After Katrina, Tulane's Architecture School Became A Community Builder

After Katrina, Tulane's Architecture School Became A Community Builder

12:37pm Aug 12, 2015
The Tulane City Center helped design and build New Orleans' Grow Dat Youth Farm, which employs local, disadvantaged high school students and teaches them about urban agriculture.
The Tulane City Center helped design and build New Orleans' Grow Dat Youth Farm, which employs local, disadvantaged high school students and teaches them about urban agriculture.
Will Crocker / Courtesy of Tulane University
  • The Tulane City Center helped design and build New Orleans' Grow Dat Youth Farm, which employs local, disadvantaged high school students and teaches them about urban agriculture.

    The Tulane City Center helped design and build New Orleans' Grow Dat Youth Farm, which employs local, disadvantaged high school students and teaches them about urban agriculture.

    Will Crocker / Courtesy of Tulane University

  • Tulane architecture students designed and built this New Orleans house as part of the school's URBANbuild program.

    Tulane architecture students designed and built this New Orleans house as part of the school's URBANbuild program.

    Will Crocker / Courtesy of Tulane University

  • Tulane students Ellanny Page (left) and Vicky Leung helped build the Grow Dat Youth Farm.

    Tulane students Ellanny Page (left) and Vicky Leung helped build the Grow Dat Youth Farm.

    Will Crocker / Courtesy of Tulane University

It's blazingly hot outside and five summer fellows from the Tulane City Center are standing in a playground at a youth center in New Orleans. The architecture students diplomatically describe the playground's design as "unintentional": There's no grass, trees or even much shade, and it's surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The students, both graduate and undergraduate, are there to make the playground a little nicer.

"Right now, it feels like a prison," says Maggie Hansen, the center's interim director.

This project — one of about 10 the fellows are working on this summer — reflects a major change over the past 10 years at Tulane University's School of Architecture. The architecture program, established in 1894, is one of the country's oldest, but before Hurricane Katrina it was a little stuffy, known, if anything, for historic preservation, and not particularly prestigious. After the storm, the school reinvented itself as a destination for students and faculty interested in building in low-income neighborhoods and fragile environments.

Dean Kenneth Schwartz, who arrived at the school about seven years ago, says it's fair to describe what happened after Katrina as a pivot.

"Yeah, it certainly was," he says. "We are not the only school of architecture that cares about these issues, but our students get their hands dirty. They actually get involved in real ways with real problems."

For example, in one of the school's most popular programs, URBANbuild, students design a house in the fall semester, then build it in the spring. The final product goes to a low-income or workforce family. (The Sundance Channel featured the program in a 2008 series.)

Professor Scott Bernhard was one of the first architecture faculty members to re-examine the school's purpose and priorities after the storm. "I sort of stopped writing papers and started taking bold steps with students to build things," he recalls.

He learned that architecture students need to be taught how to work effectively in disadvantaged communities. "Students need to be given a small list of prohibitions normally," Bernhard says wryly. "They can't drive a Lexus to a community meeting in a poor neighborhood. Proposing solutions instantly to community members is a terrible problem with students who rarely see the impediments and don't understand what the problem might be in building unrealistic expectations, or solving all problems with a website that no one can afford and no one can maintain afterwards."

Since Katrina, students have helped develop more than 80 projects aimed at improving locals' lives through design. Before Katrina, and despite being the city's largest private employer, Tulane had a certain reputation in many of New Orleans' less-advantaged neighborhoods. Anthony Lee, a retired electrician who lives in the city's Algiers neighborhood, describes it as a "privileged school for privileged kids who didn't have a clue what the real world was about. Trust fund babies."

Lee's late wife was a social worker who cared about nutrition and feeding hungry kids in low-income communities. She got involved with one of Tulane City Center's most ambitious post-Katrina projects: Grow Dat Youth Farm, a vibrant urban farm that employs dozens of disadvantaged high school students. Before her death, she proposed that the center also build a community garden in her neighborhood. Lee was grieving when he heard that Tulane had accepted her proposal. "They came at a time when I needed someone to encourage me," Lee says, fighting tears. "Working with the Tulane City Center really was so helpful to me."

Now Lee manages the Magellan Street Garden, which takes up a formerly empty lot. It has a sophisticated drainage system and miniature wetlands. And he continues to be involved with the Tulane City Center; recently, Lee helped vet a round of potential projects. As a former contractor, he says it wasn't easy watching architecture students trying to build.

"A lot of these kids had never welded, used a hand tool," he says. "But it was a joy to watch. And the first thing they're learning is what? Listening."

Graduate student Ashley Ricketson chose Tulane's architecture school because she passionately cares about public interest design. The only question for her, she says, is whether to join a firm specializing in that kind of work or to bring her ethos to a more commercial practice.

"It's just important to keep people at the center of design," she says, "and actually design with people and not for people."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Tulane University's School of Architecture is one of the country's oldest. But before Hurricane Katrina, it was not particularly prestigious. After the storm, the school in New Orleans reinvented itself as a destination for students and faculty interested in building in low-income neighborhoods and in fragile environments. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: A youth center smack in the middle of New Orleans serves nearly a hundred low-income kids every day. They play in a bleakly ugly outside courtyard in blazing heat without trees or grass or even much shade. It's surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.

MAGGIE HANSEN: Right now it feels like a prison.

ULABY: Maggie Hansen runs the Tulane City Center, part of the university's architecture school. Right now five summer fellows are trying to make the playground a little nicer, disguising the fence by hanging games on it and maybe rigging up canvas for shade.

HANSEN: You think I should sketch out further what we designed this morning?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Yeah.

ULABY: These students this summer have finished about 10 small-scale projects, says Kenneth Schwartz, dean of Tulane's architecture school since 2008. Schwartz says it's fair to discover what happened after Katrina as a total pivot.

KENNETH SCHWARTZ: Yeah, it certainly was.

ULABY: Before Katrina, the architecture school was a little stuffy. It was established in 1894, but it's not a top-tier school. If anything, it was known for historic preservation. Now Tulane's architecture school is known for its focus on sustainable design and engaging with communities.

SCHWARTZ: We are not the only school of architecture that cares about these issues. But our students get their hands dirty. They actually get involved in real ways with real problems.

ULABY: So for example, in one of the school's most popular programs, Urban Build, students design a house in the fall semester. They build it in the spring. The house goes to a low-income or workforce family. The Sundance Channel featured the program in a 2008 series.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVE RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: After the hurricane, Tulane Urban Build program built two houses. This will be our third.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This was done by students?

ULABY: Now, houses are kind of obvious, says Professor Scott Bernard, especially after Katrina. he says students also helped rebuild in smaller ways.

SCOTT BERNARD: A little shaded outdoor space in New Orleans goes a long way to communities feeling like something's happening.

ULABY: Bernard was one of the first architecture faculty members to really reexamine the school's purpose and priorities after the storm.

BERNARD: I stopped writing papers and started taking bold steps with students to build things.

ULABY: That's not to say it was an easy transition. Bernard learned that architecture students need to be taught how to work effectively in disadvantaged communities.

BERNARD: Students need to be given a small list of prohibitions normally. They can't drive a Lexus to a community meeting in a poor neighborhood. Proposing solutions instantly to community members is a terrible problem with students who rarely see the impediments and don't understand what the problem might be in building unrealistic expectations or solving all problems with a website that no one can afford and no one can maintain afterwards.

ULABY: Tulane University is New Orleans largest private employer. But it also had a certain reputation before the storm among people like Anthony Lee.

ANTHONY LEE: Privileged school for privileged kids who didn't have a clue what the real world was about - trust fund babies.

ULABY: Lee's wife got involved with one of Tulane City Center's most ambitious post-Katrina projects, an urban farm that employs dozens of disadvantaged young people. She proposed the center build a community garden in her neighborhood. Then she passed away. Lee was grieving when he heard Tulane had accepted her proposal.

LEE: They contacted me. I had given up.

ULABY: Anthony Lee is trying to control his tears.

LEE: They came at a time when I needed someone to encourage me. Working with the Tulane City Center really was so helpful to me.

ULABY: We're at Tulane City Center now. The building's part of an old refurbished department store that sat abandoned for at least 15 years. Lee feels like part of it. He recently helped vet a round of potential projects. He says as a former contractor, it wasn't easy watching architecture students trying to build.

LEE: A lot of these kids had never welded, used a hand tool.

ULABY: Besides his community garden, Tulane architecture students have helped design and build a play space for a battered women's shelter, an outdoor area for a community mental health group and a small cultural center for Mardi Gras Indians. In fact, students at Tulane City Center have developed over 80 projects since Katrina. Anthony Lee saw them learn.

LEE: It was a joy to watch. And the first thing to learning is - what? - listening.

ULABY: To what people need. Grad student Lauren Taylor came to Tulane's architecture school from the University of Virginia because she wants to do public interest design. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, the person identified as Lauren Taylor is in fact Ashley Ricketson. The name identifiers in the transcript have been corrected.]

ASHLEY RICKETSON: It's why I came to Tulane - because of the Tulane City Center. And yes, it was definitely (laughter) worth it and what I'm going to do afterwards.

ULABY: The only question for her, she says, is whether to join a firm specializing in that kind of work or to bring her ethos to a more commercial practice.

RICKETSON: It's just important to keep people at the center of design and actually design with people and not for people.

ULABY: The Tulane School of Architecture was undamaged by Katrina. But it rebuilt itself after the storm in its own way. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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