Frank Gehry’s Non-Bilbao Effect in New Orleans

Three years after celebrity architects seized on the so-called tabula rasa of post-Katrina New Orleans, Frank Gehry is putting in his own surprisingly modest two-cents with a design for a contemporary take on the city’s traditional shotgun house.

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Unveiled yesterday on the rundown Sixth Ward block where a developer plans to build out the starchitect’s first New Orleans house, the design incorporates signature Gehry flourishes such as an angled roofline and a tilted axis into the shotgun’s long, narrow line. Its name – the “Modgun”— cheekily refers to house’s modern, modular construction. While the Modgun bears touches of Gehry, it is all in all a tame design bearing more resemblance to the humble 19th century cottages that surround the development site than the brash, larger-than-life work the Los Angeles architect is known for.
The house will be Gehry’s first addition to New Orleans since an amphitheater he designed for the 1984 World’s Fair was torn down following the event.


Gehry’s unusually contextual design is no accident. The architect–who did not attend Wednesday’s press conference—played secondary collaborator to the Modgun’s original progenitor, a New Orleans artist, architect and urban planner Robert Tannen. The two men – both spry older gents with propensity for hard angles, industrial materials and flashy outfits— are longtime colleagues dating back to shared work on the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi, Mississippi and an ecotourism development in Panama. Tannen first developed the modular shotgun in the harried months after Hurricane Katrina, envisioning it as quick, affordable design solution for residents who wanted to rebuild in way that reflected the city’s historic African-Caribbean architecture, while incorporating the latest innovations in construction and design. Based on the building block of a shotgun’s traditional 12- or 14-foot-square room, the Tannen Modgun maintained the low, lean lines of classic New Orleans homes. Modular construction, however, let families add rooms as time went on, “based on what you need or whatever you have in the way of funding, “ Tannen said.

But as one in an exhausting flurry of architectural prototypes unveiled in the months after Katrina, the Modgun failed to attract much attention from builders or homeowners until last year when Tannen got in touch with his old buddy Gehry, whose Los Angeles firm agreed to tweak the design for free. Gehry added a central screened-in porch, some additional twists in the connections between modular rooms and his signature angled roofline. The house’s relative lack of bells and whistle, however, kept it relatively affordable for moderate-income New Orleanians, and appropriate for the city’s regulated historic preservation districts. This year, a local developer, Fortune Development, opted to use the design on a vacant, blighted lot acquired from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority. Already, the developer has secured some needed equity from Liberty Bank, a local African-American community bank. Fortune CEO Hal Brown is now in the midst of securing additional financing, but says that once financing is locked in, the house can be completed within three to six months.

Tannen and Modgun carpenter Chris Meehan in front a traditional shotgun next to the building site.

Gehry and Tannen hope to see more of their houses built around the city. Tannen says he could see variations on the modified shotgun rise on dozens of the 4,000 blighted lots NORA plans to redevelop with investment from private developers like Brown.

The sheer diversity of the players behind the Modgun— a Los Angeles celebrity architect, a local architect, an African-American community bank and a state-chartered redevelopment agency— is a hopeful sign for neighborhoods in New Orleans and across the country that are staring down ever-growing lists of vacant infill sites. “This is the kind of thing we’d like to see happen more often and I’m sure other cities would too,” said NORA real estate director Ommeed Sathe, adding that he hopes that the buy in from a name-brand architect will spur other private investment in the area.

Another positive sign is the relative tameness of Gehry-Tannen’s boldface design. While the house will surely attract some curious eyes, Sixth Ward neighbors need not worry about the Bilboa effect causing traffic jams on their quiet street. For better or worse, post-Katrina New Orleans has become a wet lab for new design. From the futuristic, raised dwellings of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right project in the Lower Ninth Ward to the sleek, metal-clad homes erected in Central City by Tulane School of Architecture’s UrbanBuild students to the vinyl-sided, look-alike McCottages and modulars that have sprouted, mushroom-like, across the city since the storm, New Orleans has swallowed quite a range of new housing styles. By and large, this is a good thing. But so is respect for the city’s historic fabric- and for the tight budgets of the people who lived here. New Orleans didn’t need a shiny Gehry bauble and thankfully, Gehry did not try to sell it one.

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Ariella Cohen is Next City’s editor-in-chief.

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Tags: los angelesbuilt environmentnew orleanshistoric preservationaustin

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