'Avoid the kneejerk rebuild'

AREA OF EXPERIENCE: Reed Kroloff was head of Tulane University's architecture department in New Orleans when Katrina struck in 2005.
AREA OF EXPERIENCE: Reed Kroloff was head of Tulane University's architecture department in New Orleans when Katrina struck in 2005.

An outspoken architectural critic with first-hand experience of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans hopes Christchurch will avoid the "rear-view mirror" effect as it gets back on its feet.

Reed Kroloff, the former editor-in-chief of Architecture magazine in the United States, joins a lineup of international writers in this year's Word Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival.

His talk Lessons from Adversity: Life in New Orleans and Detroit comes from personal experience: Kroloff was head of Tulane University's architecture department in New Orleans when Katrina struck in 2005.

He is also a former director of the Detroit-based Cranbrook Institute - the States' top-ranked, graduate-only programme in architecture, design and fine art.

Kroloff says New Orleans has a lot in common with Christchurch.

It, too, suffered a "cataclysmic" event that changed the nature of the city and its future. When the physical landscape changes, "everything that you understand about a city changes", says Kroloff.

This happens primarily through "the removal of context". Context is waking up in your bedroom and knowing there are windows there, a door and some furniture. It is walking to work through a city's CBD and knowing certain streets and buildings are there.

"Before [Katrina or the Canterbury quakes] you did not think about your city in terms of time very often. You did not think about how the city was going to be in five years," says Kroloff.

"All of a sudden the environment has changed and everyone's perceptions of time have too."

Kroloff says post-disaster, time suddenly takes "centre stage", which can affect a city's recovery in many ways, including pressure to rebuild quickly.

But the problem with a knee-jerk reaction to a destructive event such as Katrina is nostalgia. He rattles off a joke to make his point: "How many New Orleanians does it take to change a light bulb? Three. One to change the light bulb and two to stand around and talk about how great the old bulb was.

The response in New Orleans was, 'We are going to go back to the way it was'. Over and over again, time becomes the touch stone."

This can limit the rebuilding process, which if approached with forward-thinking, "might actually solve some of a city's problems".

Kroloff says while he does not want to be "too presumptuous", he has some stories to tell. A wall of water flowed through his city on August 29, 2005.

Hurricane Katrina led to the deaths of more than 1800 people. Buildings were crushed into "kindling" and whole neighbourhoods were "pulverised".

Kroloff says there were lessons learned, but there were mistakes too, like neighbourhoods rebuilt in flood-prone areas.

"There was the opportunity to say, ‘Let us not go back and repeat that mistake', but the decisions are not all economic or academic or urban design related. They are emotional.

"I sat in a meeting where the master plan we had worked on for months was thrown out when the mayor, who had supported us that day, changed his mind. It was entirely based on emotion."

Kroloff says unlike Christchurch, the CBD in New Orleans was left largely intact, but there was a significant amount of pressure on authorities to get people back into residential areas quickly.

He hopes Christchurch will avoid trying to put itself back exactly the way it was. The housing stock in New Orleans, while newer, did not necessarily improve as a result of Katrina. Instead, while many historic homes were restored, some damaged buildings were replaced with "cheap, pale imitations of what was there before".

Word Christchurch, previously known as the Christchurch Writer's Festival, features more than 100 writers, thinkers, commentators and performers from New Zealand and around the world across 68 events.

Other international guests include world cup poetry slam winner Anis Mojgani, Australian philosopher Damon Young and New York food writer Ruth Reichl.

Word Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival, August 27 to 31, in association with The Press. See wordchristchurch.co.nz for more.

The Press