Architecture Master Thesis EPFL-ENAC-SAR 2014,
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Introduction research:


nola limit

General context / Hypothesis of an open city / Global perspective.

The city of New Orleans, built on the Mississippi delta, has constantly protected itself against the surrounding water context (wetlands, lake, river). This urban confrontation to the natural environment has repeatedly shown weaknesses during extreme conditions such as floods and hurricanes. Levees, drainage canals and pumping stations, elaborated as the main flood protection system, have therefore become an indispensable element for the city survival. These infrastructures contribute to the city development and strongly influenced today’s inner-urban conditions. The city is enclosed in its defined limits, constantly evolving within its own frame.

Since hurricane Katrina in 2005, which flooded and paralysed the whole urban system, questions can be raised about the coherence of such a city structure.

How can New Orleans develop itself in a sustainable way taking into consideration the existing tension between urban and natural environment? How can water be revalued in such a fragile context? And how would it affect the New Orleans social scene, urbanism and architecture?

Our research questions the actual relation to water of New Orleans, starting from a scenario in which natural conditions are reintegrated significantly in the urban context.

The work will be therefore based on a scenario of an “open city”, instead of a “closed fortress”. This re-evaluation of New Orleans would affect the existing rules of the urban elements and enhance mutation towards a new “New Orleans”. The theoretical analysis process of such a built area also features into a more general context of re-thinking coastal cities towards global warming and potential rise of sea levels.

Typological comparison / relation to water / examples

Analysis of different existing societies in relation to specific water environment through case studies (typology in scale, age, building process):

  • –  The Netherlands (high-tech nation-wide water protection system)
  • –  Venice (former offshore empire)
  • –  Makoko, Lagos (present informal water settlement)
  • –  The Iraqi Marshlands (disappeared vernacular water urbanism)
  • –  Miami (example of US mangrove colonization)
  • –  Dubai (recent engineering experiments)

Infrastructural system / Historical development / Hydro-topography

Understanding the development of the flood protection and drainage system of New Orleans.

Significance of water / Collective ideology / Individual perspective

Understanding the relation between New Orleanians and water.
How is the presence of water affecting the individual interpretation of their city? Is it influencing the cultural value of their urban space? What place does the water takes into the relation between the population and its city? Are New Orleanians islanders or prisoners towards their context?

Maps / Data / Society

Production of a series of maps based on significant research criteria:

  • –  Topographic / Hydro-graphic
  • –  Quantitative (racial tension, migration, densities, demographic)
  • –  Subjective (qualitative data, sociological factors, values)
  • –  Physical (building, infrastructure)
  • –  Political (zoning)
  • –  Resource mapping
  • –  Climate map (hurricanes, floods)
  • –  Historical map (growth, population, infrastructure)

Urban possibilities / Social scenarios

Urban typology experimentation
Example of utopian cityscapes
Analysis of specific sites with high potential in Nola Hypothesis check

Open question

Summary of the experiment results Possible radical changes (new model) Raise further questions.


Firstly, a theoretical research process will focus on documenting and understanding the behaviour of current and past New Orleans. Meanwhile, a parallel research will be done on other coastal societies in order to better comprehend the specificities of water related urbanities.

A part of the research (point 4) will take place during the field trip in New Orleans. In this part of the research, inhabitants of New Orleans will take a significant place by exposing their visions and own interpretations of the city through series of interviews and “on site” explanations. A short experimental documentary film will be produced, synthesizing this pro-active process with the local population. With this film, urban space and local ideologies will contribute to the more theoretical approach of the research.

Students: Gérald Gerber & Adrian Meredith
Head Professor: Harry Gugger
Research Director: Jacques Lévy
EPFL Schoolmaster: Charlotte Truwant
Expert: Simon Chessex

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