In October 2005, six weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, I met Allison and John Anderson for the first time, at the Mississippi Renewal Forum. Organized by New Urbanism’s leading light, Andres Duany, this mega-charrette had brought some 200 planners, engineers, and architects to the ballroom of the Isle of Capri, a Biloxi, Miss., hotel-casino that had weathered the storm. The plan was to re-imagine the historic towns that Katrina had destroyed. Unlike most of the participants, the Andersons were locals: They had come from a mere 30 miles up the coast, from the hard-hit town of Bay St. Louis, Miss.
I started a conversation with John because he was sketching a streetscape of oversized, modern-looking sheds—standouts in a ballroom littered with fanciful drawings of Cajun cottages and antebellum Walmarts. He told me that before the storm, Bay St. Louis “was almost okay.” He explained: “Downtown there was a quaintness, a realness. It was a real historic place, not a manufactured one.” He was speaking in the past tense because all that was gone. Waterfront restaurants, banks and churches, and antebellum mansions and ordinary homes had been crushed by a 20-foot-high wall of water.
John directed me to the other side of a tall bulletin board where I found a second Modernist-leaning member of the charrette’s architecture team: his wife, Allison. She told me about the house she’d designed in Bay St. Louis for her family, with her husband serving as critic: “We moved in one month before the hurricane,” she said.
Originally, the house was intended to be a showplace of green building practices, a way to test out ideas that Allison hoped would bring clients to Unabridged Architecture, the firm that she had founded and that John would later join. “We wanted it to be evidence of how you could live very simply without redundant materials in a hot, humid climate,” she said. As it turned out, the strategies that made it emblematic of one buzzword—“sustainable”—also made it representative of another: “resilient.” While the neighboring houses that stood between the Anderson home and the Gulf were washed away, theirs survived.
Eight years later, in May, I returned to Bay St. Louis (current population 9,400, about 2,000 less than before Katrina) and found that it has rebounded nicely. There are, once again, restaurants on Beach Boulevard and an impressive range of restored or newly built civic amenities, including sidewalks, which the town hadn’t bothered with prior to the storm. And I learned that Unabridged—which had seven employees at its peak, and is now down to five—was responsible for some 27 built projects since Katrina.
The disaster became something of a bonanza for Mississippi, which received $9 billion in recovery funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and another $5.5 billion in Community Development Block Grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. As the recovery money poured into the Gulf Coast, Unabridged flourished. The firm oversaw the restoration of numerous historic buildings, designed a series of new civic institutions, and managed streetscape improvements. Even now, as the federal funds are being used up, Unabridged still has projects under way with a total construction budget of $25 million.
The Andersons, married 25 years with three children—the youngest just graduated high school—have been together since they met at the University of Southern California in 1980. Allison, 52, grew up in Hawaii and is the firm’s designated talker. John, 51, originally from Las Vegas, is quieter, always calculating the right moment for careful, often humorous, interjections.
They attended architecture school together at the University of Texas. Prior to Katrina, Allison taught at Louisiana State and Tulane universities, and also devoted herself to educating local community and political leaders about sustainability. John spent 13 years working at Eskew+Dumez+Ripple in New Orleans before leaving in 2007 to help Allison with an “onslaught of recovery work.” In the view of Bay St. Louis Mayor Les Fillingame, the Andersons “were in the right place at the right time. They had the right skill set and the right vision to take full advantage of that [need].”
The story of how the Andersons hit their stride starts with their house—assertively modern, with two large shed-like structures facing off, and a small rectangular wing (with a green roof) projecting forward. “FEMA came and did a case study,” Allison told me. The federal engineers concluded that several factors helped harden the house against Katrina’s storm surge: As the newest building in town, it was designed to the most rigorous code. Also, the Andersons had opted to frame it with 2 x 6s for extra insulation value instead of the more typical 2 x 4s. “And the third one was, the really big ‘wow’ feature of the house, the green roof,” Allison said. “The weight of the assembly of the grass roof acted as an anchor for the entire structure.”
Allison had intended the house to be her calling card, and it became one, but not in the way she’d envisioned. Instead of attracting clients who wanted sleek, green beach homes, her house brought her clients who needed armored buildings. And the post-Katrina building boom was an opportunity for the Andersons to propagate an approach, in a region that much prefers traditional-looking buildings, that might be considered Mississippi Modern.
“Our first project after the storm was to build a bunker,” Allison recalls. “But it was at the very head of Main Street, the gateway to downtown, and it couldn’t look like a bunker.” Completed in 2010, Firehouse No. 1 is an ordinary fire station—think firemen hanging out, munching on pork rinds, and watching TV—that doubles as an emergency operations center and shelter. The first lesson the Andersons learned about resilience is that designing a building to be impervious to wind isn’t so very hard. “But the big thing down here was the debris impact,” Allison says. “We very quickly learned that debris impact was very similar to blast resistance.” And blast-resistant materials, like windows with an inner layer of Lexan, were budget busters.
The solution was to build two buildings. They enclosed the fire engine bays, constructed to less stringent Miami-Dade standards for hurricane resistance—tough but not blast proof—in an airy, sunlit enclosure with big lipstick red doors. It’s a gorgeous space, an art gallery for trucks. The bunker, with an exterior of locally made brick, features 12-inch and 16-inch concrete blocks on the inside, says Allison, “reinforced in every cell—horizontally, vertically, steel like crazy.” The firehouse is designed to be self-sufficient for three days, with a generator, auxiliary water supplies that are potable, and a rainwater collection system that stores 10,000 gallons for the trucks.
The Andersons went on to design five storm shelters, which are built well inland, in Hancock County’s more rural north end. They are more or less what you’d expect: big halls, low to the ground, partially protected by earthen berms (which double as bleachers for nearby ball fields). They feature heavy construction and redundant systems: a backup generator if the power fails, and a ventilation tower and louvers that will force air to circulate if the generator fails. The budgets—about $3 million for each—were barely enough to cover the building’s functional needs. What the Andersons value engineered out was the expected smooth sheetrock finish. “The bones are what make the buildings interesting, so let’s just let that be exposed,” John concluded.
The end result is the largest collection of minimalist architecture—or minimalist anything—in Mississippi. We toured a shelter for evacuees with special medical needs, located in the Flat Top/Catahoula area. Walking along a curving and raw-looking 150-foot-long poured-concrete wall (which extends for an additional 50 feet outdoors, cradling the building), it felt like we were touring a jumbo Richard Serra sculpture. When we emerged into the bright sunlight, it occurred to me that if this building were something other than an emergency shelter—a museum, say—it would be famous.
Often, the Andersons’ work is marked by peculiar juxtapositions. The firm’s oddest couple may be the 2011 Downtown Parking Garage in Bay St. Louis and the newly opened Longfellow Civic Center, which sits on top. The parking garage occupies the former site of the county jail, demolished after Katrina. “We recycled 86 percent of the materials,” Allison boasts, including the concrete blocks and structural steel. Even “the floor slabs went out to form a fishing reef offshore called Jailhouse Reef.”
The garage is as green as a parking structure can be, designed to generate much of its own power, with a 12-kilowatt solar array. It harvests rainwater from the parking decks to irrigate a green wall. A long, scenic elevated walkway leads to the civic center. “The client wanted a classical temple on top of this very modern parking garage,” Allison says. John counters that the client really wanted “a plantation house.” They designed a nondescript, dun-colored exterior that gives way to a lovely interior, the roof supported by elegant white scissor trusses and the space featuring a sweeping Gulf view.
When unencumbered by the need for armor—against extreme weather or clients’ preconceptions—the Andersons’ work can be especially lovely. Consider St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, located on eight waterfront acres in Long Beach, Miss., until Katrina destroyed the building. The Andersons designed a new church farther inland. “They did this wonderful visual survey,” recalls then–Rev. David Knight. They showed the congregation pictures of churches, “from all over the world, and had us rate them. How do you feel about this one? It was brilliant. There was this sense in the room of this ‘oooh’ and ‘aaaah’ feeling when you hit one that really resonated.”
The result is a church that relates to the outdoors as if it were still on the beach. The high-ceilinged room that doubles as a hall for worship and other church functions has a wall of tall windows behind the altar, giving parishioners a constant connection to the outdoors. But the most remarkable thing about St. Patrick’s is that it represents the rare unforced merger between the vernacular, board-and-batten coastal style, and the modern. It is not Postmodern or New Urbanist. It is simply a church well suited to its time and its place, a cluster of simple white buildings on an expanse of green. As Knight puts it, “They just listened so well.”
My favorite Unabridged project was inspired by the drawing John was working on when I first met him. He was dreaming up a new kind of business district for towns like his own, a vision that inspired the 2012 Waveland Business Center, in what was once the downtown of Waveland, Miss. The idea was to create a nexus of commerce that was elevated enough to be above flood level but that was still connected to the street. A cluster of three, colorful, rounded commercial buildings—pods—are collected under a jumbo shed roof. The complex has gentle ramps leading to a shaded plaza 6 feet above grade. The exterior areas can be used for café seating (a restaurant facility inside is not currently in use), concerts, markets, or events. John points out that the double system—little buildings under a communal roof—is more resilient in a storm and keeps the sun’s heat off the smaller, individual roofs.
To architectural cognoscenti, the setup is reminiscent of the structure Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio built to shelter the students’ experimental living pods. John argues that it’s “just a big gas station canopy.” Either way, the business center remains mostly unoccupied. Waveland, says local alderman Lili Stahler, had a “series of misfires” when it tried running the place as an incubator for innovation, and is now intending to fill it any way possible.
The Andersons’ body of work is undeniably sui generis. The post-Katrina recovery years allowed them to be remarkably versatile for a small firm. And their area of expertise—the meeting point of sustainability and resilience—seems increasingly crucial given the rise of destructive storms in various regions around the country. Indeed, when I last saw Allison, she was giving a post-Sandy lecture in Tom’s River, N.J., at an event called “Gulf to Shore: Disaster and Rebuilding Lessons Learned from the Gulf Coast.” In a lineup dominated by bureaucrats and academics, Allison was uniquely able to move beyond jargon-filled platitudes. She opened with a photo of her house surrounded by the rubble of her neighbors’ homes: “This is my house after Katrina. Remember this image.”