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Architecture Review: Living social at 930 Poydras Street

By Thaddeus Zarse

There is an ongoing discussion and continual bargaining in architectural design, especially as it relates to housing, regarding the balance of importance between the individual and the collective. At 930 Poydras, local architects Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, with developer Brian Gibbs, have masterfully taken the most individual and private of programs, the apartment unit (250 of them in fact), and massed them into a visually and spatially dynamic vertical community.

Steve Dumez, Design Director and partner at Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, frequently drops references to historic New Orleans architecture and urbanism when speaking about this very contemporary building. The famed modernist architect, Le Corbusier, once said “to be modern is not a fashion, it is a state. It is necessary to understand history, and he who understands history knows how to find continuity between that which was, that which is, and that which will be.”

Clearly Dumez understands this as he fluidly meanders between discussions of historic notions of proportions and scale in relation to current work without resorting to historic pastiche.

In this building’s case, the notion of the collective is twofold: The first is the public at large, while the second is the community created by this vertical neighborhood. The ground level facing Poydras Street is lined with three retail spaces. The Reginelli’s storefront is pushed back into the site, allowing for covered outdoor dining, a much-needed asset in the CBD, where activated sidewalks seem rather scarce. But the most public of features is the façade itself, comprised of slate gray painted metal panels and glass arranged in a random pattern.  Many people I speak with about the project are dismayed by the color, but I find it and the dynamic patterning a welcome sight in the sea of mundane beige highrises comprising most of the surrounding neighborhood.

While Dumez references modern artworks by Ellsworth Kelley as inspiration for the façade, the technique of thin vertical scatterings of windows seems to be a popular technique in the past few years in architecture, developed as a move away from the bland repetition represented in most late Modernist and Post-Modernist highrise structures. This is not to say that New Orleans’ own example is not without its own innovations. The windows and metal panels are double height, blurring the distinction of the number of floors and thus reducing its perceived scale. The proportions also reference windows typically found in French Quarter and Creole cottage residences, a nod to New Orleans’ own history.

While the façade lacks the physical depth and layers of historic architecture (think porches, balconies, and thick structural brick walls), the play of light and color on the metal and glass adds a painterly depth to the surface. At different times of day, the sky reflects on the metal panel, making it appear a light blue while the glass reflects the dark neighboring building; at other times the opposite occurs, creating a changing figure/ground perception of the façade. While the façade and form are not loud enough to demand attention, their subtle and skillful execution certainly deserve it.

The most exciting element in the building are the communal spaces for residents, all of which are located on the ninth floor sitting atop eight floors of parking. The parking fills the site, while the apartment block on top is an L-shape. This change in massing leaves a substantial outdoor space located on top of the parking nestled in the rear corner of the site, consisting of a pool, outdoor kitchen, deck, and tiered bleacher seating with a small gym tucked beneath.  When you enter this exterior space, it feels noticeably different than most high-rise apartment pool decks. Often these spaces are dropped on the roof of a building, offering expansive views, but given little spatial definition or design consideration. With the L-shape apartment block on two sides, the other two are defined by the much reduced scale of the tiered seating and a handful of two-story townhouse units. This gives the space a small scale intimacy, referencing more a French Quarter courtyard than a standard roof-top pool. The architects did well at creating small programmatic zones (cooking, swimming, and sitting) that feel spatially distinct, yet still open. With half of the apartments in the building facing the courtyard space, it has a bit of a Hitchcockian Rear Window feel, but with New Orleanians’ preference for front porches over back yards this more public display shouldn’t feel too strange.

The courtyard is connected to the interior by an expansive 6,000-square-foot ninth-floor sky lobby. It’s all-glass façade appears noticeably on the exterior, since it also cantilevers over the sidewalk on Poydras Street. The ground level and parking elevators stop on the ninth floor, where residents walk through this lounge space before taking another elevator to the upper apartment floors. This makes this space into a forced social condenser where all residents interact. The space is filled with lounge furniture, a large projection wall for movies, a small kitchenette sink, and a wall-mounted flat screen with bar height seating. It truly is the best living room in the city. The quality and size of the lounge make up for the not-so-pacious scale of the individual units. The apartments are fairly raw,allowing the resident to establish the mood.

930 Poydras is a new type of building in the city. While mixed-use buildings typically fit well into their urban environment, this one goes further by creating its own internal dynamic community: building as neighborhood. It presents a vision of the city that accepts and integrates the city’s history and charm, while still moving it forward.


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