June 9, 2011

PRESERVE THIS: GOATstudio wants to save Phillis Wheatley Elementary

A letter to John Klingman, professor of architecture at Tulane University and resident expert on Charles Culbert's Phillis Wheatley Elementary School:

Dear John,

I believe I have a potential solution to the planned demolition of Phillis Wheatley Elementary School, a cause that I know to be very important to you.  It seems clear that the Recovery School District has no intention of compromising and rehabilitating the site for reintegration into the city's education system.  I believe there may be an alternative program that would require minimal alteration to Charles Colbert's vision and still allow the site to function as an anchor for the surrounding community, as it did before the storm.

Radha Mistry and I have recently launched a design studio here in New Orleans; while still in our infancy, we have already had some nationally recognized success.  One of the foundational concepts of our business plan is what I have been calling an "Innovation Incubator".  The idea is for GOATstudio to shoulder the financial and organizational burdens of a design_fabrication office's start-up (software licensing, shop tools, plotters, studio space, insurance, laser cutters, routers, etc.) and then rent access to space, tools and advice to young entrepreneurs in a number of burgeoning design fields (architecture, furniture, graphic, and interior design, fabrication for the film industry, etc.), all with our studio as the nucleus. This would effectively establish a new, truly collaborative, cross-disciplinary work model in an industry that has long been thirsting for evolution.  Additionally, community services like trade classes, outreach events, and neighborhood design_build projects will help the practice(s) develop a better, more symbiotic relationship with the community than would be possible independently.

Since conceiving of this scheme, I have imagined its ideal site as a rehabilitated warehouse, church, or perhaps a school, in one of New Orleans' many in-need, culturally vibrant neighborhoods.  I also imagined that any application of this model would take a lot of planning and capital, making it at least a couple years off.  Unfortunately, the Wheatley School does not have the luxury of years.

With the recent national attention the site has received and the emotional outpouring of local support, I imagine the City of NO is desperate for a viable, well-funded adaptive reuse proposal to come along and save them from the coming public relations disaster that demolition would spark.  The road-blocks such a proposal would face are numerous and imposing; funding, zoning, bureaucracy, time, and the condition/size of the site are significant hurdles, no doubt.  However, I think an ambitious campaign led by impassioned people has a real chance.  Changing the program from a school alleviates the need for significant expansion and alteration, thus significantly reducing the stated $21 million rehab price tag.  There are a number of significant grant opportunities for innovative start-up concepts, historic preservation, and community centric proposals.  The national exposure can be translated into an ambitious crowd-funding campaign.  Local support can be funneled to fundraising events and donation drives.  I believe the funding and support is out there and with a quality proposal and cash in hand, the numerous other hurdles suddenly seem much less imposing.

Is this all naively ambitious? Absolutely. That may as well be the GOATstudio organizational motto. But naive ambition may be this landmark's last hope.  In order to make a go of this, we will need the help of passionate people, especially those that have the influence and experience to lend this endeavor some legitimacy.  We believe in this project.  I would love to talk with you more about it at the earliest opportunity.

Colin VanWingen
GOATstudio, Co_Founder

1 comment:

  1. When New Orleanians want to know about one another, after a brief tête-á-tête, we ask, “…so, where d’ja go to school?”(high school, not college). “What neighborhood ‘d’ja grow up in?” and “who are your people?” We are giving one another permission to tell our stories.

    When we engage in this ritual, we are instinctively seeking common threads so we can weave together our stories. We are a people who seek connection; because, at some visceral level, we have known from the beginning, we need connection to survive where we have chosen to live.

    Consistently, buildings and the spaces between them provide shared memory-pegs over which we drape our stories, while we identify the connections: our high school, the church where we whispered carefully truncated Confessions, the park shelter where we stole a first kiss, our home, the cemetery where we buried a brother, too young; and the theater where one confronted bigotry, another, wearing coat and tie, saw Ben-Hur and ate white ice cream.

    Each place provides a unique and vital touchstone that anchors our cultural stories. This is the cultural meaning of buildings. We connect through them. Personal connection is how we know who we are, where we fit, and why we matter.

    Why then do we have this morbid inclination to self-mutilate, by habitually demolishing our most vivid memory pegs, the icons of our meme?

    I believe it is because we are a tacky but gentle, bon temps rouler culture. We would rather Live within our cultural ecosystem than think about it. Content, nearly napping at Dos Jefes Cigar Bar, we listen to Washboard Chaz and contemplate fractals of cigar smoke among the banana leaves. We laugh. We do not line up to hear a doctor of women’s studies white-rap Ferlinghetti covers at a smoke-free coffee shop.

    It is what distinguishes us from say, Portland, Oregon or Seattle.

    James P. Carse, author of Finite and Infinite Games, would see New Orleans as passively living in an Infinite Game, in which the object of the game is to keep playing. By perpetuating the play, the game continually evolves.

    On the other hand, for most of America, life is a Finite Game, with rules and boundaries that are designed to end the game and declare a winner. The unit of measure on the scorecard: Usually money; sometimes, political ascendancy.

    The finite game-players among us see no benefit in perpetuating play with no winner. Like the timber brokers who clear-cut the Amazon jungle – they just don’t see the problem with addictive Taking, where there seems to be so much [more to take].

    So, while we smile at smoke fractals, Professional Takers are stealing the Rivergate and replacing it with a Styrofoam casino; certain no one will notice. Playing the same Finite Game, some preservationists stand on their favorite decade, certain in their rectitude, and wag condescending fingers at the ignorant. Win or lose, condescension is their trophy.

    The soldiers currently engaged in battles for buildings, are focused only on winning, because that’s how the game is set up. This is why they come to the game table girded only by their positions. None arrives with ideas, altruism or a willingness to creatively explore for sustainable solutions.

    The current campaign to save the Wheatly School looks like the Stanley Cup Finals Winners, losers and gaudy trophies. The challenge requires the elegance of Charles Darwin and The Preservation of the Species (The ultimate infinite game).

    My dear Goats, think of the Wheatley School as the steel and glass home of The Wheatley Center for Infinite Play, where the rules require that the Game is infinite, and the results of the play, are sustainable and Open-Source. Design is Play is Design.

    Preservationists, Politicians, Real Estate bullies, Architects, will all game with those of us who once languished in the patio at Dos Jefes in a cloud of self-congratulation.

    The Wheatley Center for Infinite Play will become the memory-peg that marks an ongoing, collective understanding that,

    “It’s not about Me.”