The Times Picayune – August 15, 2015


The origin story of the collection of angular, brightly painted homes called Make It Right has become a piece of New Orleans lore. The Lower 9th Ward neighborhood near the Claiborne Avenue bridge was more or less wiped out by floodwater surging through a gap in the levee wall in 2005. Then, as if by Hollywood magic, Brad Pitt appeared to attempt to rebuild it. At the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the flood, 109 homes stand where there once was only mud and wreckage. More homes are on the way.

“I’ll tell you, every time I drive over the Claiborne bridge, no matter what frustration I might be dealing with at the moment, I get this well of pride when I see this little oasis of color and the solar panels,” Pitt said in a telephone conversation Friday (Aug. 15) from Los

An ecologist, architecture enthusiast and part-time New Orleans resident, Pitt called on the top building designers of the region, nation and world to draw up houses with striking appearances that married advanced environmental practices with affordable building methods. He also founded a nonprofit organization to see that those design gems rose on the empty landscape.

“I drive into the neighborhood and I see people on their porch,” Pitt said, “and I ask them how is their house treating them? And they say, ‘Good.’ And I say what’s your utility bill? And they’ll throw something out like, ’24 bucks’ or something, and I feel fantastic. It’s a reminder of why we’re there. It’s a reminder of why we push like we push. It makes it all worthwhile.”

Over the past seven years, Tennessee Street and the surrounding blocks have become New Orleans’ newest tourist destination, and no wonder. Pitt’s “oasis of color and solar panels” includes futuristic homes designed by architectural legends Shigeru Ban, Thom Mayne, and even Frank Gehry, arguably the most famous designer in the world. All three architects have won the Oscar of their field, the Prizker Prize.

“Listen, we were very fortunate that they would come in, but they felt the need as well,” Pitt said of his stellar team of volunteer architects. “Actually, this is the definition of
architecture: It is solving problems through design. And, again, we’re not talking about
aesthetics; we’re talking about function, and that is the holy grail of architecture. So I was grateful, but it wasn’t surprising to me for them to jump in and want to tackle this and find solutions for this. Especially with everything we were witnessing on the news and the suffering of the people.”

But, Pitt pointed out, the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood had become a tourist draw even before the arrival of the first Make It Right house.

“I think it first became a 21st-century disaster attraction, unfortunately,” Pitt said. “This became the icon of the place that was hit the hardest and suffered the most, certainly in one condensed area. It certainly seemed to illustrate man’s failure in this particular area.”

“The message (of Make It Right) was to take this spot that was emblematic of such human failure and to make it a human success story on how we can build in the future, how we can build for families, how we can build with quality, and how we can build with the community under their guidelines.”

Seven years after the project began, Make It Right also is an icon of inventive recovery. But getting to this point has been a complicated process for Pitt and his organization.

“We went into it incredibly naïve,” he said, ” just thinking we can build homes — how hard is that? — and not understanding forgivable loan structures and family financial counseling and getting the rights to lots and HUD grants and so on and so forth. So it’s been a big learning curve.”

Pitt said that he and the Make It Right staff have taken the lessons learned in the Lower 9th Ward and used them in other affordable housing developments in Missouri, Montana and New Jersey, with more sites on the way.

“What we have learned, which was the original premise, is that you do not have to build
low-income housing with the cheapest materials that keep families in a poverty trap,” he said. “Whether that be running up high utility bills or with toxic materials that run up your doctor bills. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

According to figures provided by Make It Right, Pitt’s visionary recovery neighborhood has cost $26.8 million. The houses have been sold at a loss, as was always part of the plan, for an average of roughly $150,000 each, with financial assistance to make the mortgages affordable. In exact terms, Make It Right reports that it has provided $5.2 million in supplementary loans that needn’t be repaid and another half-million to cover up-front mortgage costs (closing

The cash to fuel the project has come mainly from donations and federal grants. In the first year of the project, $12.3 million came in. In 2011, when the banking crisis deadened the economy, donations dropped to one-sixth that much. Last year, the figure was back up to roughly $6 million, a respectable amount considering that time has naturally dimmed the public’s interest in New Orleans’ ongoing recovery.

Critics complain that the attention-grabbing project was too costly for what it accomplished. Pitt said that perhaps more recovery housing could have been built for less, but the sheer quantity of homes built was never a Make It Right priority. In the beginning, he said, everyone involved knew the experimental prototypes would cost more than future duplicate houses. In long run, Pitt said, he hopes that efficient building methods will make Make It Right homes no more expensive than conventional homes.

“With each house we build we’re getting closer and closer to what I believe will be a dollar for dollar scenario,” he said, “and then there’s no excuse to build any other way.”

Pitt said that calling on big-name architects to design artistic homes was part of how Make It Right became fixed in the public imagination, but he’s come to feel that the appearance of the homes is less important. At the start, the public was less aware of the energy and resource-saving aspects of home building. Today, he said, onlookers better understand the ecological imperatives.

“I think we came at a time when people were just getting their arms around this idea of
high-performance building.”

“We made aesthetics one of our mandates, which I feel today is less important because of the fact that now, as more time has passed, more people do understand high-performance building, are drawn to it and want to learn more from it. And so the calling card of the aesthetics is less vital to me than it was at that time.”

To the Crescent City eye, accustomed to clapboard residential construction and neoclassical, Victorian, or Arts and Crafts flourishes, the futuristic Make It Right homes seemed to be alien upstarts. But over time, gardens, flags, garland, and touches of wear and tear have mellowed their rakish appearance.

Pitt pointed out that the appearance of Make It Right was, from the beginning, guided in part by the returning residents who selected the house designs they preferred, the height the individual houses were raised above the ground, the exterior colors and interior amenities.

“The inhabitants, the families are the ones who designed the neighborhood,” Pitt said. “They had choices in front of them. They picked the houses to suit their needs. They picked the colors. They picked how it would work for their family. And, now, to start seeing the neighborhood take shape, to see the topography that has formed because of these individual choices (that have) now become the community’s choices is really exciting. Because it’s something we could have never planned for.”

Fundamentally, Pitt said, his vision would have never taken root if the returning residents hadn’t “taken a gamble” on Make It Right.

“The fact that we’ve been able to do it is because of the tenacity of the families that were determined to return and rebuild their lives.”

Considering the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood and the other Make It Right programs springing up around the country, Pitt said: “That something that big, (such) a big idea, can come out of something so horrible is a story that I will tell over and over and over again.”

Pitt said he surely will be returning to New Orleans sometime in the future to film.

“We bring a lot of films down there, our production company. New Orleans is such a great place to shoot and the rebates are phenomenal, so it’s not a big fight with the studios. They’re more than happy for us to get back down there. It’s a very rich place to shoot. It’s my excuse to get back there.”

But, he said, he will not be in New Orleans for the 10th anniversary of the 2005 storm and flood. He said that he’ll be off to film a movie, the details of which he kept vague.

“We’re doing a satirical piece on war, a satirical piece on the decisions that bring about war. That’s the best I can do at the moment,” he said.