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EP: 01 – WHY ARCHITECTURE? BY MICHAEL SELDITCH

Architects in fictional movies and television are typically portrayed in unrealistic or overtly glamorous ways. The rare documentary will surface — Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect or Ken Burns’ Frank Lloyd Wright — that accurately depicts not only the joy of architecture, but the architect’s personal process.

I want this documentary series to give the viewer a fly-on-the-wall glimpse into an architect’s psyche. What do architects think about? What do they talk about? What is important to them? And why do we, as a society, need them? When I was an architect myself, I never felt like the general public got what we do, or really understood why we are needed. “I don’t have to hire an architect,” I once heard a potential client say about his impending kitchen renovation. “I know exactly where I want the sink to be and I’m capable of picking out my own countertops. I just need a contractor to build it.”

Construction is tangible; while design, to some, is cerebral. Sadly, with cheap and fast construction so prevalent these days, many people are not always aware of bad design. But when it’s good; when the space functions like a dream; when it is beautiful and comfortable; when it is clever and resourceful; then good design is abundantly clear. How exciting for the viewer to be in on the design process, from start to finish.

For this series, the students at Tulane University’s School of Architecture are our main characters. And both the study of architecture and the design process must be prominent. However, equally important is the narrative of the construction of the house: a group of 21-year-olds building this house from the ground up with shovels, hammers, nails and sweat, having never done anything like it before.

One of the things that Rob Tate [our senior producer] and I had always been certain about is that we were not making a “how-to” series. The viewer is not going to come away with instructions on building a deck. Though, learning about a “cantilever” or a “stringer” is another story. The vocabulary of architecture is compelling. It has a rich language of its own. And this was always a challenge in shooting this series. How do we coherently tell these stories that speak that language, while remaining accessible, and not “dumbing it down” for the viewer?

There are additional stories to be told here beyond the students and construction of the house — Tulane’s collaboration with Neighborhood Housing Services, the non-profit agency that helps low-income families purchase a home; the frustration families face as they try to cut through the red tape of government subsidies and mortgage lenders; and the crime-ridden neighborhood these students are building in.

And then, there’s the “Big Easy.” When I think of New Orleans, the first word that comes to mind is, authentic. Everything and everyone feels original; unique to that city. Every establishment feels mom-and-pop. And while NOLA has its share of ubiquitous coffee-house-chains and corporate-big-box stores, they seem to be relegated to the outskirts of town. The city proper is rich with color, soot and sounds; and the camera loves it.

In the second episode, Reed Kroloff, the former dean of Tulane’s School of Architecture, alludes to this richness with eloquence as he describes the state of New Orleans’ architecture and the ill-fated conditions of its housing. “This city hides true decay under a thin veneer of charm,” Kroloff says. “…there is such outright degradation of the physical environment where many of these people live. We saw that mission right away. The storm simply accelerated the clock.”

Byron Mouton, the director of the URBANbuild program articulates a similar sentiment regarding “the storm” and “the accelerated clock.” Mouton states, “People come to town and we drive them through neighborhoods and they say, ‘Wow, look at that! That’s a mess! I can’t believe the storm did that.’” Mouton continues with a chuckle, “And often we say, ‘Well, that’s not due to the storm.’ This type of condition has existed in this city for decades. Katrina has given us the opportunity to repair and fix pre-Katrina problems.”

Who knew? Not me. Prior to researching this project, and before visiting New Orleans, I had no idea the extent to which this city’s housing needed attention and consideration …pre-K!

As construction progresses and a house emerges, the students are faced with unexpected criticism. New Orleanians (generally speaking) tend to be somewhat squeamish about Modern Architecture. In the fifth episode Emilie Taylor, the project manager and a recent Tulane graduate herself, sums it up beautifully: “The city is drowning in its own nostalgia.” The students find themselves the target of bitter blogging with regards to the design of the house and how it fits into the neighborhood. Once again, the arguments are worthy of inclusion in the documentary and we try to present all sides in an unbiased manner.

Whether it is about tension on the construction site, financial frustrations of potential buyers, crime in the neighborhood, safety issues during construction, or the modern architectural style of the house — there are many stories here to explore, and we have six episodes to do it in.

Michael Selditch
Co-Creator/Executive Producer