Archive | October, 2011

Lake Vista: New Orleans’ Own Garden City

26 Oct

Lake Vista Community Shopping Center. Photo by John Cramer.

I recently had the chance to spend a morning taking a look at New Orleans’ Lake Vista neighborhood, a quiet mid-century residential development along Lake Pontchartrain developed in the 1930s and 40s.   Lake Vista was part of a much larger lakefront land reclamation project directed by the Orleans Levee Board in the 1920s and 1930s.  Assisted by the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), the project drained land that was once swamp and created a new beachfront drive along with new public beaches and bathhouses (segregated by race of course as New Orleans wouldn’t integrate public park facilities until the 1960s).  The Board supervised engineer Hampton Reynolds in the design of this 800-lot suburban community six miles north of downtown’s Central Business District and French Quarter.  (More photos of the Lakefront Development can be found at this New Orleans Public Library site).

1936 view of a model of the future Lake Vista development. Photo from the New Orleans Public Library.

Today we can see that the place has a lot in common with other suburban developments coming up across the country during that period.  But with its cul-de-sac drives and its overarching accommodations to vehicle traffic, Lake Vista, so familiar a residential model to us today, was unlike any other neighborhood in New Orleans in the first half of the twentieth century.   The freedom of the pedestrian was also a major concern for designer Hampton Reynolds, whose cul-de-sacs were paired with broad landscaped green belts, allowing access to residences both by car and by foot traffic.   Reynolds probably found models for this dual approach in modern garden cities like Radburn, New Jersey (1928), designed by Clarence Stein and Henry Wright.  Reynolds might also have found local inspiration in New Orleans’ Exposition Boulevard (1885), a series of mansions accessed by vehicles from the rear but whose front porches face a broad sidewalk along what is today Audubon Park (designed by Olmsted Brothers in 1898).

One of Lake Vista's many tree-lined allées. Photo by John Cramer.

Lake Vista’s cul-de-sacs make for a very accessible neighborhood, but walking along the pedestrian allées one is struck immediately by the sense of quiet insularity that was at the core of garden city design ideology.  The lushness of the greenery (including  hundreds of expansive live oak trees that cover everything in cool shade) looks like it was inspired by New Orleans’ Garden District or even by the regal oak allées seen in some of the Deep South’s larger antebellum plantations (the famous row of trees at Oak Alley in Vacherie, Louisiana, comes to mind).  References to these fabled landscapes of Southern affluence were probably not lost on Lake Vista’s designers, who built the neighborhood specifically for New Orleans’ increasingly-comfortable white middle class wanting their own taste of the good life.  Built just before the start of World War II, Lake Vista’s planners adopted these familiar images of the Old South but framed them with modern urban planning ideas that heralded Louisiana’s and the New South’s new industrial prosperity.

Lake Vista's St. Pius X Church. Photo by John Cramer.

Lake Vista’s celebration of modern design is best seen at the literal center of the development, a core of buildings out from which radiate the house-lined green belts.   Homes at Lake Vista’s periphery are never more than a few minutes walk from this central complex of commercial and institutional buildings.  Contemporary architects like Gehry and Libeskind can take notes from James Lamantia’s St. Pius X Catholic Church (1966) whose wrapping of copper over a low, jutting mound of roof is an exploration in material and form way ahead of its time (Lamantia was a prolific Louisiana architect who died this year at the age of 88).  The church’s homogenous simplicity reminds me a little of works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Lake Vista United Methodist Church. Photo by John Cramer.

Another great church building just around the corner from St. Pius is the Lake Vista United Methodist Church, designed by August Perez, Jr., and Associates and completed in 1961.  The elliptical-shaped sanctuary’s floor-to-ceiling glass is clad in an intricate metal screen — I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that it was inspired by the sensuous geometries seen in designs by  Louis Sullivan.  I haven’t been able to go inside United Methodist yet but the effect of bright sunlight filtered through the metal screens must be a site to behold.  An early view of United Methodist’s screen can be seen in this Frank Lotz Miller photograph at Tulane’s Southeastern Architectural Archive’s website.

Lake Vista Community Shopping Center. Photo by John Cramer.

Perez also had a hand along with Wogan & Bernard in the design Lake Vista’s only commercial structure, the Lake Vista Community Shopping Center located at the very center of the development (Wogan & Bernard are best known for their work on New Orleans’ Union Passenger Rail Terminal).  A dramatic two-story Art Moderne storefront building clad in brick and yellow stone, the shopping center’s streamline canopies and plate glass display windows were completed in 1946, just at about the same time housing was becoming a hot commodity for returning World War II vets.   It wasn’t until after the war that residential construction really picked up in earnest in Lake Vista, but the commercial building at its center never quite lived up to its expectations.  Shopping and grocery store developments west of Lake Vista attracted most residents, leaving the Community Shopping Center as one of the less successful elements of an astoundingly successful neighborhood.

Rental apartments in Lake Vista (c.1939). Photo by John Cramer.

As for its houses, Lake Vista still retains many of its earlier mid-century residences, including my favorites: several Art Moderne apartment buildings ringing the central quarter of religious and commercial buildings.  Lake Vista was always intended as an affordable community and these rental units show that despite how much Lake Vista has become an exclusive as far as New Orleans neighborhoods go, there is still an effort to maintain the wide mix of family incomes that the larger community was designed to sustain.

Scraping Away at Mexico City’s Proposed “Earthscraper”

23 Oct

BNKR Arquitectura's proposal for a 65-story inverted "earthscraper." Photo from The Daily Mail.

A few months ago, ArchDaily picked up a story on BNKR Arquitectura’s proposal to install a 65-story “earthscraper” at Mexico City’s central Plaza de la Constitución (commonly known as the Zócalo).  Esteban Suarez, an architect working on the project, says according to this Daily Mail article that the inverted subterranean skyscraper proposal would provide Mexico City with much-needed residential, commercial, and cultural square footage.  The square’s pavement would be replaced with a glass one from which one could stand suspended above the atrium of the new development (the idea of the square at night becoming one glowing plane might replace at least some of the terror with wonder).  BNKR Arquitectura argues that its design is a perfect solution for a modern city with strictly-imposed building height limits and concerns about the disruption of the city center’s historic fabric.

A proposed view from the Zocalo's glass pavement down in the atrium of the "earthscraper." Photo from The Daily Mail.

Mexico City has been built up in layers over many centuries, Suarez says, and “the Earthscraper digs down through the[se] layers… to uncover our roots.”  True, BNKR Arcquitectura’s inverted underground  pyramid would literally uncover Mexico’s roots.  And in what would probably be one of the most ambitious civil engineering projects ever conceived, the earthscraper would no doubt obliterate those roots in favor of, well, an over-designed hole.   The idea of whether this project could ever realistically proceed, whether it might be physically possible to build a habitable, sustainable underground complex at all, and whether the public would want to actually live and work in a 1,000-foot deep canyon of glass is of course up for debate (and not surprisingly one is is already underway).

What caught my attention immediately was not necessarily the kind of project being proposed or its enormous scale. This particular “earth-scraper” proposal is conversation-worthy on its own, but the site the architects have proposed for this attempt at large scale mole-living is also worth talking about.  Mexico City’s Zócalo is its primary public square but it is also an extraordinarily significant space in Mexican society and politics, so much so that the square and its surrounding neighborhood were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.  It has played stage to some of the most important events in Mexican and even world history, from the wars of independence of the nineteenth century back to the sixteenth century when it witnessed the first brutal contacts between the Old and New Worlds.  The great Templo Mayor, the stone step pyramid at the literal center of the Aztecs’ universe, once stood just adjacent to the square (the earthscraper’s design references the lost temple in its inverted pyramidal shape).   Today the Zócalo, surrounded by the grand structures of Mexico’s religious, cultural, and governmental institutions, remains the major public gathering place it has been since the fourteenth century.

Mexico City's Zocalo in 1869. Photo from Library of Congress.

Piercing a subterranean spire down one-thousand feet into the heart of a major world city would certainly be a bold civic undertaking.  When doing so would sink ten acres of a UNESCO World Heritage Site — one of the most culturally-important pieces of earth in the Americas — down to the bottom of a deep dark hole, there might certainly be some conversation-worthy cultural and historical implications.   Might the earthscraper, as Esteban Suarez says, make a window into Mexico’s roots?  A dramatic uncovering of centuries of hidden truths regarding Central American history and culture?  Or might it instead be a stake driven through the historic heart of the world’s most populous city?

Is the earthscraper a reckoning with Mexico’s history?  Can 65 stories of underground shopping and condos ever be that reckoning?

Partners in Preservation Has Arrived in the Twin Cities (UPDATED)

4 Oct

Harriet Tubman Center East, built as St. Paul's Monastery in 1965, is one of 25 sites participating in the 2011 Twin Cities Partners in Preservation Program.

I’ve been up to my eyeballs in work at the National Trust for Historic Preservation on a fantastic project that’s giving $1 million to historic sites in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro area. The Partners in Preservation Program (PiP) began in 2006 when American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation together gave grant money to twenty-five historic sites in the San Francisco Bay Area. A public voting competition granted first place – and $118,000 – to Bernard Maybeck’s glorious First Church of Christ Scientist in Berkeley, completed in 1910. After their success in the Bay Area, American Express and the National Trust continued the program, bringing Partners in Preservation to Chicagoland (2007), New Orleans (2008), Greater Boston (2009), and Seattle-Puget Sound (2010).

Belle Plaine, MN's Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, a 2011 Twin Cities PiP site.

This year, the Partners in Preservation Program is coming to the Twin Cities and I’m lucky to be helping out with the effort at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Midwest Office in Chicago. This year, there is an astonishingly good list of participating sites all vying for a piece of the $1 million pie. Each site is holding an Open House event this weekend so this Friday I’ll be off to the Twin Cities to check out what everybody’s been working on. It’s been a great PiP year so far – I can’t wait to see what the sites have in store.

I encourage everyone to vote for their favorite Twin Cities historic site at www.facebook.com/partnersinpreservation. The winner will receive their whole requested grant amount. Make your vote count!

UPDATE – 10/22/2011

Emmanuel Masqueray's 1915 Basilica of Saint Mary, the winner of 2011 Twin Cities Partners in Preservation popular vote on Facebook.

The Facebook votes have been tallied and the popular vote winner of this years Partners in Preservation initiative is Minneapolis’ Basilica of Saint Mary.  The Basilica, completed in 1915, was designed by French architect Emmanuel Masqueray (who also designed Saint Paul, MN’s Cathedral).  The Basilica is now guaranteed its full requested funding for the repair and restoration of its historic Narthex and Sacristy.  Grant awards for the rest of the incredible PiP Twin Cities sites will be announced in November 2011.