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Blueprints for Living: Architecture team explores the rebuilding of New Orleans at international exhibit on sustainable cities

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A year ago millions of Americans sat in front of their televisions staring, transfixed, at the horror unfolding on their screens. Haunting images of people cowering on rooftops, stranded in a sea of debris and bodies, permeated not just the visual, but the psychological, consciousness of the nation.

The United States had been attacked. Not by terrorists or insurgents or militants. This time, the assault bred from one of the civilized world’s most formidable foes—Mother Nature.

Biennale team members work on their computers with tables filled with maps to prepare for the fall Venice Biennale exhibit
Amidst a sea of Gulf Coast regional maps, Biennale team members spent hundreds of hours during the late spring and early summer preparing for the fall exhibit.

As days turned into weeks, the magnitude of the disaster became evident when confusion turned into chaos and disorder turned into despair. The damage tallies grew at alarming rates, and the mood of the nation vacillated from shock to a defeated numbness. In the end, Hurricane Katrina claimed 1,299 lives, left 527,000 people homeless and caused a staggering $250 billion in damages, making it the most costly natural disaster in the history of the United States.

While the U.S. was reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, South Asia was (and still is) recovering from a December 2004 tsunami that resulted in more than 216,000 casualties and an estimated economic loss of $10 billion. At the same time, Japan bore a $30 billion blow delivered by a series of three earthquakes that rocked Nigata in October 2004.

Weather-related disasters caused $104 billion in economic losses worldwide in 2004, almost twice the total for 2003. In the last 10 years, the number has exceeded $567 billion—more than the combined losses from 1950 through 1989. As our world becomes increasingly urban and city densities increase, the figures continue to rise at shocking, almost unfathomable, rates.

How do we prepare for future catastrophes? What steps can be taken to minimize damage or maximize our ability to rebound?  Is there a way to build or rebuild our urban communities that can diminish or even avert human loss and economic devastation?

These are a few of the many questions that are being addressed at the 10th International Architecture Exhibition, “Cities, Architecture and Society,” Sept. 10-Nov. 19 in Italy. The Venice Biennale, the world’s premier architectural exhibition, is, for the first time in its history, focusing on key factors facing large-scale metropolitan areas around the world.

Our hope is to engage the audience and evoke critical thinking about both natural and cultural systems in rebuilding after a natural disaster. Dean Fritz Steiner, School of ArchitectureThe exhibition examines the role of architects and architecture in the construction of democratic and sustainable urban communities. Representatives from more than 50 countries are gathering to postulate the importance of sustainable building, social amalgamation and the transformation of urban environments around the globe.

“More than half the world’s population lives in cities. A century ago it was less than 10 percent,” said Richard Burdett, director of the exhibition. “The 21st century will be the first truly urban era, in which more than 75 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas.

“The aim of the 10th international architecture exhibition is to inform and provoke a debate on the way we shape the future of urban society.”

The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture is one of only eight universities worldwide invited to participate in the Biennale. In late August, a team of faculty and students traveled to Venice to assemble an exhibit on the revitalization of New Orleans and the surrounding coastline in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The School of Architecture’s exhibit, “Resilient Foundations: The Gulf Coast after Katrina,” presents and explores the range of proposals circulating on post-Katrina reconstruction plans. The large-scale exhibit illustrates strategies submitted from a variety of organizations and institutions, including the following U.S. universities and schools: Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Kansas State, Parsons, Princeton, Pennsylvania, Tulane and Southern California. The team of faculty and students from The University of Texas at Austin is including its own design proposal for the region and, in particular, New Orleans.

One of the best aspects of our exhibit in Venice is that it will feature other university (responses), as well as professional design responses, to Katrina. Rachel Brown, Student leader of Biennale exhibit“Being invited to exhibit at the Biennale is a tremendous honor,” said Fritz Steiner, dean of the School of Architecture. “Our hope is to engage the audience and evoke critical thinking about both natural and cultural systems in rebuilding after a natural disaster.”

With numerous insightful strategies to solve the region’s problems largely out of the public eye, the exhibit serves to educate people on possible solutions to the issues being faced and to examine the efforts being made by the city and region.

"The Biennale gives The University of Texas at Austin an important international stage from which we can offer our expert opinions and hopefully influence the course of reconstruction in the region," said Nichole Wiedemann, associate professor in the School of Architecture.

"We are not providing easy answers to the questions facing the region, but instead, are offering a set of environmental, regional planning, urban design and infrastructure requirements without which all reconstruction and development efforts are ineffective."

The university’s exhibit, located in the National Pavilion of the Giradini de Castello in Venice, fills a 75-by-30-foot room. The display incorporates four separate areas—Foundations, Propositions, Adaptations and Projections. The Foundations area focuses on the historical development of the city of New Orleans and the surrounding communities. The Propositions segment is composed primarily of the rebuilding proposals that the university team has gathered. The Adaptations portion examines architectural alternatives that might better suit the needs of the community. The Projections section focuses on the proposal submitted by The University of Texas at Austin team. The exhibit incorporates six computers housing various Flash presentations and an animation of every hurricane that has hit the Gulf Coast in the past 100 years.

Design concept detail showing a new canal system for New Orleans
The exhibit includes design concepts for a new canal system in New Orleans.

“It has been an amazing experience working on the Venice Biennale project,” said Rachel Brown, student team leader. “Our exhibit is especially exciting because it poses important questions and possible answers about designers' roles in the aftermath of natural disasters.

“Working on the project has been a great opportunity for a group of students in the School of Architecture to collaborate with faculty on a design problem and the presentation of their solution(s). It has also been a great learning experience as far as curating: one of the best aspects of our exhibit in Venice is that it will feature other university as well as professional design responses to Katrina.”

The research gathered by The University of Texas at Austin provides neither an infallible science nor a single answer. It collects the best available information about natural hazards in the region, important resource production areas, ecologically significant lands and valuable cultural resources to suggest the best possible future scenarios for the Gulf Coast.

The expertise from geologists, landscape ecologists, transportation planners, urban designers, architects, landscape architects, water resources specialists, demographers and regional planners provides a close examination of the area at three scales—the building, the city and the region—during the past, the present (Katrina and aftermath) and the future.

With an expected attendance of 100,000, including more than 3,000 accredited journalists from around the globe, the exhibition will provide an international forum to educate the public and policymakers about the importance of sustainable growth and resilient building. Without which, Mother Nature is more than a formidable foe—she’s a deadly one.

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  Updated 11 September 2006
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