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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

May 2004 Issue

That ’70s Show
In New Orleans, the third act begins on a famous outdoor stage.

By Allen Freeman

That ’70s Show
Photo by Kathy Anderson

Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia is like one of those fruity, rummy Hurricane cocktails that you sip through a straw from a curvy glass garnished with an orange slice and maraschino cherry: colorful, over the top, and made of questionable ingredients. In 1978, when the piazza went up in downtown New Orleans, urbane critics were quick to decipher the architectural in-jokes for those in the derriere-garde. They elucidated the "concentrical hemicyclical" colonnades painted bright yellow, ochre, and red. They gushed over the esoteric water features—"wetopes," Moore called them. And they winked knowingly at twin cartouches of Moore’s benevolent face on an arch above the piazza’s St. Joseph’s Fountain. Reported The New York Times, "This place...may be the most significant new urban plaza any American city has erected in years." Insisting that Moore wasn’t trying to be trendy or clever, Progressive Architecture said the piazza was "destined to become a major attraction in a city where tourism is the second largest industry."

And yet...last October, only 25 years later, neither a veteran New Orleans taxi driver nor a savvy desk clerk in a hotel just four blocks away had heard of the place.

From hot-doggy national praise to local anonymity or worse, the piazza—which has just undergone a million-dollar restoration to correct a quarter century of decay—must have things to say to landscape architects. Here are some basics: Design parks for potential users, make them durable, and don’t move ahead of the real estate market in an uncertain economy. The cognoscenti may breeze in and praise the clever design while ignoring such basic matters as whether average people care about design allusions that don’t resonate with their experiences, whether the place can be kept safe and clean, and where it is built.

Back in the 1970s, the critics paid little attention to the fact that the piazza was set back where it wouldn’t benefit from eyes on Poydras Street. It was wedged into a site bounded by (1) an alley leading directly into the unrestored Warehouse District, (2) the backside of the 22-story Lykes Shipping tower, and (3) a grade-level parking lot. In a city plagued by street crime, this place was made for muggers.

Very soon, it was said, shops would displace the parking lot and enclose the piazza, defining it, making it a destination, and giving it a rationale. But all that didn’t happen. Downtown development in New Orleans got a boost from the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition, but the shops remained only gleams in the eyes of local developer Joe Canizaro, the administrations of Moon Landrieu and subsequent mayors, and the directors of the nearby American Italian Renaissance Foundation Museum and Library (the piazza celebrates the city’s Italian culture).

In 1976, the prospect of a Piazza d’Italia was refreshing to the readers of Progressive Architecture, myself included. The plans won a p/a design citation that year for Los Angeles-based Moore and three young architects in the New Orleans firm of August Perez & Associates. Two years later, we thought it was pretty cool when p/a writer Martin Filler assigned masterpiece status to the still-partially completed project.

All this came at a time when architects were shaking loose from the constraints of international modernism and trying to assimilate conservation measures during a national energy crisis. The buildings they were designing then were pretty dreary—not that we always noticed right away. Structures were oriented for winter solar gain, crowned with ungainly solar collectors, and encumbered with braise-soleils for solar protection in the summer. The year the piazza opened, at&t unveiled plans for Philip Johnson’s 38-story nose-thumb to modernism in New York City. But Philip’s monumental joke had fallen flat by the time his skyscraper with a Chippendale top went up on Madison Avenue.

The Piazza d’Italia was smart, we thought, in ways that we—especially those of us who’d heard of Vitruvius, seen pictures of the piazza’s Italian prototypes, and received the lesson plan in Learning from Las Vegas—could comprehend. Those five concentric, hemicyclical colonnades represented the five classical orders, and a sixth was known as the Delicatessen Order: very clever. Stainless steel Ionic capitals and arches outlined in neon: how witty. Acanthus leaves on Corinthian capitals made of spritzing water: quite brilliant. "It is perhaps the fullest expression of [Moore’s] inclusivist philosophy to date, combining architectural allusion of the highest level with kitsch," Robert A. M. Stern would later write.

Five years after the 1978 opening, I finally got to see the famous little piazza firsthand, observing in Architecture that the wetopes were clogged, the neon broken, and the paint peeling and that already it was "frequented mainly by vagrants." Optimistically I wrote, "But the city director of planning says the city is bringing it ‘back to the standard by which it was designed.’"

The comeback took a long time to materialize. Seattle Times columnist Mark Hinshaw reported in this magazine in June 2001 that he’d recently found the piazza to be in an even more advanced state of ruin. The water was still turned off, the basins were filled with weeds, and a windstorm had denuded the 84-foot-tall campanile of its stucco skin and sent pieces hurtling into the Mississippi River several blocks away, leaving behind a corroded steel skeleton. (If some of those stucco pieces hit the new Harrah’s Casino down the block at South Peters Street, they encountered the antithesis of Charles Moore’s compact little park: a membrane of bombastic postmodernism stretched thin over an enormous box.)

We can take heart now that Loews Hotels has restored the piazza, at a reported cost of $1 million, and integrated it into its conversion of the Lykes tower to an upscale hotel. The city still owns the piazza but has leased it to Loews, which is responsible for its maintenance and lighting. During the day, the Piazza d’Italia remains a public park, but on 30 nights a year Loews has exclusive rights to use it for private parties. There are also designated days when the American Italian Renaissance Foundation can use it for invitation-only functions. Meanwhile, the Warehouse District has been considerably restored and gentrified, and a Loews spokesman says the hotel’s ownership group holds the lease on the adjacent parking lot and may build a second hotel tower with an outdoor pool and spa.

Questions remain about why such fragile materials were used and who was responsible for the piazza’s swift slide into disrepair and ruin. Will this fix up last?

Architect Ronald C. Filson believes the piazza will have a strong third act. Now the dean of architecture at Tulane University, Filson was one of the trio of young associates at the Perez office—along with R. Allen Eskew and Malcolm Heard Jr.—who worked with Moore on the project. More recently, he was the design consultant to Hewitt Washington and Associates, the architectural firm in charge of the restoration. "It was designed to be a piazza, the center of development all the way around it," Filson recalls. "From the very beginning, the understanding was that there was to be a mixture of offices and shops and a hotel and that the piazza was to be maintained by the development. Since none of that ever happened, there never was any maintenance, and so the project sat with nobody responsible for it. Every few years somebody would talk about trying to do something to it, and until very recently all of the neglect and damage was very superficial, and the mechanical systems were in reasonably good shape."

Is the city at fault for not hammering down an agreement with the developer? No, Filson says, it’s the developer’s fault that the development never happened. The second phase, which was to have been private development, went through a series of requests for proposals, but to no avail, in part because of the city’s lackluster economy. "Now, many people would say, yeah, it would have been nice if the city had stepped in and assumed responsibility, but in a city of dwindling resources, that was never really a strong possibility."

Is Charles Moore’s vision fully restored today?

"It looks just terrific," Filson says. Much of the piazza was repainted, its lighting was repaired, and new flashing was installed across the top of the cornice where the piazza bumps into another building. The stucco was always three-coat stucco, he says, and it was repaired in kind. "I would not have gone along with substituting synthetic stucco," he insists.

But in three places, new materials were substituted for the ones originally specified. "One was a green marble," Filson says, "and I have to assume responsibility—stupid architects! Originally, we wanted a combination of black marble, some slate, and some white marble for the paving and some other areas and the contours of Italy. And then there was a red granite that we used for a lot of the column bases. It turned out that the marble was a very soft marble, and it began to deteriorate. But it was also much more subject to vandalism. So virtually all of the green marble got destroyed. For the restoration, I found a granite that is grayish-green but with enough green in it that it is reminiscent of the original green marble. It will be much more durable."

The second mistake made in the 1970s was to become seduced by a tile with a platinum glaze, a material manufactured in Italy. "We used it on horizontal and vertical surfaces," Filson says. "We used it where all of the three rivers come out of the little reservoirs on top of the contours of Italy, and there are weirs that had the three rivers—the Po, the Arno, and the Tiber—then running down over the contours of Italy. Despite assurances—I was young and naďve, I guess—the platinum glaze was gone within six months." And so, for this go-around, Filson found a slightly more subtle but still-reflective tile, a glass material in which reflectivity is baked through the entire product.

The third gaffe he mentions is an up-light in one of the walls. "The [underwater] fixture deteriorated badly," he says, "so we found a contemporary substitute. It is not even visible and gets the same result, but it is much more adequate for having to sit in a puddle of water."

Filson’s taking of responsibility for specification shortcomings is refreshing, and one only hopes that the piazza’s third act is happier than its second. But what’s to be made of the lack of public appreciation for Moore’s folly and the incomprehension of its in-jokes? Lake Douglas, a New Orleans resident and a long-standing contributor to this magazine, may have said it best 25 years ago in a piece for Architectural Review. "[The piazza] is a wonderful, capricious architectural joke that one cannot appreciate unless one has a sense of humor to match the architects’, one understands the elements of classical architecture and the confused state of contemporary architecture, and one is privy to the customs of New Orleans," Douglas wrote. "Perhaps with the Italian Piazza, pop architecture has advanced into elite architecture, and that may be the ultimate architectural joke."

Today, one can project a bit of irony into Charlie Moore’s smiling likenesses on the piazza’s cartouches: While fine works of modernist landscape architecture across the country—parks and plazas by the likes of Dan Kiley and Lawrence Halprin—are apparently doomed, this little slice of architectural esoterica gets a reprieve.


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