BRAD PITT MAKES IT RIGHT IN NEW ORLEANS – by Gerald Clarke
After hurricane Katrina, the actor breaks new ground and helps rebuild the lower ninth ward.
It’s a gloomy October day on Tenessee Street in New Orlean’s Lower Ninth Ward. A weather front sweeping in from Texas, has brought thick clouds and staccato bursts of rain. To avoid muddying it freshly laid living room carpet, visitors to the new two-story, mustard-colored house at No. 1720 must leave their shoes on the porch. In an hour or so furniture will arrive and Gloria Guy, whose previous home on this spot was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, will move in with five grandchildren.
From her porch you can see vast fields of vacant land, a somber, silnet graveyard for the hundreds of homes that stood here on August 28, 2005, and that made this poor but proud African American community one of the most vibrant parts of the city. Katrina, which struck the next day, hurt many other parts of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast; but no area suffered more than the Lower Ninth Ward.
It is not a landscape–or a day–that seems to call for celebration, and Brad Pitt, who has been kept up much of the night by his three-month-old twins, Knox and Vivienne, looks a little worn. He is bothered, moreover, by the half-dozen paparazzi who run along a cross street a hundred yards away, hoping to get a shot of a man who is such a rich subject for the tabloids. “A hateful bunch,” he calls the paparazzi, who follow him, Angelina Jolie and their six children wherever they go. “We’re a big bounty for them,” he says. “They make a good living off of us. We’ve been run out of every major city in the world, so we’re pretty nomadic–a mobile unit. For anonymity’s sake we’re spending more time in the countryside of France. We find a freer life there.”
But who cares about clouds and rain, puffy eyes and predatory photographers on a day when people are moving this house and the several others that have sprung up from that ruined land–houses that only exist because of Brad Pitt? For him it is Christmas in October–and New Year’s and the Fourth of July too. ‘You have no idea,” he says, “What a high it is for me to see the delight on people’s faces when they see how these homes work.”
Pitt fell in love with New Orleans in the early 1900s, during filming of Interview with the Vampire. Another movie he made there, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, will reach theaters on December 25. “New Orleans has its own mind,” he says “it’s own thing. It has a real spirit. It’s the most authentic of all American cities.” He likes it so much, in fact, that he now has a house in the French Quarter. But when he visited the city in early 2006, he was astonished by the lack of progress in repairing the damage, the result of a top-to-bottom paralysis in Washington, the state of Louisiana and New Orleans itself. “I couldn’t believe that nothing was going on,” he says. “I recalled the pictures of people on the roofs, begging for help, and I couldn’t believe that this was our America.”
An abiding interest in architecture–he considered becoming an architect himself–gave Pitt a solid grounding in the building arts and a passion for environmentally friendly sustainable development. “When you realize that 40 or 45 percent of the world’s pollution comes from the way we build and maintain our buildings,” he says, “it’s just common sense to think that there’s a better solution.”
That better solution, Pitt believes, lies in the ideas of William McDonough, a Virginia-based architect who espouses a “cradle to cradle” design philosophy: comfortable houses that demand little energy today and whose materials can be recycled when they are torn down in some distant tomorrow. “It’s radical thinking–zero waste–but actually very simple,” says Pitt. “Simple in the sense that it just follows the ecosystem of nature. Why can’t we redefine how we do things? Not the change our way of life but to change the way we do things.” And where better to start than New Orleans? “I just saw what needed to be done,” says Pitt, “and I said, ‘Why not?'”
If the glare of the spotlight is one of the prices of fame, one of the advantages is the celebrity’s ability to then shine that spotlight on favorite causes. “I know that there are people out there who will take my phone calls,” says Pitt. William McDonough was one person who took his call. German architect Lars Kruckeberg, of the firm Graft, who has worked on Pitt’s home in Los Angeles, was another. Tom Darden II, head of a North Carolina firm that transforms toxic waste sites into factories and apartments complexes, was a third. In December 2006 all four gathered in New Orleans for a brainstorming session. What, they asked, could they do to help?
Many people though–many people still think–that the Lower Ninth Ward should be abandoned. The land on which it sits is lower than sea level, they argued, and another Katrina might flood it again. To which Pitt responded that other parts of New Orleans, white and middle class, actually lie lower, but no one talks of abandoning them. “It seems to me that this is about fairness,” he says. “We may have been designed equal, but we certainly weren’t born equal. I feel great happiness wherever we level the playing field.”
He points out that while housing in the Lower Ninth Ward is starving for funds, the nearby Jackson Barracks, home of the Louisiana National Guard, has been given more than $250 million for rebuilding. “What does that say to these people?” he asks, “Make it right!” begged on of Katrina’s survivors when the partners met with residents of the Lower Ninth. That plea became not only the motto but the name of the new organization–Make It Right. To get things going, Pitt pledged five million dollars, and Steve Bing, a Hollywood producer, pledged another five million. Other pledges, including $10 million from the American Idol TV show, have now brough the total to almost $30 million.
Fourteen firms were chosen to submit designs. Five were from Louisiana: Billes Architecture, Eskew + Dumez + Ripple, Concordia Architecture & Planning, John C. Williams Architects and Trahan Architects. Four were from other parts of the United States: BNIM from Kansas City, Missouri; Kieran Timberlake Associates from Philadelphia; and two, Morphosis and Pugh + Scarpa, from Santa Monica, California. Five were from other countries: Adjaye Associates from Britain, Constructs from Ghana, Graft of Berlin and Los Angeles, MVRDV from the Netherlands and Shigeru Ban Architects from Japan. they toured the area in June 2007. “I gave them a coach flight, a box lunch and an uncomfortable bus ride around the area,” says Pitt. “And they offered their brain power, their expertise and their time. They also felt this was a place of injustice–but also a place of opportunity.”
There were several constraints on the designs. No house should cost more than $150,000, of which, it was
hoped, the new owners would be able to put up 85 percent from insurance and government disaster funds. Since most of the lots were long and narrow, just 40 feet wide, the houses would also have be long and narrow. And since the entire Lower Ninth is in a danger zone, almost all had to be raised eight feet off the ground. To provide escape in a catastrophic flood, all were required to have a hatch in the roof. When Katrina’s waters rushed in, many people climbed into their attics. When the water continued to rise, some, unable to get out, drowned there.
Equally important was sustainability. Geothermal energy was to provide heat, and solar panels were counted on to provide each house with at least 75 percent of its electricity–and even send power back to the grid on sunny days. Materials and equipment were required to meet the strictest environmental standards.
In August 2007 the architects returned to New Orleans to show their designs to residents of the Lower Ninth Ward, who were polite but pointed in their comments. “It looks like a FEMA trailer” was one. “We like front porches” was another. Back to the drawing boards. What some of the designers hadn’t realized was that before Katrina, life in the area had centered on the street, with residents sitting on their front porches and carrying on conversations with passersby. That was the life they wanted back.
And that is the life they’re getting back.
The six houses completed in October 2008, all with porches, will eventually be joined by 144 more. Then, if all goes well, there will be more after that. Make It Right, Pitt believes, is a model for projects around the world. “We’ve cracked something here,” he says. “These houses are light and airy. They redefine affordable housing. Why couldn’t this model be used up North? This is a proving ground for a bigger idea that could work globally. This project is not mine anymore. It’s so beyond me.”
But don’t tell that to Gloria Guy. “I thank God for Brad Pitt,” she says. And don’t tell that to the paparazzi, who still hover in the distance as Pitt emerges from her house. “See!” he says, spotting a few hints of sun in the afternoon gloom. “I’ll bet that house is sending power back to the grid right now!” He stops to chat with Guy’s nextdoor neighbor Gertrude LeBlanc. Her house, a gift of her church, is the only one in the area not built by Make It Right.
Angelina Jolie arrives with two of their children, who’ve been playing at Make It Right’s innovative playground, a donation from a Danish firm, and they’re now busily running between mama and papa. It’s a happy scene on a happy day in a neighborhood that deserves a little happiness. Nomads they may be, Pitt and his family, but it looks as if they’ll always have a hearty welcome in New Orleans’s struggling but ever hopeful Lower Ninth Ward.