To understand the architectural philosophy underpinning the work of Eskew+Dumez+Ripple (EDR), it helps to consider the humble parking space. In New Orleans, where the firm is based, city code requires a 20-foot length for a car, but why use pavement for the entire span, particularly in a waterfront city prone to flooding? “The car can extend beyond a green space just as well,” says Mark Ripple, AIA, partner and director of operations at EDR. “So you use the final 2 feet of a parking space on each end, carve out 2 feet in the middle, plant native vegetation that doesn’t require maintenance, and you have a 6-foot bioswale.”
In a heavy storm, that parking spot becomes a small containment area minimizing water running into the main storm drain system. It’s a common-sense redesign that works for a water-clogged place like New Orleans. Yet even with a simple idea such as this, Ripple says, “the challenge isn’t figuring out the technology or the design, the challenge is questioning the existing idea of how we design and solve problems.”
Since its founding in 1989 by the late Allen Eskew, and particularly in the nine years since Hurricane Katrina, EDR has challenged conventional notions of typology. The firm has infused historic New Orleans with contemporary design, as it did with the 930 Poydras Residential Tower project, which reinterprets the low-level courtyard design of the French Quarter in a 21-story high-rise. EDR transformed a ubiquitous and seemingly lifeless 1970s suburban office building into an energy-efficient hub of creative activity for the client, Lamar Advertising. And, perhaps most dynamically, the firm has redefined civic and community buildings for a post-Katrina world. In a renovation plan for New Orleans East Hospital, for example, EDR raised the emergency room and the building’s critical infrastructure to the second floor, ensuring that the building can function after a serious flood.
“One of the lessons learned from Katrina is that the on-ramps of highways make great boat launches,” says Ripple, whose own home flooded in the storm. “What we have at New Orleans East is an elevated second floor emergency department, with a ramp for the ambulance to drive up. But in the event of another Katrina, it could serve as a way to get people there by boat.”
“We believe,” adds partner Steve Dumez, FAIA, the firm’s director of design, “that all buildings can have value if thought of creatively.”
Which may account for the diversity of building types in EDR’s portfolio, ranging from historic restorations to contemporary high-rises, from small community libraries to multimillion-dollar hospital campuses, from private residences to cultural centers. And all of this doesn’t even touch on projects at the urban scale, such as the Reinventing the Crescent Development Plan, a post-Katrina proposal for turning a 6-mile swath of land along the East Bank of the Mississippi River into an active greenway connecting New Orleans to its industrial waterfront.
Every EDR project considers how the design will be experienced. “There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the place where you are building,” Dumez says. “Those lessons are often about the way in which we live in a place. It’s not just about style; it’s about experience. It’s not that we don’t care about how our projects look. It’s that we consider how a building feels, how it operates, how it works for people. That’s the harder question in design. And that’s intrinsic to our approach.”
For the $38-million LEED-Gold New Orleans Bioinnovation Center, which opened downtown in 2011, EDR was asked to develop the city’s first commercial wet lab and life sciences incubator. Aaron Miscenich, the center’s president, says that the trustees believed the firm was best equipped to create the unique experience that they hoped to offer the building’s users. “This is a novel project, a business incubator meant to bring life sciences entrepreneurs together as a community and help them to interact informally,” Miscenich says. A retail food service area connecting to Canal Street and an interior atrium facing an outdoor courtyard are some of the amenities that now entice individuals out of their work areas and into sociable public space. “EDR helped create an environment that would draw people out of their labs.”
LaToya Cantrell is now a city councilmember for New Orleans, but when Katrina flooded her Broadmoor neighborhood, she was a community activist who helped lead the rebuilding efforts there. EDR assisted the community with its redevelopment plan, which included the rebuilding of the local library. The EDR-designed, award-winning Rosa F. Keller Library and Community Center is the result. “They clearly understood how we wanted to bring back the library in a way that wasn’t just about books,” Cantrell says. “It was about empowering people.”
On a recent spring afternoon, just days before Jazz Fest was to take over the city, Dumez and Ripple sat at a table in the EDR office to reflect on the firm’s past and to consider its future. Here, 52 employees work in an open-plan office that embodies the collaborative environment fostered in the studio. In one corner, a Voodoo-inspired altar reminds visitors that while this office may be located in a contemporary tower 31 stories above the city, it’s still very much a part of the New Orleans culture below. Wall-to-wall windows command a nearly 360-degree view of the city that EDR has helped to rebuild. In the distance, you can see the recently opened Crescent Park, a 1.4-mile greenway hugging the river’s edge near the Bywater neighborhood, which was part of the Reinventing the Crescent Development Plan.
Notably absent from the table is firm founder and principal, Allen Eskew. In December of last year, just days before EDR learned of its Architecture Firm Award honor, Eskew unexpectedly passed away at the age of 65. Eskew was a force in both New Orleans and the architecture community, and was known for his collaboration and civic engagement. “With Crescent Park, the thing that Allen liked to say—and this epitomizes Allen’s personality—is that ‘For any project of consequence, it requires a cheerleader, and sometimes that’s you,’ ” Ripple says.
Eskew was a mentor, not only to the clients and community but to the firm’s young architects. “He had an incredible humanity and would share openly both information and opportunity,” Dumez says. “That’s something that Mark and I and the other leaders who have grown this firm with him will miss the most. It’s a legacy that we hope to build on.”
That spirit of community engagement—and an architectural ethos rooted in place, research, sustainability, and design excellence—is what draws many of the young associates to EDR. Tom Gibbons is an architectural intern who recently joined the firm. He first became acquainted with EDR during a 2009 internship with Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation. “I really liked EDR’s approach to that project,” Gibbons says of the house that the firm designed for the rebuilding efforts.
Equally important, Gibbons says, is what EDR fosters outside of the studio. “The firm fully embraces the city’s culture and believes: Why be a bystander when you can participate?” This goes for volunteerism and professional development, as well as imbibing in the infamous New Orleans party festivities.
Marissa Campos is another young designer who was attracted to EDR for its engagement of broader ideas. A recent University of Cincinnati graduate, she relocated to New Orleans for a year to work as a research fellow at the firm. The fellows program, which Eskew launched in 2012, tackles a different topic with each fellow class and invites talented designers to contribute to the firm’s evidence-based approach to building. “There’s a real desire to learn here at EDR, a curiosity about what else is out there, and apply it to practice,” Campos says.
This year, the theme for the fellowship is resiliency. “The word ‘resiliency’ is so prevalent in architecture right now, and we’ve been attacking what that word truly means, and how it relates to buildings and community,” Campos says.
Resiliency is also a word that could apply to the firm itself. Eskew, Dumez, and Ripple had a set of complementary skills and worked in tandem to build the firm’s legacy. Now, in the wake of Eskew’s passing, EDR is faced with its own rebuilding of sorts. Eskew was in the early stages of a retirement plan, according to the partners, but his loss is deeply felt throughout the firm, and the city. His passing also happens to coincide with the final phases of many FEMA-funded, post-Katrina projects. After nearly a decade of focusing on New Orleans, EDR is again looking to grow.
“We were a practice that was working around the country before Katrina,” Dumez says. “While we are known as a firm that is invested in place, and that place is New Orleans, our approach to design is a research-based one that strives to understand culture, place, and climate, and that allows us to travel and look with open eyes at any locale. We’re now pursuing more of that work.” EDR now has projects in places like São Paulo and Greenwich, Conn.
Back in New Orleans, down on the river’s edge at Crescent Park, it’s already hot and muggy, even though it’s only mid-April. James Hollister, EDR’s young marketing and public relations manager, is giving me a tour of the recently opened park. The project reclaimed a brownfield site with beautiful landscaping that includes walking paths and a dog run, but also remnants of the old Piety Wharf building. It’s a reminder of the site’s industrial legacy. The centerpiece of the park is the David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA–designed Piety Street Bridge, a high arching pedestrian walkway that rises above active railroad tracks to connect the river’s edge, for the first time, with the adjacent Bywater community. Locals have taken to calling the bridge, which is fabricated from oxidizing steel, the “rusty rainbow.”
There is a moment, after climbing the steep steps of the Piety Street Bridge and reaching the middle of the structure, when the sides rise well above your head and you lose your peripheral view, your sense of where you’re going. Here Hollister hoists himself up the sidewall of the bridge and perches his feet on a handrail. He offers a hand. “Climb up,” he says, “you won’t believe the view.”
Rising above the rusted sidewall, a cooling breeze comes off the water. A barge blasts its baritone horn. And there is the city, splayed out in all its glory. There, too, is the river that defines the city. Here, in the center of the bridge, perched above the railroad tracks, with the water to our left, and the city to our right, we are momentarily suspended amid these variant worlds.
What does the future hold for EDR—post-Katrina, post-Eskew—as the firm seeks to work again outside the region? Wherever EDR goes next, you can bet that the lessons learned at home, in Louisiana, will carry them forward. “We live in a unique place,” Ripple says. “It’s too hot, too humid, too close to water, and it’s sinking at a measurable rate. It underscores the truth that we all have to build in a different way; we all have to live differently now. I think more people realize that, particularly after Sandy. There’s no such thing as a static condition, and our architecture will need to deal with those changes.”