In the Public issue of MAS Context, Francine Stock, then-president of DOCOMOMO US/Louisiana, asked “Is There a Future for the Recent Past in New Orleans?”1 In short, the answer is “No.”
While New Orleans is celebrated for its late eighteenth and early nineteenth century architectural heritage, Stock’s essay detailed five award-winning modernist public schools. One had recently been renovated, while the other four were under threat of demolition. The buildings were all that remained of an ambitious construction campaign in the 1950s that sought to redefine the public school and its relationship with the environment. As Stock argues, the architects of these visually dynamic buildings combined the technology of the modern era with traditional environmental management techniques to create sustainable schools. They were designed with bilateral lighting and cross ventilation, were oriented to take advantage of prevailing winds, and incorporated such vernacular features as exterior circulation galleries.
In April 2011, a few months after the publication of the essay, I visited one of those schools, the then-derelict Phillis Wheatley Elementary School. I wanted to see this 1950s vision of the future, with its classrooms raised above potential flood waters, creating a shady play space in New Orleans’ hot sun.
Two months later, it was gone. Today, only one of those five historic buildings highlighted by Francine Stock still stands.
Seven years later, after millions of dollars were poured into the city by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state, and private sources, I returned to New Orleans to see the buildings that replaced these neglected landmarks. What kind of facilities would warrant turning the city’s back on its twentieth century commitment to architectural innovation?
Part of my interest in this change is the relationship between the ideals of architecture and the ideals of education. After all, the physical design of new public schools suggests how children’s education is valued and is indicative of the scholastic changes afoot in New Orleans.
The tragic complication is that at the time these spectacular buildings were conceived and constructed, the New Orleans school district was racially segregated. Even though the United States Supreme Court decision Brown vs the Board of Education outlawed segregated public schooling in 1954, the racist practice remained district policy until 1960. Against this backdrop, Black parents and a multi-racial coalition of reformers fought for the construction of any new schools in the overcrowded central core where Black residents were forced to live.2 Four of these five modernist schools were built for Black students, while the fifth, McDonogh No. 39, was farther from the central city and intended for white students. So while these compelling buildings may not have been designed for the children of the city’s white (and sometimes creole) elites, they were still an essential part of the concentration and domination of African American students.
The New Orleans Public Schools continues to wrestle with its role in the construction of the city’s stark inequality, where even before the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, on average, Black families earned less than 40% of white families and were nearly three times more likely to be impoverished.3 Since Hurricane Katrina infamously exacerbated New Orleans’ racial and economic imbalances, the city has almost completely transformed its public schools to a charter school-based system, restricting its ability to coordinate a coherent anti-racist system of education.4 While the city’s transformation of public education is producing some positive equity outcomes, they pale in comparison to the persistent inequities. After all, the city’s public school system, which primarily serves African American families, has one of the worst ratings from the Louisiana State Board of Education.5 Nearly 75% of the schools are rated “C,” “D,” or “F.”6 But these inequities are not just compared to other Louisiana schools; they’re within the city itself. While 21% of New Orleans residents under 20-years-old are white, only 9% of them attend open enrollment public schools.7 The schools which do serve the majority of white students are economically better off, have more highly trained teachers, and are among the few schools with “A” school performance grades.8
Architecture contributes to this inequality. As the photographs below attest, the facilities that replaced the 1950s schools have more in common with commercial distribution centers than anything designed to inspire. They have the advantages of new technologies but are still so deeply lacking. From first glance, their exteriors express an indifference to their environment, awkward massing, and a jumble of veneers. In two of the three, ornamentation is completely lacking except in the liberal use of columns, a simplistic classical gesture to authority. Perhaps the most problematic is the G. W. Carver High School, designed and built by a Louisiana-based general contractor involved in everything from education and hospital buildings to oil platforms and parking garages. Sealed off from the outside world, the building is unresponsive to the site, with limited windows, awkward symmetry, and a grassy wasteland that further isolates it from the surroundings. A simple critique of the aesthetic of these new buildings may be insufficient to indict them when school district budgets are so underfunded, but taking Carver as an example, the school has an overall rating below the already poor district score and has an “F” in academic performance.9 When deficient academics are combined with inattention to design, the combination is a dangerous symbol of the state of education in New Orleans.
One might conclude that the earlier schools were designed for excellence, to inspire, and to more harmoniously interact with their environment, while these new schools are banal, designed to control, and all but unconcerned with their context. In a way, both assessments are true. But how inspirational is a school designed for an officially separate and thoroughly unequal system? And while these new buildings are the sites of some academic progress, how do we assess New Orleans’ more opaque form of contemporary racism, where anti-racist and anti-classist talking points mask such thoroughly unequal investment, performance, and governance?
These new schools may be harbingers for the future prospects of New Orleans education, but hopefully not for its students. In a city still troubled by racism and animosity against the poor, are the schools pictured below the best it can do? Certainly not.