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Comment on "Public Notice Regarding Section 106 Review of State of Louisiana, LA Department of Education/Recovery School District (RSD) Proposal to Demolish the Thomy Lafon Elementary School, 2601 Seventh Street, New Orleans, LA - Seeking Public Comment"
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Name: Brad Brooks
City: New Orleans
Thomy Lafon School
Comments: Thank you for the opportunity to express my wholehearted support for the PRESERVATION of Phyllis Wheatley and Thomy Lafon Schools in New Orleans. (In the interests of disclosure and clarity, I am posting the same text for both Wheatley and Lafon Schools.) I will then suggest what I would propose be done with the structure. My name is Brad Brooks. I am a native of Atlanta who moved here after Katrina. My educational background is architecture, and I am currently sitting the numerous exams towards earning my license to practice architecture. I have also worked for several years in journalism, theatre and visual arts.

I'd like to take a look at the following questions, which pertain to the importance of Wheatley School and why it should be PRESERVED:
What's a Historical Building?
Why Does One School Building Matter?
Why is New Orleans Rich?
Isn't New Always Better?

What's a Historical Building?
Architects, academics, preservationists and historians with strong ties to this city have already weighed in on the specifics of this issue, so I will not try to repeat their efforts, as I could neither match nor surpass them. However, a few general points should nonetheless be made, and the most important point is this. People like historic buildings, not because they "look old," but because they are authentic. They are true to their time. Modernism, despite enjoying a redux of popularity and reinterpretation through contemporary designs, is just as much a historical style as any other style found in New Orleans.
From that, it's also true that these buildings represent a very important period of our national culture, to which we'll likely never return. Modernity brought us things we easily take for granted: air travel, fax machines, email, machinery and technology of all sorts; in addition it brought about far more profound changes: voting rights, desegregation, major health advances. These modern buildings are the physical manifestation of a period that defines us to our very core.
They also represent a specific approach building that is now gone in its original form. For a city that values historical settings and assets, who could imagine if the monuments of the French Quarter had been razed to the ground, as has happened in numerous other cities? Or if Interstate-10 had been allowed to go down Decatur Street, as once proposed?
You cannot pick and choose history. Celebrating, admiring, promoting and living in history is an all-or-none proposition.

So, Why Does One School Building Matter?
When I hear this argument, I have to think about our current health-care debate. Voters thought we were going into this with some form of single-payer healthcare, which many nations have found successful; but now the debate is mired in petty tactical arguments over much scaled-down compromises. Compromising on the compromise of the compromise.
But no matter what you think of that issue, the same problem is at work here. Simply put: enough buildings have been already destroyed in the last four years. More importantly, a significant number of Modern buildings have been destroyed, and prior to that, other significant Modern buildings have been lost forever. It is tragic that so many of the public housing projects were thrown away, relegated to a landfill, only to be replaced by structures that are essentially the same massing, on the same footprint, of a completely and insultingly fake historicity, but constructed with a pathetically inferior respect for the strength and longevity of those buildings.
Most ironic, I think, is the fact that the eradication of all traces of Modernism seems to be in keeping with a contemporary obsession on the part of some to stigmatize the fact that America decided to move from the 19th Century to the 20th, along with a willingness on the part of others to just let it happen. You hear it all the time: "The New Deal Was A Failure!" We even have Rush Limbaugh suggesting we should return to an era of segregated buses. The simple fact is that we fought hard battles as a culture to make it into the Modern Age. Not everything went smoothly, not everything is going smoothly now, but we made the right choices. What's left of the Modern architectural legacy of this city reflects that purity, simplicity and strength, both in its physical construction and its lyrical poetry. With the resources at hand, we'll be Very Hard Pressed to improve upon, or even replace those assets.

Why is New Orleans Rich?
Discuss. Answer for yourselves, based on above assertions.

Isn't New Always Better?
Well, this is a trick question, actually.
If the decision is made to PRESERVE these schools, which is of course the proper and diligent decision, the final project will still be a new building. In fact, the argument can be made that they'll be even newer --or perhaps the proper phrase is "of a more advanced generation"-- because they'll be incorporating historical example, contemporary ideas and, most importantly, the hybrid of old and new. Nothing reveals the beauty of architecture more than the gap that exists between what was there and what's still to come, because it takes them both to a completely different level. You could extend that and say the same is true for any aspect of our lives and culture.
On a pragmatic level, too, what exactly is a State of the Art building? T-lines for internet? Improved indoor air quality? Safe egress? Innovative approaches to space-making? Incorporating new teaching methods into the form of school buildings? No reason at all why every item on that wish list, as short and insufficient as it is, cannot be solved within the existing framework of these buildings. The same can be said if these buildings are incorporated into new developments. Incorporating existing urban fabrics, contexts and structures always, always, always brings you richer results than the "tabula rasa," razed-earth strategy. No question.

In suggesting what could be done with the structure if we choose to PRESERVE it, I think it's useful to ask the following questions:
Can Existing Problems Be Fixed?
What's the Problem with Empty Buildings?
What Do We Really Want to Teach Our Kids?

Can Existing Problems Be Fixed?
Of course they can. That's the definition of what architecture is and does: problem-solving. Yes, it is a vocation about art, space, light and poetry; but at its core is the demand that architectural solutions solve actual problems. To the extent that these endangered schools did not "work" in some respects or "do not fit" into a new program, a thoughtful approach to preserving these buildings could easily fix the complaints that dogged them. In other cases, developers and school boards should make the commitment to engineer their program into the preservation of these buildings, as both the buildings and the programs could not only adapt to each others' challenges and demands, but they could also thrive on each others' unique opportunities. You will have better projects
It's the same was with democracy, debate and discourse. We make them work by working all of the parts together, and we enrich ourselves in the process.

What's the Problem with Empty Buildings?
Empty buildings are no longer empty once we decide to value them, program them and renovate them. The fact that these two schools are right now an eyesore is in no way an excuse for tearing them down. Indeed, one has to ask, if these communities have done such a bad job of appreciating and caring for those Modern structures, then how long do we think inferior replacements will last? And how much sooner will the cry come for those new buildings to be demolished and replaced by a "state of the art" building?

What Do We Really Want to Teach Our Kids?
That we do not have a sustainable future?
That "starting from scratch is always the best answer?
That we shouldn't save money and retrofit? (Because, despite what has been said at the public meetings, the numbers in fact speak highly in favor of renovating existing structures. And that is even before one factors in sustainability and possible tax advantages.)
Committed professionals and organizations in this city are ready to devote their time, passion and expertise to fleshing out proposals for these buildings and working to make it happen. My proposal is to follow their advice and work with their commitment and expertise. Their own proposals sit before you.
In short. Enough mistakes have already been made, they're gone forever, never to be pulled back. Don't make the same mistake with these buildings. Realize the great treasure we have and make the personal commitment --the personal commitment-- to keep them and revitalize them for future generations. Do the right thing. Vote to PRESERVE these buildings.