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Community by Design

Building homes for the neighborhoods that need them most

Raised on the wholesome interactions on Sesame Street, many Americans still dream of neighborhoods where residents shoot the breeze on stoops, window boxes overflow with marigolds and violets, and everyone shops at the local grocery store. But while it’s easy to create strong communities on TV, a quick tour through America’s neighborhoods would make it clear that such places are much harder to replicate in reality. A growing movement of architects and planners is taking on that challenge, attempting to do more than simply build beautiful stand-alone houses; through their design, they are attempting to create whole communities that people value. And this new form of community building isn’t just a boon for the residents—it’s bringing starchitects back to earth.

Many of these new projects take place in neighborhoods that have been destroyed by natural disasters or left to decay. Rather than erase local culture, the architects and planners use local traditions as their foundations—while expanding on them with modern touches. “I believe that it’s an incredible injustice to build a replication of an old shotgun house next to an original shotgun,” says Byron Mouton, the director of Tulane University’s URBANbuild program, in which architecture students create sustainable modern houses in blighted areas of New Orleans. “Instead, it makes sense to build new kinds of houses that possess qualities of older homes—such as porches, open indoor areas, lots of light—while becoming energy efficient, innovative, and safer.”

It’s a sentiment echoed in similar projects, from Make It Right in New Orleans, which seeks to rebuild 150 homes in one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, to the Greensburg GreenTown program in Greensburg, Kansas, in which 12 sustainable model homes are being constructed in a town devastated by a tornado. All of these projects share the sense that a community can be made stronger if damaged or derelict homes aren’t just replaced, but improved upon—improvements like solar panels added to traditional shingled roofs, rainwater cisterns installed to help control flooding, or implementing prefab systems to keep down building costs.

These projects often work closely with the neighborhoods themselves. “We’re not trying to create a new type of community,” says Tom Darden, the executive director of Make It Right. “We don’t want to lose the [sense] of community and engagement here. We just saw this as a way to introduce new notions of green building.” Though Make It Right has received criticism from some as a design Disneyland—the project’s architects including such luminaries as Morphosis, Gehry Partners, and MVRDV—Darden objects, saying that it’s the community that is driving the project, not the designers. “If the designs don’t strike a chord with the community, we don’t build the houses. Everything, from what homes are built on what lots to the appearance of the landscaping, is driven by the families returning back to their neighborhood.”
“While good architecture cannot solve everything, it certainly can go a long ways to inspiring, empowering, and encouraging certain types of thinking and values.”
The Greensburg project is also intent on this community involvement; the locals started the competition to rebuild as an eco-friendly town and they drove the architectural competition for model homes. In Biloxi, Mississippi, Architecture for Humanity, which matches architects and contractors with communities asking for help in building or rebuilding, had the prospective owners of seven homes choose their designs at a house fair hosted in a Salvation Army building. Instead of replacing community ideals, project directors insist that good design reinforces pride of place for locals.

Obviously, these newly rebuilt communities will comprise a different mix of people than was there before. Some former residents have put down roots in different parts of their cities after disasters, some can’t afford to rebuild, and some simply don’t like the proposed architectural designs. And there is inevitably some self-selection through architectural preference that helps create a new community.

Some current for-profit projects are making it their aim to attempt to lure like-minded people to a certain kind of architecture, and letting community naturally evolve after construction. The Houses at Sagaponac in East Hampton, New York, is perhaps the most notable project of this type, a dream development of 34 sustainable modern homes serving as an antidote to the surrounding overblown McMansions. Architects from Richard Meier to Zaha Hadid to Michael Graves have drawn up plans, and though actual construction has been slower than hoped, the project is moving forward and seven houses have been sold. Another project, Aria Denver, is a development of 106 sustainable homes that mixes cohousing with affordable and market-rate houses within a modern prefab aesthetic. Michelle Kaufmann, one of the project’s architects and also a judge for the Greensburg model-homes competition, reflects on the self-selection of residents for these new neighborhoods: “While good architecture cannot solve everything, it certainly can go a long ways to inspiring, empowering, and encouraging certain types of thinking and values.”

Will these projects create the neighborhood bonhomie we idealize? Would Oscar the Grouch have retained his irascible charm if his abode were a gleaming metal sculpture instead of a trash can, and would Maria and Luis’s cautious flirtations have flourished from within clean modernist lines powered by PV panels rather than modest brownstones? For these architects, it’s not about trying to recreate the same old scenarios, but instead trying to push beyond past boundaries. “Let’s not settle for what we know,” states Mouton. “Let’s prove we can step forward and invite architects to help with that.”

This article first appeared in GOOD Issue 19: The Neighborhoods Issue. You can read more from the issue here, or find out what it's all about by reading the introduction.

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