Sunday, February 18, 2007

News: After Katrina, Parsons Designs & Builds

Laura Lyons

Thirteen Parsons architecture students recently designed and built a hybrid laundromat and information center to revitalize the community of DeLisle, Mississippi, devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

The project, entitled "39571 InfoWash," has been fully operational since last September. It was the focus of a master architecture class called The Design Workshop, which teaches students how to design and construct buildings for non-profit organizations from a socially responsible perspective.

The “whole community” patronizes the InfoWash, according to David Lewis, director of the Graduate Program in Architecture. The space was designed to handle everyday concerns so the town can focus on re-establishing itself.

Architect Federico Negro, a DeLisle native and Parsons graduate, took the first steps in creating the InfoWash, shortly after Katrina hit in August 2005. After contacting several clients, including fellow DeLisle resident Martha Murphy, Negro quickly found enough people to bankroll the project. He is currently employed by SHoP Architecture, the firm that helped make 39571 a reality.

Other clients who funded this project were DeLisle Corner LLC and the Mississippi Katrina Fund.

The class began last spring and was facilitated by Lewis along with Parsons faculty Terry Erickson and Joel Stoehr. It was designed to function in two parts, beginning with drawing in-class blueprints and constructing minor objects like furniture. Students and professors worked collaboratively to broker zoning restrictions, client demands, and budget constraints into a viable design.

The second half began in July when all 13 students and two professors flew down to DeLisle to begin construction. They were given on-site training and worked up to 16 hours a day, six days a week over the next six weeks. They started work before dawn to beat the oppressive Mississippi heat.

"This was not a summer vacation," said Architecture masters' degree candidate Laura Lyon. "We hit the ground running."

Although DeLisle was not hit as hard as surrounding areas, it was nonetheless far from functional after the hurricane. Fierce wind, mold, and flooding up to three feet high significantly damaged residents' property.

The area, about 2,500 feet north of a bayou, was once home to a thriving fishing industry and ravishing wetlands, according to Lyon. Now, she said, it is littered with "dying trees and heaps of rubble.”
"It was tragic to see photos of how it had been before," she added.

When the students arrived, residents warmly received their visitors.

"We became a celebrated part of the local Saturday night karaoke scene," Lyon said, although she admitted that the group lacked sufficient vocal talent.

The students were "totally adopted into the amazing community down there,” she added. “We missed New York for those eight weeks, but I also find myself really missing Mississippi and the people there."

From the beginning, InfoWash was designed partly to re-inspire the community.

"The client was interested in something that looked elegant and refined in contrast to the devastation," Lewis said.

The concept breaks InfoWash into two distinct sections. The "Info" is part of the waiting area and offers reading material on insurance laws and rebuilding tips that change along with the community. Across a breezeway is the "Wash," a laundromat with four pairs of washer and dryer units.

From afar, its open, breezy design does not appear out of place in a tiny bayou town. The outer deck seems perfect for kids to play games after school while their parents spread the latest gossip.

Closer inspection of the InfoWash shows the students' clever attention to detail. Afternoon sunlight illuminates the information center through cedar panels that resemble stationary Venetian blinds. The efficient interior is made elegant by favoring open space over furniture.

Despite the cohesive and balanced mixture of design and practicality, the students did not consciously develop the project in any particular idiom. The finished product sprang from "negotiations with the client" and "close attention to materials," Lewis said.

The building stands across from the only functional public school in the area, and adjacent from a "business incubator," a temporary space that gives local entrepreneurs a place to maintain their livelihood while rebuilding their trade. This effectively relocates the town's center of gravity so rebuilding can continue more efficiently.

Parsons has one of the few architecture programs in the country that offer hands-on experience along with theoretical study.

"A traditional architecture education never gets much farther into building than creating models," said Lyon. "Many architecture schools used the disaster as a case study for innovative hypothetical responses, and some schools actually built prototypes or sent volunteer workers down to help, but this was a unique chance to combine the theoretical design and the real physical impact of a usable building."

Students in past Design Workshop classes have constructed an art gallery at Washington Irving Public High School in Manhattan and an athletic storage facility for the New York Public Schools.

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