Slate's Architecture: Mississippi's Post-Katrina Plans

Madeleine Brand talks with Slate architecture critic Witold Rybczynski about how Mississippi's rebuilding plans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina differ from Louisiana's. Both states suffered widespread damage from storm surges and flooding.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

President Bush is in the Gulf Coast region today surveying the progress of reconstruction efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A new rebuilding plan for New Orleans is drawing heavy criticism from many residents and politicians there, but New Orleaneans don't have to look far to find a more effective reconstruction plan, says architecture critic Witold Rybczynski. He's written about Mississippi's rebuilding plans for the online magazine Slate and he spoke to me earlier.

Give us a few reasons why you think the reconstruction is moving more quickly and more effectively in Mississippi than in Louisiana.

WITOLD RYBCZYNSKI reporting:

Well, I think there's been much stronger leadership from the state, which is important because it's really only the state that can coordinate these large-scale reconstruction plans. But above that, Mississippi is, of course--has much smaller cities and towns. And I think that this question of scale has made rebuilding a lot simpler, not just technically but the fact that you can get people together more easily in a smaller community than in a large city like New Orleans has enabled them to reach a consensus more quickly about what should be done. It's also important to note that in the case of Mississippi, the planning came parallel to consultation with citizens. And I think in New Orleans, they seem to have put together a plan and then presented it to people rather than got their opinion earlier.

BRAND: And tell us about some of the rebuilding plans in Mississippi.

RYBCZYNSKI: What they did was very ambitious because they brought together about a hundred architects and planners, consultants, citizens, mayors, and essentially they developed 11 plans for 11 of the coastal communities that were hardest hit by Katrina. They've planned individual towns and cities like Biloxi, but they've also looked at how they come together in a regional sense.

BRAND: Now the organization that is spearheading this design process is a group called the Congress for a New Urbanism, and they promote sort of traditional forms of architecture and smart-growth walkability in communities. They are popular but also controversial in some architecture circles. And why is that?

RYBCZYNSKI: I think the biggest source of the controversy is the fact that they're approach integrates and accepts the very traditional architecture which most Americans tend to like. Some architects feel that a reconstruction effort really ought to be an opportunity to promote much more cutting-edge architecture. I think the New Urbanists are not so much promoting tradition as accepting the fact that people like, you know, houses with porches and picket fences and bay windows.

BRAND: But some critics have said that by making a homogeneous design style, a sort of traditionalist approach may erase some of the character in some of these seaside towns.

RYBCZYNSKI: That's always a danger, and I think the process will really show whether that happens or not. My guess is that in a place that's as freewheeling as the United States, it's very hard to set up ironclad rules. And we're not talking about a housing development, after all. We're talking about entire towns. And I think that in the actual process a lot of the sort of neat, historical or traditional ideas get watered down and inevitably you get much more of a mixture, which is actually what makes for interesting towns. So I think the--it will be the application of this idea that will show whether it's more open to variety and doesn't become too narrow in dictating good taste and bad taste.

BRAND: Opinion and analysis from Witold Rybczynski. He writes on architecture for the online magazine Slate. Thanks for joining us.

RYBCZYNSKI: Thank you.

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