Thursday, October 01, 2009

I read through the Section 106 notices on FEMA's site for the Wheatley and Lafon schools and was struck by a number of things.

For one building, all hope is not yet lost, possibly, maybe, kinda, sorta.

For the other, I think the place is toast.

A look at Wheatley School's relation to its surrounding neighborhood shows that it only takes up an average size block in the Treme, and it has the potential not to overly clash with the nearby houses.

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Lafon Elementary, however, is in a problematic spot in terms of its preservation.

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A look at the street view shows the derelict buildings of the former Magnolia-C.J. Peete low-income housing projects surrounding the Lafon building, which are now being replaced by mixed-income housing being built along the lines of the River Garden development on the former St Thomas housing projects site closer to the river. Close scrutiny of the map that shows how Lafon is situated within the former projects shows one of the main reasons why modernist buildings are so endangered today: Lafon is a block-buster.

One of the most famous examples of the "superblock" construction that was so favored by many modernist architects - and preferred and funded by their patrons - is that of Minoru Yamasaki's now-gone World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. One look at the plan of the Trade Center complex in relation to the smaller blocks around it shows how little regard there was for the oldest part of the city in the layout of the site. Surrounding streets dead-ended into the Port Authority's monument to its power. Those buildings were all.

What I have found, in the reactions for or against the demolition of Lafon in particular, however, is significant resistance to what it represents. At least one person involved in the development of what will become Harmony Oaks at the former project site has weighed in for the demolition of Lafon on the grounds that there are currently no plans for it coming from either the RSD or other sources and it will make it harder for the new homes there to thrive with such an undeveloped eyesore nearby, modernism be damned. Other objections come from the building's association with a highly corrupt and neglectful Orleans Parish School District that failed to put resources and care into what should have been its ultimate mission all these years: educating all the children of New Orleans regardless of what their race, color, creed, or class was. Concerns about the toxicity of the site on which Lafon sits have been voiced (though I'm not sure how demolition of the building will cut down on the levels of lead in the ground).

The most poignant plea, however, comes from what the superblock never managed to erase - the sad legacy of nearly two centuries of racial discrimination and prejudice in these parts:
The building should go. The question is, do we value the documented history of that school site, or do we value a building? Do we remember a man named Lafon who long ago built a school house for black children that was burned down by "an angry white mob" or do we remember an architect who in the mid 20th century along with his associates knowingly built a school on top of a black cemetery? Do we celebrate the future of a new community and let past insensitivities and paternalism go? I think we should let this building go. It represents a negative past. Imagine being a child on the day that school building opened. Would it look warm and welcoming to you? Or would it look cold and institutional and foreign? (Or today, kind of like a long truck container on stilts). Did it look like the elegant brick schools white children attended? And why did children have to go outside on a balcony to get from their classroom to a bathroom? And why was there no cross ventilation with windows? Why celebrate a building that was a vanity project for an architect and not designed for children who deserved the very best? Let it go. It's tainted. It's not the best example of its era or genre anyway. Now could be a time for healing and proper and respectful handling of any remains that may still be underground. The building should go.
Being tainted by the Bauhaus means advocating a certain amount of putting blinders on with regards to the history of a site, to the people who will be using the building...almost a willful myopia with regards to the history of architecture itself.

It is the egotism of these structures and what they represent that will spell their downfall.

In other words: homes for individuals, who can put their imprint on their surroundings quite easily, in a city for which the displaced pine, some even unto death? Yes.

Public buildings left to rot, sullied by potential unfulfilled and just plain bad planning in their situation and their sponsorship (or lack of it)? No. Always no.

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