In the two years since Hurricane Katrina, what has the rebuilding effort produced? No grand designs. No inspired vision for the future of New Orleans. There have been only a handful of earnest, grassroots proposals to preserve what's left of the historic fabric.
Amid this atmosphere of malaise, two recently announced projects for downtown New Orleans stand out as the first truly creative attempts to foster the city's resurrection. The first, an extravagant proposal for a new New Orleans National Jazz Center and park by Morphosis, is the most significant work of architecture proposed in the city since the Superdome. The second, a 10km-long park and mixed-use development along the Mississippi, designed by TEN Arquitectos, Hargreaves Associates and Chan Krieger Sieniewicz, would undo decades of misguided building on the riverfront.
The design of the riverfront project has yet to be finished; even the developer concedes that it would take years to build under the best conditions. And construction of the park would probably require the cooperation of city, state and federal agencies - an almost laughable notion, based on recent experience.
Still, the scope and creative ambition of these projects suggest how architecture could someday be vital to the city's physical and social healing. Both seek to transform dead urban areas into lively public forums, employing powerful architectural expressions of a democratic ideal.
The proposed Jazz Center, designed by Thom Mayne of Morphosis in Santa Monica, California, is conceived as a great social mixing chamber, with music embedded in its core. For architects, its form may bring to mind early-1960s "Walking Cities" fantasies by the British firm Archigram: gigantic nomadic machines that could carry entire urban settlements in their bellies.
The center, however, is firmly rooted in the postwar context of downtown New Orleans. Situated at Poydras Street and Loyola Avenue, it would be flanked by cool glass towers. An elevated section of Interstate 10 cuts through the city just to the west; the imposing form of the Superdome, its broad crisscrossing ramps extending from the street right through the structure, stands just a block away.
Like the Superdome, the Jazz Center would be a piece of urban infrastructure: Big, tilting columns raise one end so that street life slips directly underneath the building. Visitors enter by a grand staircase set beneath the bowl of a performance hall. From there, they may continue into a large exhibition space and cafe or climb another staircase to glass-encased foyers suspended above the sidewalk.
The curvaceous walls of the 820-seat performance hall suggest a womb floating within the city's fabric. A 350-seat "black box" hall sits to one side, separated by a vertical slot of glass - the last glimpse of the outside world before entering the shared intimacy of the halls.
The design reflects longstanding themes in Mayne's work. Like many architects of his generation, raised in the postwar optimism that made large-scale civic projects seem possible, he sees the post-industrial city as a work in progress; for him, private buildings, public space and urban infrastructure form a fluid, seamless whole.
Mayne, more than most, imbues his designs with the progressive postwar social values. His goal is to build better, more refined machines - an especially resonant metaphor in a city suffering because of its neglected, aging infrastructure.