kNOLA your history! The African Influences of New Orleans Architecture and Urbanism.
By: Sara Zewde
While much has been made about New Orleans’ unique architecture and urbanism, questions about architectural authenticity and the role of preservation continue to be re-hashed in the context of post-Katrina redevelopment, with concerns of a static mimicry of old architectural styles. Looking at the cultural origins and evolution of New Orleans’ creole architecture and urbanism is critical to its continued evolution, particularly in the post-Katrina rebuilding context. And, while West African influences on creole religion, music, food, and language have been well-documented, architectural and urban analysis have been more elusive.
Linked to this is the reality that discussions of Black communities in the discourses of planning, design, and urbanism are often framed in the problematic: their correlation with poverty, crime, public housing, lack of access to services, and so on often frames and controls the discourse. Of course, this correlation points to significant structural issues that need to be addressed. However, consistently missing from the conversation is a mention of contribution. I believe that by analyzing the significant contributions of Black people in this American city, we can continue the long history of innovation, creation, and fusion in new New Orleans architecture post-Katrina and in American architecture and urbanism generally — much in the tradition of what it means to be a creole society.
The origins of African Urbanism in New Orleans
The first Africans to arrive at the basin of the Mississippi brought with them the experience, knowledge, and spatial understandings of urbanisms that already existed in West Africa. While the slave trade undoubtedly spurred urban growth along the coast, a long history of development had existed prior to that, particularly in the late pre-colonial kingdoms of Mali, Niger and Benin. The majority of the slaves that the French and Spanish imported to Louisiana were funneled through Senegambia and the Bight of Benin from the interior of the continent where Black Africans had been building cities for over 3,000 years (Dawdy 80).
Colonial development on the Mississippi coincided with a period of urban development in the Senegambian region of Africa, and Africans played vital roles in both processes (Usner, 1979, p. 36). Slaves headed for Louisiana were collected in the coastal port-cities of Saint-Louis and Gorée in present-day Senegal, Badagri in present-day Nigeria, Ouidah in present-day Benin, and the inland port of Juffure in present-day Gambia (Dawdy, 2008). Some cities, such as Elmina in present-day Ghana, had a population of 15,000-20,000 at the time and “were significantly more urban and urbane than New Orleans in the French period” (Dawdy, 2008, p. 80). Slaves originating from areas near the coast or along major inland rivers would have been familiar with cosmopolitan port towns where people mingled to trade in an already global market (Dawdy). As such, the slaves that were brought to Louisiana generally had experience living in or nearby urban settlements, and brought this influence to the growing port-city of New Orleans.
Of the many architectural typologies in the Mississippi River Delta, the shotgun is of the most recognizable, to which West Africans are attributed for their introduction to American architecture. The shotgun home is one room wide, one story tall, and several rooms deep.
One prominent antecedent of the shotgun is the two-room house of the Yoruba people, shown below.
West Africans initially brought this architectural style to Haiti and began constructing it there. Below is an example of a shotgun with a double entrance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Free Haitians of color brought with them this housing type as they began to resettle by the thousands in Louisiana in the late 18th century and early 19th century during the bloody Haitian revolution. Below is an image of a shotgun in New Orleans.
The typology then spread across the American south to cities like Houston, Galveston, Charlotte, and even to mid-west to cities like St. Louis and Chicago (Upton, 1986).
The shotgun’s perpendicular alignment sets it apart from European influenced American housing types, as the entrance is on the short side of the home. The perpendicular orientation allows for multiple residences to achieve frontage, thereby activating the street. Its interior circulation also presents unique notions of public and private, as one must often pass through a bedroom to reach other parts of the house.
The front porch
The front porch as it is commonly found in New Orleans, is an African-derived architectural trait prominent in New Orleans and often combined with the shotgun type. According to architectural historian John Michael Vlach, there are not many antecedents for the front porch in western Europe in the way that it exists in New Orleans and that “the southern front porch has owed its existence mainly to the adaptive genius of local carpenters acting on African notions of good architectural form” (Upton, 1986, p. 45). The front porch continues to support the active and multifarious use of streets in New Orleanian urbanism. Note the depiction of women speaking to one another from their front porches, from a painting underneath the Claiborne Avenue Expressway.
Ironworking was a firmly established ancient craft in the Senegambian region, and Africans with experience as blacksmiths and other skilled labor were placed in apprenticeships to replace paid, inefficient white workers. Much of the famed ironwork of New Orleans was wrought by hand or cast by these artisans and their descendents, and in this way, these skilled artisans with a well-developed craft and unique aesthetic became a significant influence in the built environment of Louisiana.
In addition to ironwork, lathing, plastering, painting, and tile setting are among the other professional crafts that have been handed down for generations. Geographer Richard Campanella notes:
These lines of work availed to free men of color (to whom the doors of many other professions were closed) a level of independence, steady work, opportunities for creativity, and a sense of accomplishment. Their labors have permanently enriched the physical culture of New Orleans and much of the city’s spectacular architecture stands today as a monument to their efforts (Campanella, 2006, p. 218).
A Creole spatial culture: setbacks, neutral grounds, and the grid
The original plan for New Orleans was based on the French grid system, in an effort to stamp the city as a European place in the New World. However, the grid was met with unforeseen circumstances, including among others, a Black cultural spatial influence. Rather than being a European metropolis, “New Orleans became a more African place, its gardens given over to slave quarters” due to a large influx of slaves that the original town planners had not conceived of space for (Dawdy, 2008, p. 98).
The frontage of the architecture along many downtown neighborhoods is forthrightly oriented towards the street, exhibiting minimal setbacks and intimately-sized garden space. This continues to create an increased intensity of the use of public spaces, including streets, neutral grounds (local word for “median”), and green spaces. The neutral grounds in the neighborhoods which exhibit these traits are commonly used as shared yards, including the neutral ground of Claiborne Avenue. In comparison, the European-American influence of the uptown neighborhoods of New Orleans demonstrates much larger setbacks, with a less focused building frontage, enveloped in a private garden and yard, as seen in this diagram.
What does this mean today?
Preserving a building or ornamentation type for the sake of the type leads to a banal and static notion of architectural authenticity. A broader view of design, however, provides insight on the question of preservation in the post-Katrina context — broad, in that it includes the diverse and complex histories of cities like New Orleans.
As discussed, the shotgun house type, the front porch, and the relation to gardens and public spaces come together to frame the overlapping, improvisational uses of the streets of New Orleans, borrowing architectural traits from firmly established African practices and implanting them within the grid of the French colonial city, creating a setting supportive of a unique New Orleans urbanism. By unpacking the city in this way, we can begin to consider how to fashion an urbanism that celebrates the past in view of the future. Instead of duplication or even mimicry, we can innovate upon that history by preserving design elements that have social, cultural, and historic functions in the city, such as perpendicular alignment, setback, orientation, interior circulation, and beyond. Moreover, we can imagine the city as a container of history by commemorating the history of architectural motifs such as ironwork, carpentry, and front porches.
Improvisation is deeply embedded in New Orleans culture. It’s what made jazz so innovative. Preserving the spatial functions that the architecture supports, the independence, creativity, and pride its construction affords, and the diverse histories of design, are the keys to staying true to the city while charting its architectural trajectory into the future.
As I am currently studying design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, I often wonder how and when the ‘minor players’ in the history of American urbanism will enter the canon of design literature, education, and practice. Shedding a stronger light on these contributions — in this case, of African descendants in the city of New Orleans — and bringing them into the broader discourse on architecture, urbanism, and preservation, should be of great importance to post-Katrina redevelopment and American architecture and design.
Campanella, R. (2006). Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics Before the Storm. Lafayette, Lousiana: Center for Louisiana Studies, Univ. of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Dawdy, S. L. (2008). Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
Upton, D. (Ed.). (1986). America’s Architectural Roots: Ethnic Groups That Built America. Washington, District of Columbia: The Preservation Press.