Meant as a catalyst for the redevelopment of downtown New Orleans and as an alternative to the wholesale clearance that had characterized urban renewal in the 1960s, Piazza d’Italia represented a new approach to urban design, one that modeled itself on the historic plazas of old Europe rather than on the heroic visions of European modernists. Designed by August Perez & Associates and the late Charles Moore, the piazza received a lot of attention for its neon-lit classical colonnades painted red, orange, and yellow; its stepped fountain in the shape of Italy; and its clock-tower gateway.Although the plaza has undergone restoration, the deleterious effects of water and humidity remain evident in the fountain’s broken stones and corroded metal. But more than 30 years later, the fascination with and furor over the set-design quality of the architecture pales in comparison to what the project says about the difficulties facing New Orleans. Intended as a center of the city’s Italian-American community, the original design showed the circular, midblock piazza surrounded by culturally related commerce: a trattoria, a pizzeria, and imported food and clothing shops.
Instead, Piazza d’Italia now stands mostly surrounded by parking lots, adjacent to a 21-story hotel that turns its back on the space, with one small gift shop that remains mostly closed. As such, the project has become a particularly appropriate symbol of the city, expressing, in its water-damaged landscape, the ruin that can come from inundation and, in its blank-slate surroundings, the possibilities that the future still holds for New Orleans.