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