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Architecture students learn from devastation

Peter Ninneman | Monday, March 27, 2006

Eleven Notre Dame fourth-year design studio students truly received a hands-on education in January when they traveled with architecture professors Philip Bess and Al DeFrees to the Mississippi towns of Biloxi and D’Iberville.

Bess, director of the Notre Dame graduate program in architecture, said the Congress for New Urbanism in Mississippi, a non-profit organization based in Chicago, met in October of last year and produced “master plans” for rebuilding 11 towns along the Mississippi coast ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

He and his students worked at sites in two of those 11 towns.

“We took those master plans that were produced in four or five days and made proposals for buildings on those sites in accordance with the master plans,” Bess said. “We fleshed them out.”

Bess said he believes the trip was important for the students for two reasons – the did receive not only valuable real world experience, but were also able to see the human value of their work.

“I think it was a good experience for the students to go work in the context of a real site, particularly one in which there’s so much devastation, and they realized that what they do is so important to people,” Bess said. “We were treated with great hospitality. Everyone was very grateful for our efforts … and I think that’s been imparted on our students.”

Student Abbey Oklak said she received both of those benefits.

As part of the project, students talked to professionals, townspeople, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and people within city governments, Oklak said.

“They have so much hope for the future and they don’t want to make what happened to them reflect on their future … They want to rebuild,” Oklak said. “I’m definitely more interested now in rebuilding cities … making urban communities that can thrive.”

Similar sentiments were echoed by senior Brian Settle.

“Our work in Mississippi gave us a hands-on view, and let us see the political process involved,” he said. “[Just] to see the devastation was unbelievable. You don’t get the same view on TV.”

Since the University has “traditional urbanism” required in its curriculum and because of the history of the buildings and communities where Notre Dame’s architecture students worked, Bess said they have a lot to offer that those from other schools don’t.

“These were towns that were eroded by sprawl … since World War II, and the hurricane wiped all of that out. There’s an opportunity to rebuild these places similar to what they were like prior to 1945 in terms of their ‘walkability’ and their aesthetics,” Bess said. “Notre Dame [architecture] students are good at traditional urbanism because we’re one of the few schools [in the country] that has it in its curriculum.”

Settle agreed that Notre Dame’s architectural curriculum provided a beneficial background for approaching their projects.

“It’s important for us because we want it to be … rebuilt the right way with traditional themes. It’s more beneficial for the area to be built in the way it was supposed to be to begin with,” Settle said. “We learned a lot about the area and the culture, and we used [that knowledge] to design our buildings.”

“Other than that, just to see the devastation was unbelievable. You don’t get the same view on TV.”

According to Oklak, Notre Dame’s Catholic mission and economic reasons are also reasons for the involvement of Notre Dame’s students and professors in the rebuilding of Biloxi and D’Iberville.

“I think that it’s important for us as a Catholic university to try to better society, which involves being active when a tragedy like Hurricane Katrina happens,” she said. “We have the understanding of what to do and we’re free. We’re free professionals basically … They don’t have to pay us.”