The Best Cottage Court Guy I know

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Front row left to right; Bruce Tolar, Steve Mouzon, Jason Spellings, and Jene Ray Barranco.

Last weekend I was working on a charrette crew that included my colleague and partner, Bruce B. Tolar.  Searching through my hard drive today I came across my (improvised) remarks from when the New Urban Guild gave the 2015 Barranco Award to Bruce, the Developer/Builder of Cottage Square in Ocean Springs Mississippi.

“For those of us who knew Michael Barranco and were there for the Katrina charrettes, this is a person who really made a mark on our lives, not just because we showed up and did work together, but because his character was such that it was like playing in a pro-am: You really upped your game when playing around Michael. Very genuine. No artifice. No phoniness. He was genuinely concerned about every person he ever met, and wanted everyone’s life to be better. He decided that architecture was his way to do that.

With his passing, there is a hole in the CNU, but the New Urban Guild offers the Barranco Award to practitioners who are that kind of stand-up guy. It’s about the character with which you comport yourself. It’s about how hungry you are to learn. It’s about how much you care about your community. It’s about how much you love and encourage your fellow-citizens. With that said, I’d like to introduce you to this year’s award-winner, Bruce Tolar, through some of his work. <begin slides of Bruce’s projects>

The original Katrina Cottage which by itself was great, but Bruce took it out of the total chaos and mayhem and bad financial circumstances that were pretty much an everyday deal in Ocean Springs at that time, and all along the coast. And from nothing, he created the peaceful excellence of Cottage Square, where he put the pieces together into something amazing which that community cherishes. It has even become a tourist destination. Imagine that: an interim housing solution after a hurricane has become a tourist destination!

So Bruce pulled together all the Katrina Cottages that were built as prototypes for demonstration purposes and brought them to Cottage Square. And he made something out of the pieces, just as we all try to do, which is to aggregate a great place from small incremental parts. It is a modest place, with gravel sidewalks; a place where you can operate a tiny business out of those tiny buildings. And the community that has formed there has become a real anchor to Ocean Springs. From there, Bruce launched an expansion, which was an incredibly ambitious project in a place governed by FEMA… <cough> <laughs and applause> … a terrible environment to work under, but he is doing amazing, excellent work with modest little pieces.

He reached out to nonprofits in the area; he connects with so many people; he’s been in that town forever, serving on many boards; and the idea that there was something to be done after a hurricane, and fixing civilization in general, was a natural thing for Bruce. The people love this neighborhood. The nonprofits he’s been working with have been tremendously empowered by seeing one guy’s ability to put people together and make things work. Bruce is the best design caulking gun you can imagine, pulling everything together on modest means and making things happen. So with that, I’d like to present this year’s Barranco Award to Bruce Tolar.”

If you are traveling along the Gulf of Mexico between New Orleans and Mobile you should give yourself a treat and stop to walk around Cottage Square.  It is a special place built in tough circumstances by a remarkable guy.

Why is it so hard to build a decent building?

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What will it take to return scale and care to building?

In a recent Facebook post my friend and colleague Steve Mouzon, author of Original Green, posed an important question:

“Why is it that when there is an attempt to recover a lost tradition, that which is built is not the tradition but rather a cartoon of that tradition –have we lost the ability to see clearly?”

I think our habits of building are fractured and out of sync. We can’t seem to capture the rhythm of the mechanics of design and construction well enough to transcend a stilted mechanical approach. The people who built the traditional houses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had habits of building that were reasonably intact. We try our best to be fluent in a language that, if not dead is at least seriously wounded. While some struggle to produce drawings that communicate well, others struggle to read them well and then launch ahead sure that they’ve “got it”. We trust our brains when we probably have little reason to. Everyday tradeoffs in building present themselves with reliable frequency. We are not wired to be obsessive or hyper-vigilant when performing carpentry or ordering lumber. At some point, you believe that you have a handle on the task at hand. Even hearing someone explain that “We do this because…” can feel abstract and a somehow disconnected. Skipping over the surface of a tradition feels pretty profound, so you don’t know that you are supposed to be diving deep. We are thrilled at building something that seems darned good compared to today’s usual habits of building, so we can’t see a more sublime experience just a few steps away.

Imagine that you are a housewright in 1889. You spent the winter producing window sashes, doors, moldings in your barn with the collection of hand planes and the Asher Benjamin handbook you inherited from your dad. In the spring you lay up a stone basement and start framing a house. When it comes time to install those windows, doors and trim your grasp of to how the pieces go together makes so much more sense than someone setting windows and coping trim today. Whether in the design studio or the field, it is rare for us to get Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 Hours in on the full arc of the work, on the habits of building. So, yes, Steve we have lost the ability to see clearly.  These days we see as if through a glass darkly. We need the discipline and structure of craft and habit to recover our sight. Today the flow that emerges from that discipline and structure is not available to most. On a good day some talented people provide us with some well-intended choreography of a dance few of us have ever seen performed by someone with real mastery.