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March 23 2012

The Measure

What's hot… and what's not

Going up

Kitsch light-up bunnies and china dogs Ornaments, having skipped our parents generation, are back. In the age of the iPod, the Nigella app and the Kindle, how else can we fill our bookshelves?

Mondrian/Nicholson at the Courtauld Want a Celine AW12 sweater? Get your fix of the look for free, until the exhibition closes on 20 May

The iPad case as day clutch Nicked this idea from Paris fashion week audience, and we like it

Cropped trousers with Mary Jane shoes The perfect ankle exposure for March, and on-trend for next season

Oasis floral-print collection In store this week, and you will love, trust us

Going down

Asking, 'Is this decaf?'… When you asked the barista for decaf. Yes, of course it is. No one is trying to spike your latte. Chill

The reign of Brangelina The ex-sexiest couple in the world, now that we've got Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes to perv

Liv Tyler's L'Oréal advert Way to make split ends sound like severe emotional trauma, Liv

Chandelier earrings Ooooouch. Our ears need a break


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August 17 2011

Steve McQueen to direct 12 Years a Slave

British film-maker casts Chiwetel Ejiofor in true story of mixed-race man abducted and forced into bondage in Louisiana

British artist turned film-maker Steve McQueen has cast Chiwetel Ejiofor in the drama 12 Years a Slave, the true-life story of a mixed-race New Yorker who spent more than a decade on a Louisiana cotton plantation after being kidnapped, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Ejiofor will portray Solomon Northup, who in 1841 was lured to Washington (then a southern slave state) with the promise of a well-paid job playing his fiddle in a circus. Northup was then drugged and awoke to find himself in a slave pen – he was not rescued until 1853, after a man he befriended managed to get word to his family – and lived under a number of owners, suffering great hardship. Northup's wife, whom he had left behind in New York, had to go to court to free him.

Northup detailed his experiences in a book, also titled Twelve Years a Slave, which helped historians build a picture of the slave experience at the time. Following his rescue, he became involved in the abolitionist movement and lectured on slavery in the north-east US. The practice was abolished throughout the country in 1865, following the 13th amendment to the US constitution.

McQueen made a splash with his debut film, Hunger, about the Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands. He's reunited with the star of that film, Michael Fassbender, on sex-addiction drama Shame, which is due to premiere at the Venice film festival next month. Ejiofor, the British star of Dirty Pretty Things and Kinky Boots, also portrays a slave in the forthcoming Annette Haywood-Carter drama Savannah.

12 Years a Slave is being produced by Brad Pitt through his Plan B production company. John Ridley, writer of Undercover Brother, has co-written the screenplay with McQueen.


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July 01 2011

Poster analysis: The Tree of Life

In the first of a new monthly series on the best and worst film posters on release today, Paul Owen looks at the billboard ad for Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life – an unconventional poster that is not quite as unconventional as the film itself

This is the first in what will be a regular series on the most interesting film posters being produced today. I'm planning to mainly concentrate on the most impressive examples, as I did last year with Black Swan, but I'll also share with you some of the worst travesties currently marring the world's buses and bus shelters – such as this grisly and slipshod advert for the largely unsolicited Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts reunion Larry Crowne. Any suggestions for future columns are gratefully welcomed, so please feel free to tell me about any posters you've seen – good or bad – in the comments section below.

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is an unusual film, and freelance designer Mark Carroll has in some ways attempted to match this strangeness of form in creating its poster. The poster (above) is made up of four rows of six small stills from the film, divided by two larger ones and the film's title in plain black on white, and is somewhat reminiscent of the advert for The Truman Show, that wonderful and prescient film that correctly predicted the privacy-free age in which we now live.

That poster meticulously built up a picture of star Jim Carrey's face through 1,536 images from his character's past, all colour-washed to form the shape of his face, hair, nose, mouth and so on. In doing so it attempted to sum up Truman's whole life, but the poster for The Tree of Life goes a step further, trying to encompass, in the same way the film does, the entire history of the universe.

It's unconventional, not least in its use of its biggest star, Brad Pitt. The instantly recognisable and bankably attractive features of one of the world's most famous actors are concealed behind a baby's foot and Pitt's own hand. That's a brave move commercially, but in foregrounding the baby it does seem to reflect the way the film is more focused on Pitt's effect on his children's lives than in theirs on his.

Hands are a recurring theme, resulting in some unusual images: a butterfly landing on Jessica Chastain's palm in the top-left corner, a soaped-up boy raising his fists in the bath bottom-left, a much older hand (it is Sean Penn's) reaching calmly for a stream of water on the right-hand side.

Circles figure prominently, too, from an image of the formation of the galaxy, to the space between the tops of trees, to a whirling set of colourful stained-glass windows like a snail's shell, via sunflowers, the sun (three times), and the bodies of unspecified sea creatures.

Penn, looking rangy, thin and handsome, standing below a skyscraper in a dark suit, gets a more traditional showing than Pitt. He has a much smaller role in the film, but his image is linked and made equal with his co-star's by the matching angles of their heads.

It's all very stylishly and tastefully done, although the colours lean too much towards blue and grey, meaning the overall effect is a bit dark and muted. The film is full of beautiful, hypnotic, close-cropped images like the ones chosen here, and there are many others that the poster could have used that might have brightened it up: vast and rippling flocks of birds, Chastain lying in state in a glass coffin in the woods, children dancing happily in clouds of DDT.

The landscape poster is much better than a portrait version that has also been released; anxious to fit in a clutch of glowing reviews, that one ends up much too text-heavy. The images get lost – even the name of the film does, shoehorned uncomfortably into the middle row of stills.

Designer Mark Carroll called The Tree of Life a "personal, thought-provoking masterpiece", and told me: "My only hope was to create a poster that didn't tell the audience what to think, but rather, inspired them to think for themselves, and ask their own questions." But my hunch is that for both the landscape and the portrait version Carroll has watered down what was surely his original vision for the poster (left – click here for full version): a tightly packed array of 70 separate images as opposed to the landscape poster's 26 and the portrait's 30. This original draft comes much closer to conjuring up the strangeness and woozy ambition of the film, which – especially in its first half – has a modernist, stream of consciousness structure reminiscent of James Joyce or William Faulkner and attempts a daring, unconventional manner of storytelling rarely seen in the cinema.

In this original version we slip dizzily and confusedly from place to place and era to era, catching mysterious glimpses of planets, clouds of dust and other, completely abstract, images along the way. Somehow a lot of this has been lost in the final draft. We get no sense, to take the most extreme examples, that a good chunk of the film will be devoted to depicting the formation of the universe, and that in its final minutes The Tree of Life will lurch into a dreamlike religious mysticism. We get no sense that a climactic scene will involve one dinosaur enigmatically standing on another's face. I do pity any poster designer trying to seamlessly work that scene in, although I must say that against all the odds Malick works it into the film pretty well.

Nevertheless, we should thank our lucky stars that some vestige of Carroll's original idea has made it through to the final poster; infinitely worse are these terribly misleading ads that seem to have been produced in a misguided attempt to sell the film to the multiplex. This one is saddled with the meaningless slogan "nothing stands still" and seems to be for a Stephen King-style horror film, while this one is suffused with the happy, nostalgic glow of sentimental pap like A River Runs Through It
and My Girl. I haven't seen these posters up anywhere, but if they do go on general display, then, as Charles Dickens would put it: "result misery".


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April 30 2011

March 04 2011

RIBA v Bieber: the battle for architecture's future

The Royal Institute of British Architects' latest report is downbeat, but the profession retains its allure. Even Justin Bieber wants to be one

Will there be such a thing as an architect in 2025? The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) isn't too sure. This week, its think tank, Building Futures, has published a report – The Future for Architects? – that will make rather disturbing reading for most British architects, and for anyone harbouring old-fashioned or romantic notions of what an architect might or should be.

The report hints darkly at the death of the typical, medium-size British architectural practice (ones with around 25-150 staff), and suggests that most work in the future will be carried out in emerging countries a long way from home. The firms that will survive will either be small scale, local studios or high-powered, business-minded international offices with multilingual staffs based around the world.

The former, the report suggests, will nurture the craft side of architecture, designing new houses or restoring old buildings, while the latter will act increasingly as multi-disciplinary design teams working on the skyscrapers, ever-bigger shopping malls, and massive urban developments of the future. Building Futures says that between 2010 and 2020, growth in construction will rise by 18% in the developed world, and a whopping 138% in the emerging world. On one level this is a simple reflection of economic growth in countries such as China; but it also reflects the general retrenchment of large-scale public projects, from school buildings to new hospitals, in Britain, a country scaling back on many fronts.

Some of the 40 architects interviewed by Building Futures say that the very word "architect" itself will soon be as outmoded as "wheel tapper" or "lollipop lady." They didn't use these exact terms, but they do expect to be called something like "creative consultant" rather than "architect" in the future.

Weirdly, this comes at a time when more young people than ever want to become architects. The RIBA report notes that between 2004 and 2009, the number of students signing up to Part 1 architecture courses in Britain rose by 23 per cent. Significantly, more than half are women. In the United States, Mattel Toys clearly believes that women architects are the way to go. The latest in their "Barbie I Can Be" line is Architect Barbie, the world's newest starchitect, launched this week. Naturally she sports thick, black-rimmed glasses together with a skyline print dress and – wait for it – a pink blueprint holder.

Teenage boys and girls on either side of the Atlantic might also be excited to learn that Justin Bieber, the 16-year old Canadian teen heartthrob, says his ideal job would be that of an . . . architect. A few years ago, Brad Pitt worked for a while with Frank Gehry on the design for a shocking wave of towering new apartment blocks in Hove: that's Sussex, not California. He, too, would have liked to be an architect, but he had to make a few films and these, presumably, got in the way of his dream career.

Thinking of Gehry and the lure of what have been called starchitects, the report states that there will still be a demand for their input, but that the stars charged with building design might extend more frequently to fashion designers, product designers and artists, the faces of household name brands.

Although it has become fashionable to think that other types of designers and even artists can usurp the role of the architect, this is rarely true. Take the Orbit – the great winding red tower at the centre of the 2012 London Olympics site. Although the artist Anish Kapoor is almost always credited single-handedly with its design, in practice he is working hand-in-hand with the engineer Cecil Balmond and the architect Kathryn Findlay, who are fleshing out the practicalities.

So, Architect Barbie and the daydream ambitions of Brad Pitt and Justin Bieber are not so easily dismissed. What they represent is the enduring dream of the architect as a kind of glamorous, intellectual, artistic star. A practical one, too. While there is a certain glamour in architectural practice, the truth is that much of the work involved is the stuff of hard slog. Whether or not Barbie would be up for the challenge, the image of the architect as hero and artist is clearly both enduring and marketable.

It's not all doom and gloom. Alex de Rijke, founder partner of dRMM, and one of the architects spoken to by Building Futures, says "we're a medium size team of 26 architects based in London, and we're thriving. What we can offer is adventure in design as well the ability to see through projects on any scale. We're small enough to be intimate, big enough to deal with major challenges and, by nature, we're collaborative; we work perfectly naturally with engineers, contractors, clients and artists in all media. I don't see us as the past."

De Rijke speaks from a position of strength. His forward-looking practice is justly celebrated for its fresh approach to schools and housing. "Things are certainly changing", he says, "but what I'd question is the role not of architects as such, or whatever we call ourselves in future, but the profession. Our job is invention and design; I'm left wondering if it'll be bodies like the RIBA that'll go rather than us." As the global nature of the construction industry changes, can a locally based institute keep pace and retain relevance?

"The Future for Architects?" is best seen and read, perhaps, as a wake-up call for British architecture and construction. As RIBA's Building Futures director Dickon Robinson says, "This report seeks to stimulate a discussion about the challenges and opportunities which architects in the broadest sense face, in the hope that the ensuing debate will put them in the best position to succeed." But when you have the likes of Brad Pitt, Justin Bieber and Barbie knocking on your studio door, how can anyone say there's no future for architects?


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March 14 2010

Brad the builder

After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Brad Pitt called in the world's top architects for his acclaimed Make It Right project. The plan was to build green homes to replace those destroyed in New Orleans. Now the first houses are up and inhabited… so is it just a celebrity ego trip or a true regeneration?

Debra Dupar, pregnant with her fifth child, is sitting outside her new house. She is washed by the noon sun of an early spring day, nursing a pinkish-red drink and chatting to her friends. A short way off a camera crew is setting up, assessing shots, squinting at the light, chatting to potential interviewees. They are working for Spike Lee, who is making a documentary about the place where Debra lives.

A guided tour of about a dozen people tramps along the vestigial street, marked out by some sinewy evergreen oaks, or "live oaks" as they are called here. Two men, self-consciously dressed – architects, probably – get out of a maroon taxi, scan the scene, sweep it with camcorders, say to each other: "OK, I'm good", get back in the taxi and go, all in about 60 seconds. And then the man from the London Observer wants to look inside Debra's house.

Brad Pitt had warned residents of New Orleans's Lower Ninth ward that "we would be turning their neighbourhood into a circus". He was referring to the Pink Project, an "art installation/political messaging device/fundraising tool" in 2007, when hundreds of pink fabric house-shapes were scattered about the site, ghosts of houses that had been and which would return. Now, with 23 houses newly built, it remains a circus, a vortex of disaster and celebrity from which media and sightseers can't stay away. For this spot is the location of Make It Right, the project launched by Pitt in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to which he has pledged $5m. Its aim is not only to rebuild at least 150 homes in the spot worst hit by the storm and its floods but to "turn tragedy into victory", as the actor put it, and to "offer a more humane building standard… We would create homes that were sustainable and build with clean building materials for a just quality of life… We would build for safety and storm resiliency. We'd create new jobs in the process and we wouldn't stop until we could achieve all of this affordably." To show he was serious he moved his family home to New Orleans, and joined in long and gritty community meetings about the best way forward.

"We'd call upon some of our great architectural minds to innovate these solutions," he said, and create "a template that could be replicated at the macro level. We would engage and rely on the community to define the function of their neighbourhood and adhere to their guidance, protecting New Orleans's rich culture." If the people of the Lower Ninth had been betrayed by professionals, by the engineers whose levees had failed in over 50 places, if "the most sickening thought is that this all could have been avoided", Pitt's mission was to "take what was wrong and make it right".

These were stirring words, born of a celebrity's stricken social conscience but also of the love of architecture Pitt had displayed before Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005. He befriended the likes of Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid. He had spent time in their studios, especially Gehry's, trying his hand at designing buildings himself.

It was a heroic project, and one that raised questions. How much would it really be about helping victims of Katrina, and how much would it be about making Pitt feel and look good? What would the star of The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button truly know about urban regeneration?

What would "our great architectural minds", whose work is usually to design luxury items such as iconic museums and private villas, know about the hard practicalities of sustainable

low-income housing? Narcissism and charity are often close companions, perhaps inevitably, but would Make It Right be more a case of the former or the latter? And, in the aftermath of the Haiti and Chile earthquakes, are there any lessons from New Orleans for rebuilding there?

On 29 August 2005, the spot where Debra is now sitting was one of the worst places to be on earth. The horizon behind her is formed by the pale band of the infamous levee, essentially a long concrete wall, now rebuilt twice as thick and twice as high as its predecessor, and with basic precautions against undermining that weren't there before. The original levee was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers following Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and was supposed to keep out the waters of the adjoining Industrial Canal, which links the Mississippi to Lake Pontchartrain. When Katrina forced volumes of water up the canal, the levee suffered multiple breaches.

The streets nearest the levee were the worst hit. I meet Gloria, a woman in late middle age who had to get from the roof of her house on to another, and then into an oak, where she waited for nine and a half hours until her rescue. "Without that tree I'd have been dead," she says.

A few doors further along stands the rebuilt house of Robert Green. Its flagpole rises out of a granite tablet, beside it some damaged statuettes of saints, commemorating Joyce Green, 1931 to 2005, and Shanat Green, 2002 to 2005. The latter was lifted on to the roof by her grandfather, who then turned to help his other grandchild up. When he turned back to Shanat, she had vanished. What happened to Joyce???Outside a nearby trailer, a tableau of wreathes and writing proclaims rage and hope: "We want our country to love us as much as we love our country. The strength of our country belongs to us all. Mr Bush, rebuild – New Orleans, the Lower 9th Ward, Cross the Canal, Tennessee Street. NOT IRAQ." Then a later text: "Obama: A New Era of Responsibility".

The floods spread throughout the Lower Ninth, an almost all-black district with a population of 14,000. Over 1,000 of the more than 1,800 deaths caused by Katrina were in this district, and since then spiking rates of suicide and heart failure indicate further victims. This area is still the most visibly devastated. The picturesque parts of New Orleans, such as the French Quarter and the Garden District, were built on higher ground and were least affected, and now bear little or no trace of damage. The prettily porched and painted houses of Bywater, a former working-class area on the other side of the canal from the Lower Ninth, are now colonised by artists and designers. Young creative types have been moving into New Orleans since the flood, drawn by low property prices, sympathy, and the poignant glamour of disaster.

Much of the Lower Ninth, by contrast, is wilderness. Big vacant oblongs that were once city blocks sprout weeds between the concrete slabs which are all that are left of the wooden houses that stood here. Some poignant short flights of brick steps remain. Files of telegraph poles still stand, marking out the blocks but serving nothing. Occasionally a bright new house stands out.

Some houses still exist as ruins, boarded up or with doors swinging open. Some carry spray-painted X's, put there by rescuers in the days following Katrina. In the quadrants of each X are indicated, according to a code in use at the time, the number of people found in each house, alive and dead, and the number of pets, alive and dead. Other homes are being laboriously restored by their inhabitants. They have been partly helped by the Road Home programme, a federal compensation plan, which has often proved inadequate and slow moving. Two men, one lean and grey-whiskery, the other in a many-holed black T-shirt, tell me their repair work proceeds "paycheck by paycheck". Straight after the flood, many wondered aloud if it wouldn't be better just to give up on New Orleans. Its population was already in decline, from 625,000 in 1960 to 450,000 in 2005. All but a few thousand were temporarily evacuated across the United States, to safer places. The luckier ones would get insurance cheques. Why would they want to come back? "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," said Dennis Hastert (Republican, Illinois), the then Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Yet New Orleans didn't die, proof, perhaps, that cities are more than functional conveniences. They inspire affection, emotional ties and loyalty. It is now the fastest growing city in the United States, at 7-8% per year, even if, at about 340,000, it is still below pre-Katrina levels. If people persist in living in earthquake-prone Los Angeles and San Francisco, why would they not return to New Orleans?

This renewal is despite, more than thanks to, the efforts of the city's government. New Orleans has suffered from what the New York Times called the "dysfunctional stalemate that has bogged down the city's recovery". The dysfunction is both between black and white populations and between city and federal government, and the consequence is that swathes of the place are still visibly ruined, and homeless rates remain high. Recently a tide of frustration swept a new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, to power with 66% of the vote, but he has yet to take office.

In the nearly five years since the storm, a "recovery plan" was drawn up, often reviewed, and barely implemented. The city, according to one involved in reconstruction, "has hundreds of millions of dollars committed but not spent". The recovery plan was created "without a drop of sense as to what was implementable".

One of the most visible government interventions into housing has been to demolish hundreds of decent, solid, brick homes, built for the poor under the New Deal. The stated aim was to create a more "mixed income" neighbourhood – that is, a higher income neighbourhood – but destroying serviceable houses is not what New Orleans needs.

Into the vacuum of action created by government, individuals and independent agencies have piled in. Self-organised groups that have grown up since 2005 have become significant forces of renewal. For example, one band of survivors in the Lower Ninth got together, commandeered their local Martin Luther King school, and got it reopened. The authorities had been planning on keeping it closed.

Habitat for Humanity, an international charity, has built more than 1,300 "simple, decent, and affordable homes" in the four states affected by Hurricane Katrina and her nasty little sister Rita, which followed shortly after. Another not-for-profit organisation, Global Green, is building a development of exemplary levels of sustainability in Holy Cross, the area of the Lower Ninth that was least badly affected (which was still quite bad enough) by the flooding. Global Green is also advising individual home owners on sustainable ways to rebuild their homes, and is campaigning for high environmental standards in new schools. Bob Tannen, a New Orleans-based urban planner, engineer and artist, has worked with Frank Gehry to devise the "Modgun" house, an updated version of the area's traditional "shotgun house", with a long, narrow timber-framed structure which could be extended as their owners acquired the means to do so.

The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, an independently-governed public agency, says it is achieving "500-1,000" residential sales a year, and 300,000 sq ft of commercial spaces. Its director of real estate strategy Ommeed Sathe, a young, fluent and persuasive lawyer from New York, says: "We're working to the city's plan but we're better than them at implementing it." He blames slow progress on the bureaucratic procedures that government, but not his agency, have to follow: "If they want to spend a dollar they have to obey about 30 regulations… It's about as hard to buy a stapler as it is to buy a school."

Brad Pitt's project is therefore neither the biggest, nor the speediest, nor the most prolific (in terms of units built) of the reconstruction efforts. There's a certain rivalry between the different people pushing New Orleans's physical recovery, and those outside Make It Right tend to speak with a combination of gratitude for the attention that the film star has brought to their issues and envy for the attention that he draws to his own project. He was first introduced to the field through a connection with Global Green and, although the latter organisation is too polite to say so, you sense that they would rather he had lent his pulling power to their projects than branching off on his own.

Make It Right's USP is design. Its houses would not only be built (as Global Green's are) to exemplary standards of sustainability and flood protection. They would not only use construction techniques that would use 30% less timber than conventional methods. They would also have whatever added magic outstanding architects could bring. A team of 21 architects was assembled, with GRAFT, a practice based in both Los Angeles and Berlin, being one of the first to get involved, and a local firm, Williams Architects, as executive architects. The architects included the Pritzker prize-winning Morphosis from Los Angeles, the provocative Dutch firm MVRDV, and Shigeru Ban, a Japanese architect whose reputation is based on the usual array of intriguing cultural projects and private houses but also on his emergency cardboard constructions, designed in response to the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

There were the celebrated British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, Elemental from Chile, Constructs LLC from Ghana, and the Philadelphia firm of Kieran Timberlake, who have just been announced as the architects of the new US Embassy in London. There were also less famous practices from nearer to the Lower Ninth: five from New Orleans and others from Texas and Missouri. All work without payment: "Their work and designs are a donation to the residents of the Lower Ninth ward and society as a whole," as GRAFT puts it.

Designs were based on guidelines derived from traditional New Orleans types. Porches to shelter from sun and rain, almost ubiquitous in this city, should be included. The architects produced 28 prototype designs in two "presentations". Residents could choose which type they wanted, and could customise them. They could, for example, decide how high off the ground they wanted to be. Most went for as high as possible, not only to stand above future floods but also to allow room to park cars underneath.

These houses were for people who had owned homes before the storm and now had little property left but rectangles of mud. (Although poor, the Lower Ninth had been one of the first places where African-Americans could buy homes, and had high rates of home ownership.) The deal was that families had to "expose their finances" and "put forward what they could afford". The gap between that and the actual cost of construction would be covered by a "forgivable loan", to be repaid only if they sold their houses on.

The result is an array of similar-but-different houses, with bright colours and unusual angles denoting different authorships. Debra Dupar's house is, she tells me, called the "Space House", on account of the futuristic swoop of its louvred sunshade, and she is quite happy with that. Inside, her house is more simple, with a decent, well-proportioned front room dominated by a big flat-screen TV, a fish tank, and a table ornament that spells HAPPINESS in thick bronze-coloured letters. Not that design is the main issue for her: she spent four years in a trailer-home in Simmesport, Louisiana, 150 miles away, and, even though she is paying for her home, she is happy to be back. The residents did not, as might have been expected, opt for the most conservative or traditional-looking designs, but it's fair to say that the most convincing homes tend to be by the less starry architects. The only type no one wanted was MVRDV's, in which a traditional house-shape appears to have been snapped into a giant V by an invisible karate chop or natural disaster. The V contains a clever internal arrangement of split levels, but it still looked too much like a bad joke to victims of Katrina.

Morphosis put much of their own time and money into a house which, using Dutch techniques, would float in the event of flood, with two metal poles preventing it from drifting away. There's nothing wrong with that, except that the architect's styling is so overwrought, with so many odd angles and assertive details, that it would be an oppressive place to inhabit.

One of the more convincing structures is the Mobile Goat Unit of Operation Slo-Mow, designed by students at New Orleans's Tulane university. This is a wheeled trailer containing goats, who are released to keep surrounding grass under control. Apparently this method is more cost-effective and environmental than hiring men with mowing machines.

It's not always obvious what the architects' gestures add to the project, as distinct from the more practical stuff about sustainability (which lowers residents' utilities bills), flood protection, and more efficient ways of building. According to Ommeed Sathe: "People look at Make It Right and see it as whimsical and nonsensical… There's also a criticism that for that amount of money you could have made 500 homes." But: "I think it has added value. You get 10 to 12 tour buses a day in an area where there was very little redevelopment energy.'' It has "also served as a massive R&D project", pioneering techniques and developing skills in contractors that can now be applied elsewhere.

Louis Jackson, a forthright contractor working on Make It Right, says something similar. "The challenging part," he says, is getting architects "to realise they're not designing a $5m mansion. Some of the guys have been closed-minded. They'd say, 'I'm the designer, I am the king and you do it my way.' But if you think about the big picture of it – and I have to do that sometimes to keep my sanity – it's a learning process, and we are much better today than we were a year ago."

Jackson hasn't made money on the project but he is far from regretting his involvement. "It's fun, it's challenging, it's something you think about all the time." It is also a "reputation-builder", and something that teaches him things he can use on other projects. "The third time we build something we should be getting pretty close to how it should be," he says.

The question also remains why they rebuilt on this exact spot. If you look at a map of New Orleans with a cold eye, it seems logical to return the Lower Ninth ward, which is below sea level, to uninhabited wetlands, and to rehouse its former citizens in the many gaps in higher, relatively safe parts of the city. No one is very confident that the place won't get flooded again, despite the improved levees. "If anything serious comes through, like another category 5 hurricane, we're going to get washed away again," says one resident. Bob Tannen, who worked for the city on building their roads, says: "The levee is now designed for another Katrina, but what happens if it is worse than Katrina?"

But cold logic overlooks the detail that, for low-income homeowners, their plots in the flood zone were the only property they had left, as well as the fact that the political will and mechanisms to attempt wholesale relocation were wholly lacking. It ignores the fact that the Lower Ninth was not just a statistical unit but a place of memories and associations for New Orleans's black communities. The pianist Fats Domino refused to live anywhere else until Katrina forced him out of his mansion. The common sense of building only above sea level would also mean evacuating much of the Netherlands.

It's also fair to say that this site offered the most scope for Brad Pitt to strut his charitable stuff. The worst part of the worst affected district gave the best stage for a dramatic transformation, and actors are in the habit of looking for the best stage. Make It Right is not without ego, on the part of either Pitt or his architects. If one thing is to be learned from the project, whether in Chile, Haiti, or in building further houses in New Orleans, it would be to recruit a smaller crew of architects, and get them to focus more tightly on what really does constitute the best possible home in places like this.

Only a miserable churl, however, could fail to be moved by the scene Make It Right now offers. It has turned devastation and misery into something hopeful, and there is an energy about the place that other post-Katrina reconstruction projects don't offer. The show-off architecture does its bit, too, in adding to the festivity of the place. Also as a sign that someone could be bothered.

It may be that Brad's model village has a touch of the Hollywood vanity project but I can think of very many much worse ways to use celebrity and influence.


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