Polyglot, Multifaceted Architecture in New Orleans
The semiotician, literary scholar, and historian Jurij Lotman famously theorized that culture as a concept is enclosed in what he defined as a semiosphere. He argued that all signs of cultural expression exist in a continuous, never-ending exchange of information happening both inside of this semiosphere as well as from and towards the external world. This unceasing, all-involving, and constantly evolving flow is a conditio sine qua non of art. The perpetual tension between stillness and evolution through time and space, and the sovrapposition and dialogue between different artistic expressions, he believed, is the quintessential trait to identify a culture and the crux to maintaining its consistently everchanging form. (Migliore, 294 - 297)
Culture, despite being a unitary system, is intrinsically polyglot at its core and naturally presents a heterogenous ensemble of artistic signs, that, as diversified as they might be, must be in a constant dialogue with everything else around them.
In his writings, as he thoroughly dissects and evaluates every art form in its inner workings, Lotman surmises that the most poignant, visible instance of the everchanging, intricately structured fulcrum of cultural expression is architecture. (Burini, Niero 38-39)
The architectural text, he says, is in constant communication with its surroundings, continuously shaping and re-shaping its physiognomy and generating new information. Buildings are comprised of a series of strata encompassing the cultural manifestation of several time periods, styles, and expressions, but, moreover, they are also, themselves, a singular facet of a vaster structural urbanistic system Lotman also shines a light on the fact that for its own practical raison d'être, architecture is not merely an artistic expression, but is strictly connected to a series of significantly meaningful spheres – religious and ritual but also ordinary and mundane. Livable spaces, whether they be houses, temples, theaters, or schools, are also deeply imbued with a profound personal intent, an everyday familiar quality that further enriches the cultural stratification and allows the frequently overlooked dialogue between art and other more pragmatical fields. (Burini, Niero, 38 - 49) Furthermore, it is, as a single edifice, an amalgam of all these diversified connotations. A town, village, or urbanistic center is yet another sum of myriad cultural tiles, enclosing in the same spatial environment architectural expressions of all origins and purposes.
A great, emblematic representation of the varied, yet, an all-encompassing innate trait of architecture as a wholly comprehensive form of art and manifestation of culture can undoubtedly be found in the eclectic town of New Orleans. The rich and diverse cultural, ethnic, and religious substrata that starkly characterizes New Orleans as a powerful and energetic synthesis of influxes are a consequence of the complex history of the town. The city of New Orleans, or Nouvelle Orleans, as it was called at the time, was officially founded in 1718 as part of French Louisiana, a colonial dominion of France, and for the first decades of its existence it was populated mainly by French families and the associated members of their servitude, often of African or Native American descendant.
During this period, most of the buildings in the then village were first-phase creole cottages, a specific type of structure presenting a combination of French-colonial traits modified to be adapted to the precise needs and possibilities of the Louisiana population of the time. The walls were often made of bousillage, a mixture of mud and moss, and the entire edifice was elevated on piers erected on the soggy soil, but they presented an oversized Norman roof, spacious galleries supported with colonnades and balustrades, and apertures as French Doors or shutters. The genesis of this very peculiar hybrid form of building is still a topic of debate, as the hypotheses on its provenance vary from a direct French origin to a possible intermediate passage in the Canadian colonies; to the most commonly accepted theory determining creole cottages to be a derivation of Caribbean houses, already an amalgamation of African and French styles. (Campanella, 2017, 1555 - 1644) Of this first phase of creole architecture only very few buildings survived the centuries and are still standing, the most notorious being Madame John’s Legacy and Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop.
New Orleans, after having been relinquished to Spain’s control in 1762, was struck by two terrible and devastating fires, in 1788 and 1794, which almost entirely destroyed the French Quarter, at the time the very core of the town. The Spanish administration gave specific orders on how to handle the reconstruction of the town, demanding for the new buildings to be built with bricks and to present a flat roof or tile roof in order to give a more unified design to the urban formation. This prompted the creation of the second-phase creole cottages, still visible today, mostly identical to their first version except for their new flat roof and the definitive removal of the elevated structure, as the porch was now directly on street level.
This massive re-building also led to the birth of the creole townhouse, arguably still to this day the most notorious and emblematic architectural style of New Orleans. As the term townhouse usually indicates one of a row of similar houses joined by a shared wall, this building was an integral part of the town structure. It was on two levels, the first floor, designated for commercial use, usually held stores or workshops, and sometimes a porte-cochere, a private carriageway, while the second floor was for residential apartments. The Creole townhouse is of a distinctly evident Spanish inspiration, clear in the stucco façade and arched openings, the pavement, and barrel tiled roof, and most especially the wrought-iron balconies adorning the upper floors. (Campanella, 2017, 1609-1610)
In 1803 New Orleans was officially annexed to the newly-formed United States, and, during the first half of the 19th century, after the events of the Civil War, the town’s massive increase in population led to a fast-paced urbanistic expansion, in particular of new pragmatical facilities of a definite vernacular nature. This was the case of the shotgun house, whose name derives from the commonly held idea that, because of its linear structure, it is possible to fire a straight gunshot through the front door and not hit a single wall or piece of furniture. The shotgun is a narrow, rectangular building, comprised of a series of rooms one after the other, presenting windows on the front and the back. While the simplicity of the structure itself is surely perfectly apt to the extremely hot climate typical of the Louisiana territories because of the ideal ventilation it provides, this type of housing style is a mixture of several influences, most notably African and Caribbean. This is due to the fact that, after the Haiti rebellion in 1791, several Haitians settled in the southern part of the United States, either as free men or as slaves brought by the family that owned them. The ideation of the shotgun, which soon became the most popular housing facility in New Orleans, is diffusely attributed to these new inhabitants. (Campanella, 2017, 1645 - 1720)
Closing on the turning of the half of the 19th century, as the United States underwent a new migratory flux both internal and from the European continent, Neoclassicism entered the manifold array of architectural styles already characterizing New Orleans. It is fundamental to note, however, that the notable discrepancy between the neoclassical buildings and the autochthonous architectural tendencies is due to the momentous arrival, in the United States, of the newly-formed professional figure of the architect. The construction industry was no longer in the hands of the local population, whose needs, even though influenced from and directed towards very well-defined stylistic registers, mostly resulted in pragmatic, functional, and practice-based buildings, but became, for a while, a self-proclaimed artistic expression. In New Orleans, European architects like James Gallier (1708 – 1866) and Henry Howard (1818 – 1884), both born and raised in Ireland, de facto rigidly imported in a substantially unvaried fashion an architectural style in vogue at the time in the Old Continent. (Campanella, 2017, 1748 - 1749) Neoclassicism, with its ionic porticos, gable roofs, squared doorways, and heavy granite lintels, slowly started to shape, once again, the structural features of the town, but, as it occurred in the rest of the United States, this style was mostly used for buildings of a severe public or societal importance, such as the Municipality Hall, now Gallier Hall, which appears as an almost exact reproduction of a classical Greek temple. (Campanella, 2017, 1721 - 1790)
All the examples of these differently yet incredibly poignant types of buildings have been and still are fundamental facets of the city of New Orleans, whose urbanistic visage is a constant, visible, and livable symbol of the essentially eclectic nature of architecture as a form of art.
The architectural space is of an intrinsically heterogeneous essence, as it is always a full-structured reification of a plethora of cultures, styles, intentions, and necessities. Architecture, as an ensemble of meaningful stratified levels in a constant, never-ending state of shifting and adapting to mankind, is essentially an active part of human consciousness. Because of the never-ending human need for spatial recognition and belonging in the world, its dialogue with the past and the future never entirely comes to an end.
Burini, S., Niero, A. (1998) Il girotondo delle Muse. Saggi sulla semiotica delle arti e della rappresentazione. (J. Lotman, Trans.). Bergamo: Moretti & Vitali Editori srl
Campanella, R. (2007). An Ethnic Geography of New Orleans. The Journal of American History, 94(3). 704 – 715. https://bit.ly/3QuSyez
Campanella, R. (2017). Cityscapes of New Orleans (Kindle version)
Edwards, J.D. (1994). The Origins of Creole Architecture. Winterthur Portfolio, 29 (2/3). 155 – 189. https://bit.ly/3xxwqb3
Migliore, T. (2016). Il "contesto" in Jurij Lotman. Versus, 123. 293 – 308.
Rodriquez, A.B., Rodriquez, C. (2006) L'architettura moderna dal 1900. (W.J.R. Curtis, Trans.). Milan: Phaidon.
Creole Townhouses in New Orleans. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3HBd1u9
Alfred Waud. Crescent City - Scenes in and Around New Orleans, Louisiana, 1867. [Wood incision]
Unknown. Madame John's Legacy, 1907. [Postcard]
Renovated creole cottages in New Orleans. [Photo] Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3N58qSb
Creole Townhouses in New Orleans. [Photo] Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3xE7775
Shotgun House in New Orleans. [Photo] Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3y0kWhu
Unknown. Municipality Hall. 1848. [Printing]
Gallier Hall in New Orleans. [Photo] Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3tJSw96
Susanne Kremer. Creole Townhouse. [Photo] Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3y3nDiE