New Group Seeks Recovery of Upper Ninth Ward

Event: Architecture and Recovery: The Guardians Institute in New Orleans
Location: Museum of Arts and Design, 04.17.08
Speakers: Jens Holm — Associate, Rockwell Group; Kate Stohr — Cofounder, Architecture for Humanity; Herreast Harrison — Founder, Guardians Institute
Moderator: Martin C. Pedersen — Executive Editor, Metropolis
Organizer: Museum of Arts and Design

Guardians Institute

The proposed Guardians Institute building in the Upper Ninth Ward.

Courtesy Guardians Institute

At the fringe of recovery efforts in New Orleans are community anchor buildings. The celebrity-driven focus on replacing damaged housing has partially obscured the city’s need to bring roots of shared place and heritage back to its communities. It is a type of project that Kate Stohr, cofounder of Architecture for Humanity, calls a “beacon of hope,” and one her organization has committed to creating in post-hurricane New Orleans. Jens Holm of the Rockwell Group, working closely with Architecture for Humanity, provided his energies to designing a new home for the Upper Ninth Ward’s Guardians Institute.

Herreast Harrison, founder of the institute — and a bit of a New Orleans cultural icon herself — explained that the institute exists to make a difference in young peoples’ lives, to bring the “living heroes” of the neighborhoods into children’s lives, connecting them with their past and orienting their future. A tradition of beadwork, crafts, theater, and family responsibility handed down through Mardi Gras Indian culture is preserved in classes for the neighborhood children and through care for the elderly. Though short on dollars, the Institute hopes to include permanent space for a museum, academic institution, and neighborhood playhouse.

Holm packs an amazing amount of program and flexibility into the proposed 2,500-square-foot Guardians Institute building. It offers multi-use space providing exhibition, performance, education, and administration functions. With roots in the design of the traditional shotgun style home, the new building will expand on and open this archetype based on free circulation. Broad façades that open for performances are visible from the street.

The institute is also designed for hurricane and flood survivability, according to Holm. Its first floor is built four feet above grade to withstand minor area flooding. The second floor is placed high enough to stay dry through floodwaters of the type encountered during Hurricane Katrina, which left a nine-foot-high watermark in the neighborhood.

Though the meeting of Harrison and the Rockwell Group was paid for in part by Architecture for Humanity, there is a continuing need for funding to advance this project. With an estimated cost of roughly $300,000, the Guardians Institute has a substantial challenge ahead of it before groundbreaking. Federal funds have not been forthcoming and other levels of government have declined to help, preferring that development come from the private sector.

A condemned home on an adjoining corner lot waits for a possible phase two design and expansion — an expansion that may not come if New Orleans’ business-first administration puts developers’ needs ahead of those of the community.