It felt like a long vacation or a student exchange program. But the fall semester that 96 students from Tulane University spent at Arizona State University was an emergency arrangement that allowed them to continue their course work after Hurricane Katrina ripped up the Gulf Coast.
Much of the Tulane campus in New Orleans was flooded, forcing the university to close after the August storm. The evacuation displaced students and prompted colleges around the country to temporarily enroll some Tulane students.
ASU’s College of Design made an unusual arrangement. Wellington Reiter, the college’s dean and a Tulane alumnus, moved Tulane’s entire fifth-year architecture class, along with five of its faculty members, into a studio near the ASU Foundation offices in Tempe.
So the students attended their Tulane courses as planned, even though they were miles from their home campus. And ASU officials arranged for housing, putting some students in apartments. Others were guests at faculty members’ homes.
Now, it’s time for Tulane students to return to New Orleans. And they’re taking back ideas of what they think a rebuilt New Orleans should look like.
"In New Orleans right now, everyone’s kind of throwing out all these ideas" for rebuilding, said Noah Marble, a recent graduate of Tulane’s architecture program who was a teaching assistant for the Tulane students. "The point of this study is to get as many ideas out there as we can."
In their ASU studio, Tulane students designed graphics and strategies for replacing homes or neighborhoods. They concentrated on four zones of the city hard hit by flooding and the hurricane and generally impoverished: The Lower Ninth Ward, Florida Housing Community, the Bywater and the Desire Housing Community.
The project sounded straightforward. They would study designs and the environment where the homes would be built, sketch ideas, make a blueprint and, voilà — a city.
But discussions of rebuilding have turned into a political debate within the Tulane studio in Tempe and in other forums around the country. Some architects and developers wonder if the flood and storm damage present an opportunity for New Orleans to escape the shadow of its racist past. But others believe recreating the structures characteristic of the Gulf city’s southern history will help retain its flavor.
Emotions are wrapped up in the debate. Many of New Orleans’ inhabitants come from families who have lived there for generations, said Tulane clinical architect professor Byron Mouton.
"It’s easy to erase physical structures," Mouton said. "It’s not easy to erase memories, family structure."
The project was very personal for architecture student Mark Heck, a New Orleans native. He grew up in Ponchatoula, just north of the city and traveled through the Ninth Ward almost daily to class. His home is gone now, ruined by flooding.
Heck requested to be on the team of students focused on restructuring the Ninth Ward. The 22-year-old was horrified by news of the area’s destruction and the more than 1,000 people who died in Louisiana.
He fears that families believe their losses have been ignored or forgotten. Heck said he wants to make sure victims are remembered by building a memorial bridge for pedestrians. The bridge would allow people to walk across the Mississippi River from the Lower Ninth Ward to the Bayou. The structure would swivel, linking them to two islands in the river where they could view the names of the dead.
Unlike Heck, architecture students Ross Karsen and Matt Monahan don’t have a lifelong history in New Orleans.
Monahan, 23, of Naperville, Ill., a new graduate student, only lived in New Orleans for about a week. Without radio or television, Monahan didn’t realize until Hurricane Katrina was nearing the coast how bad the storm would be. He evacuated days after the storm.
Karsen, 23, of Highland Park, Ill., has lived in New Orleans for six years as a Tulane student and had come to appreciate its historic districts and unusual neighborhoods.
Despite their short history, the two students have taken an avid interest in their part of the city project, designing a barrier that would surround the city — an extra protection within the levees that would spare homes from future floods. Karsen describes it "like a waffle, where, if you pour syrup in one square, it won’t get into the other squares."
Other students are looking at New Orleans piece by piece. Designs hanging on the walls of the ASU studio show how students have dismantled and then redesigned New Orleans’ famous shotgun houses and cottages. Some students are looking at how to construct homes next to a levee without putting them in harm’s way.
It’s unclear if their ideas will make it from design to reality. The students are competing with developers who have more cash and political connections to push their vision forward. Some developers are a step ahead, tinkering with redesigns crafted long before Katrina hit.
Designers also are planning rather blindly. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has yet to issue standards for building codes for the new New Orleans.
Mouton said that one of the greatest challenges, though, will be luring the top designers, developers, contractors and experts who can help New Orleans emerge from the wreckage.
"We need more young urban professionals," said Mouton, who owns an architecture firm, Bild Design. "We need more yuppies in the city that are more forwardthinking. That’s my concern."