When it comes to architecture, we’re living in a time of diminished expectations. The iconic buildings that rose so prolifically over the last decade no longer go up. The quieted skyline may be a matter of taste as much as finances: our culture has turned its back on bombast, at least for the moment.
Nobody has learned this more abruptly than Frank Gehry, the master of artful bombast. His design for the multi-billion-dollar Atlantic yards (above) in Brooklyn–a typically flamboyant amalgam of cascading glass and wobbly towers–was scuttled by Bruce Ratner earlier this month. If that weren’t bad enough, the new Theater for a New Audience in Brooklyn Gehry was to have designed with Hugh Hardy will proceed without him, and the theatre he was slated to create for Ground Zero looks increasingly unlikely.
In the wake of these letdowns Gehry last week unveiled his most modest plan in memory, a humble shotgun house to be built in the sixth ward of New Orleans. He designed the modular shotgun house, known as the “Modgun,” with urban planner Robert Tannen (shown with model left).
No titanium swoops here. Like traditional shotgun houses, it has an elevated pitched roof for natural cooling and stilts for flooding. It will be built on a rundown block on Ursuline Avenue, but it’s meant as a prototype that can be duplicated in the various neighborhoods still blighted four years after Hurricane Katrina.
The shotgun house is a 19th cottage built to conform to the city’s long narrow lots. It reflects local Cajun culture as much as gumbo or jambalaya. Efforts by Brad Pitt and others to modernize the shotgun shack have met mixed reactions. Will Gehry’s surprisingly subdued version court a better reception? “Gehry and Tannen both appreciate the fundamental architectural strength of the shotgun house: the elegant box with the long pitched roof,” said Reed Kroloff, the director of Cranbrook Academy and former dean of architecture at Tulane. “They know when to play visually, and when to leave well enough alone. Yes, it’s understated. But New Orleans has more than its fair share of gingerbread; it can handle a little restraint.”