daylight, important for viewing sculpture. Beyond the glass wall is a pleasant porch with tables that provide a place to linger and enjoy the view. The building links seamlessly with the Garden from the inside and the outside, perched above the lagoon. Usually the pavilion is a peaceful viewing area, but it also designed to transform into an all-weather event space hosting garden activities.
The Garden expansion itself is a terrific addition by the landscape architecture firm Reed-Hilderbrand, based in New England; it more than doubles the size of the Sculpture Garden, already of national significance. Within the Garden the Pavilion is a focal point, thoughtfully sited at the far side of the lagoon. One often perceives the Pavilion from a distance, reflected in the water or framed by a live oak.
Next to Next to Nothing
On the loading dock of the hard-to-find-but-worth-it ArtEgg Studios building is a new tiny wine bar: Next to Next to Nothing. This boxy jewel adjoins a tiny wine shop, Next to Nothing, within the building. The translucent polycarbonate clerestories become a lantern at night, while the occupants can spill out onto the former warehouse loading dock.
John P. Klingman is a registered architect and Professor Emeritus of Architecture, Tulane University where he served as a full-time faculty member for 35 years. His book, “New in New Orleans Architecture,” is available at local bookstores.