My architecture seminar, Urban Life & Landscape, hosted a panel last Tuesday on housing and disaster preparedness in a post-Katrina world. The panelists were: Matt Dellinger, a journalist who’s written for the New Yorker and for the Oxford American; Thaddeus Pawlowski, an architect currently with the NYC Department of City Planning; and Stephanie Mezynski, an architect and sustainable design consultant currently with FutureProof NOLA. (Googling later, I recognized the FutureProof logo, and realized that my daily streetcar ride to City Hall this summer had taken me past their offices.)

The discussion leaned heavily on new urbanism—Dellinger’s Oxford American article, linked above, discussed the impact of new urbanism on the Mississippi Gulf Coast—and the role of aesthetics in post-disaster design. This has been a big question for me since last year, when I used Dell Upton in a paper on the Katrina Cottage; Upton argues that the Cottage falsely isolates and reproduces one architectural style at the expensive of authenticity. I thought he was a bit of a crank until I spent time in New Orleans this summer and realized how right he was. The Cottage is a really great try, but it’s not real. It’s not New Orleans.

I was expecting the usual trashing of Disneyfication, but each of the panelists, in their own way, discussed the importance of aesthetics in affirming familiarity and continuity in post-disaster architecture. No, we shouldn’t bicker over the color of the curtains, but there’s got to be something better than housing people in FEMA trailer parks. Architecture can be a source of comfort—so why not let it do that job? Something we lose sight of in our rush to house as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, at the lowest cost possible.

After the panel, I talked to Matt Dellinger about new urbanism. I’ve visited both Seaside and Celebration and have studied new urbanism in its various forms, but I’m still trying to form an opinion about the movement. On one hand, the movement seems to successfully reproduce human-scale vernacular architecture. But on the other, new urbanism seems stuck at the bottom of architecture’s uncanny valley, almost close enough to the architecture it imitates to draw our affection, but not quite. It has the same problems as humanoid robots—each is, essentially, the physical manifestation of a thought experiment, and, while interesting, can’t replace what it imitates. Dellinger’s right when he says that a lot of what the new urbanists do is important, I’m just not sold on the movement in total.

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