11 April 2017

Building Rhythm: Reflections from New Orleans 

A cacophony of sound permeates the walls and open windows of numerous clubs, bars and restaurants throughout the French Quarter in New Orleans;  a sensory experience of sights, sounds and smells. The eclectic mix of sounds from rock to jazz, blues to country western, all meld to build the excitement. People from around the globe flock to Bourbon, Frenchman, Chartres, St Peters and other streets that by night are all about entertainment, but by day, an area full of specialty shops and wonderful rhythmic streetscapes that resonate with French style and scale, with a touch of creole expression.

New Orleans

Head into the northern inner city areas, and that same rhythm finds its own expression amongst the ‘shotgun’ houses still being renovated and refurbished by different agencies long after the devastation that resulted from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – some natural, a lot man-made.  Individually, they mark the personal nature of being ‘home’. Together, they exude that rhythm that blankets the city – individual expression, community rhythm.

New Orleans

In running a workshop at the A4LE Southern Region conference, I focused on having participants develop their own ideas and prototypes in response to observing, listening and absorbing the images, sights and sounds from the village of Matipwili in Tanzania. The concept drew on the skill of empathetic listening. Out of defining problems and coming up with numerous ideas, people worked in teams to move from a divergent thinking process to converging on an idea to prototype and test. Working together, each group provided different but effective solutions, in both the built and organisational form.

New Orleans

It reminded me of the jazz I enjoyed listening to at night in the streets. Ryan Gosling’s character states in ‘La La Land’,   ‘Jazz was born in a little frap house in New Orleans, because people were crammed in there, they spoke 5 different languages, they couldn’t talk to each other, the only way they could communicate was with jazz ….you can’t (just) hear it, you have to see it, you have to see what’s at stake…the sax player has just hijacked the song, he is on his own trip, every one of these guys is composing, rearranging…its conflict, and its compromise, and it’s new every time, brand new every night.’ So too when we respect differing views and listen to people with an empathetic ear, we can make beautiful music. We can build rhythm that inspires.

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Richard Sennett in his 2012 book “Together – The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation”, reflects that “…empathetic listening can assist the community worker, priest or teacher mediate in communities where people do not share the same race or ethnicity.” It was something we experienced in Tanzania, and where the origins of playing jazz in New Orleans came from. Without listening to each other playing, jazz would be a cacophony of noise. So it is in the expressive touches put on to the ‘shotgun’ houses of New Orleans that come together with dynamic streetscapes that give community expression. So it is with design, whether it be in the studio or with our clients, listening to each other we should be  “…opening up instead an indeterminate mutual space, the space in which strangers dwell with one another…”

Architecture is a passionate expression of all involved in a project. There will always be the Louis Armstrongs, Thelonius Monks and Wynton Marselis’ of our profession, but we have a great community of architects who every day strive to express a joy and passion for design working together, of building a rhythm that brings together unique outcomes.   

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More than ever, my belief that architecture is truly a creative expression within the context of empathetic listening and rigorous but cooperative discourse, remains true to our philosophy of Building Ideas.

Philip Idle

April 2017