New Orleans is an architectural paradise. From Baroque to Modern, the buildings of New Orleans tell the story of a peculiar American city heavily influenced by its French, Spanish and Caribbean roots. Its diverse historical influences have impacted the urban fabric as much as the culture itself. A hub for celebratory gatherings such as bachelor and bachelorette parties, weddings, music festivals and Mardi Gras, Louisiana's largest and oldest city has long claimed tourism as a significant part of its vibrant economy.
The resilient city has a reputation for its food, music and focus on fun, but the infamous Katrina transformed New Orleans into an architectural conundrum: a problem to be solved and a chance for architects (from around the world) to contemplate the future of one of the United State’s biggest ports.
The myriad issues of post-storm New Orleans attracted the attention of architects and educators from local institutions and universities located thousands of miles away. It was embraced as a real-world issue that required the expertise of architects and urban planners. Many proposed “fixes,” “designs,” “urban plans,” and ideas for the city remained on paper. (Perhaps for the best, if you ask New Orleanians). Other design initiatives have been instrumental in creating the New Orleans of today: a city with its past always in the immediate background, but its future ambitiously ahead. A visit to the Crescent City, a nickname derived from its nestled location in the bend (crescent) of America’s Mighty Mississippi, is a rich opportunity to explore architectural history. But touring New Orleans with an eye for contemporary design is also a pleasant surprise.
This is an architect’s guide to New Orleans, written by an architecture lover and New Orleanian--I called New Orleans home from the ripe age of 8 weeks old and lived there until I finished high school almost 15 years ago. I recently spent a whirlwind 3 days meeting with local architects and visiting the city’s latest projects in order to craft a guide for those who dare to venture off of the bar-and-club-lined-Bourbon Street and into the rest of what the city has to offer. The buildings and public spaces mentioned here only scratch the surface of what can be appreciated.
Before you embark on your architecture tour, you should know some basic things about the “Big Easy” (no one actually calls it that but you’ll probably see some mention of it on some signs or menu items). First indispensable fact about New Orleans? It’s hot and humid. Unless you're visiting during one of the few cool-ish days experienced in the city, make sure you dress in layers. You’ll sweat outside and then you’ll be blasted by air conditioning while inside. The locals live with it; out of towners, especially those who are not used to highly air-conditioned environments will be chilly when indoors.
Second indispensable fact about New Orleans? There’s more to see than the French Quarter, and it’s easy to get around the other parts of the city! New Orleans has always had streetcars (you may know them as trams or trolleys), and the network has recently been expanded and restored. You can buy a “Jazzy Pass” and take the streetcar down the mansion-lined St. Charles Avenue.
What to Do:
New Orleans Architecture Tour
You might as well start where the city itself got its start. This architecture tour is jam-packed with historical and architectural notes that will set the pace for the rest of your visit. This is an activity particularly suited to the beginning of your time in New Orleans since what you learn on the tour will inform how you see the rest of the city. On this tour you’ll see these unmissable New Orleans architectural landmarks: St. Louis Cathedral, The Cabildo, The Presbytere, The Pontalba Apartments, The Ursuline Convent, and the Court House. Walking tours of the Garden District and Irish Channel are also available.
The National WWII Museum
Did you know that the #2 user-rated museum in the world is in New Orleans? And did you know its subject is the second World War? Or did you know that the architects who won the competition build it were awarded the commission because of the brilliant, multi-building phasing scheme they devised? Plan to spend a half a day to enjoy the exceptionally-detailed exhibits and make sure to save some time for the film. Don’t miss the US Freedom Pavilion: Boeing Center, an impressive structure that carries the weight of the X real airplanes that hang from the ceiling. A sweeping canopy is set to open in spring of 2018.
Location: 945 Magazine Street
Historic New Orleans Collection
This collection will see it’s new home, designed by Waggoner and Ball, open in the fall of 2018. The design includes a restoration of 200-year-old Spanish Colonial structure, the Seignouret-Brulatour House, with an addition to provide gallery space. With a careful eye towards renovation and education, the team used conservators and archaeologists to simultaneously preserve and exhibit the treasured French Quarter building. Waggoner and Ball’s design sets an enviable standard for a task that many historical cities must face: how should we design around our cultural heritage and make it functional for present needs?
Location: 520 Royal Street
Where to Eat:
Eating is a huge part of New Orleans’ culture. And since you have to refuel, you might as well get some architecture with your gumbo.
Start your day at Willa Jean, a sleek and bright bakery cafe in the heart of some of the city’s latest developments. While you’re there you will appreciate the new construction that is transforming this district of New Orleans. A Morris Adjmi luxury apartment building is coming up down the street and the restaurant itself sits on the bottom floor of a new residential project.
Location: 611 O'Keefe Ave
If you’re off to a slower start or you’re in New Orleans for the weekend, Brunch at Commander’s Palace is unmissable. Located in the Garden District among the houses and mansions of the first Americans who settled the city in the early 19th century, the upper floors of the restaurant offers some clues to its life before it was a world-famous, James Beard award-winning eatery. (Reservations highly recommended!)
Location: 1403 Washington Ave
LUNCH or DINNER
St. Roch Market
This food hall brings together a medley of culinary experiences in a restored structure originally built in 1875. The light-filled interior space provides the perfect foil for the street-food-esque dining concept. You may want to visit twice if you want to try all of what the vendors are selling.
Location: 2381 St Claude Ave
Where to Stay:
The Ace Hotel
The Ace Hotel brand has been making a name for itself in major cities around the world. Architects and designers will love the Ace’s attention to detail and exceptional styling. A project by New Orleans’ most well known contemporary architects, Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, the main entrance and lobby of the Ace sit in a former multi-storey furniture store. The architects have masterfully connected a number of new and old buildings to construct a high-end hotel, conference center, and restaurants. Don’t miss the seafood eatery that has been built into an (old house) and make sure you take a moment to appreciate the rooftop pool. If you don’t plan on staying at the Ace, drop into the lobby for a drink, or pick up a hot cup of Stumptown.
Location: 600 Carondelet Street
The Catahoula Hotel
The Catahoula Hotel, a project by two former Tulane University students, is a funky fusion of a small, classic hotel/boarding house with a hip minimalistic vibe. Billed as a “hideaway in the heart of the city,” this 35-room boutique hotel is walking distance from both the French Quarter and the Central Business District. “This historic property was once a home and that is what drives our ethos,” explain the proprietors. With a coffee shop, Pisco bar and rooftop terrace, this little hotel packs a lot of the essence of “New” New Orleans into a nice, historic-yet-updated package.
Location: 914 Union Street
Where to Play:
In a bold move to reclaim New Orleans’ Riverfront, the development plan for this park began in 2007 as a public space project for both locals and tourists. Now anyone can enjoy a view of the city skyline that was previously reserved for those that worked on the river or in the wharves. The award-winning park can be accessed via elevator or by walking across one of several bridges that step over the city’s flood protection and rail tracks and connect the riverfront with the adjacent neighborhoods.
Architect: Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, Hargreaves Associates, Michael Maltzan Associates, Adjaye/Associates
Date: 2007 - ongoing
The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden
Located directly adjacent to the New Orleans Museum of Art, the five-acre park provides a delightful instance for exploring the picturesque landscape of live oaks, Spanish moss, and lagoons. The 64 sculptures are, of course, another strong reason to venture to the garden.
Location: 1 Collins Diboll Cir
Architect: Lee Ledbetter Architects, Sawyer/Berson Architecture And Landscape Architecture
New Orleans Public Library
Progressive Architecture Award in 1957. Designed by local legends Curtis & Davis, the library’s use of screen-shading shows how a modernist design should handle the peculiarities of New Orleans’ climate.
Location: 219 Loyola Ave
Architect: Curtis & Davis
Louisiana’s tallest building can be found in the Central Business District. The sleek lines of the international style are unmistakable in the SOM-designed skyscraper.
Location: 701 Poydras Street
Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
This post-modern gem saw a full restoration in 2004 but has continually struggled to be the vibrant public space it was designed to be in 1978. The Piazza’s loud colors, mixture of historical references and intentional contextual disagreement embody its designer’s career-long pursuit of innovation in post-modernism. The Piazza d’Italia is currently closed for renovations with an anticipated reopening in February 2018.
Location: 377 Poydras St.
Architect: Charles Moore
“What is that?” The city’s third tallest building, an eclectic tower built in the 60s--at a noticeable distance from the eventual location of New Orleans’ other highrises--has been vacant for almost 15 years. No one seems to know how to breathe life back into this problematic building.
Location: 1001 Howard Avenue
Architect: Leonard R Spangenberg, Jr. & Associates
The Super Dome
Considered among the loudest stadiums in the NFL, the Superdome is also the largest fixed-dome and clear-span structure in the world. The impressive, expansive space is a true feat of engineering.
Location: 1500 Poydras Street
Architects: Curtis and Davis, Edward B. Silverstein & Associates, Nolan, Norman & Nolan
The acoustically-pure Beaux-Arts theater has been fully restored following damage from Hurricane Katrina.
Location: 129 Roosevelt Way
Architect: G. Albert Lansburgh (restored by Eskew+Dumez+Ripple)
Notable New Orleans Architecture Firms:
New Orleans city guide, written and compiled by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration for the city of New Orleans (Full Text Available from Archive.org)
New In New Orleans Architecture by John Klingman
New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau Website
About the author: Becky Quintal is a Mexican-American editor currently serving as the Head of Content for ArchDaily. She was raised in New Orleans and left in 2003 when she finished high school. She currently resides in Santiago, Chile.