Brad Pitt’s Houses: Good Intentions Gone Astray

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The Brad Pitt Houses in New Orleans’s devastated Ninth Ward are a frustrating example of what happens when buildings are considered as individual sculptural objects rather than as part of an urban ensemble. Brad Pitt has been extremely generous with his time and money in attempting to provide new homes for victims of Hurricane Katrina. And the houses resulting from his foundation’s well-intentioned efforts so far have made eye-catching photos for the design magazines.

But viewed in their context, unfortunately, many of the new homes are bad urbanism. The majority of the structures are alien forms plopped down into a city that already has a well-established look and a rich history of vernacular architecture. Many of the Brad Pitt houses built so far detract from the character of the place they are meant to help.

The aim of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation is to design affordable, earth-friendly, flood-resistant houses for residents returning to the Lower Ninth Ward. Pitt has commissioned 13 well-known architecture firms to design prototypes for what is hoped to eventually be 150 new homes. Not unexpectedly, the design firms engaged by Pitt’s foundation were anxious to show off “cutting-edge” designs. The results so far are primarily brightly colored Modernist alternatives to the traditional New Orleans Shotgun House.

Also not terribly surprising are the reactions to the prototypes. Design mavens have in general been lavish in their praise of the designs. However, people with deep connections and affection for New Orleans's tradition, while praising Mr. Pitt’s intentions, have been less enthusiastic. For example, James Dart, an architect who was born and raised in New Orleans, told the New York Times he found the houses “alien, sometimes even insulting,” adding, “the biggest problem is that they are not grounded in the history of New Orleans architecture.

Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation is a synthesis of his generous impulses combined with his enthusiastic interest in design. He is well-known for liking to pal around with “starchitects” (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). One can only praise Brad Pitt for his spirit of generosity and caring. But we can also hope that he’ll soon add some New Urbanist planners to his circle of friends.