B A C K P A G E
Prospect and Refuge Hurricane Rita suddenly revealed a city’s unheralded modernist architectural tradition by Justin Howard, AIA
For three decades Marvin Gordy’s residence hid behind a curtain of trees now stripped bare by hurricane-force winds.
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Architecture is the practice of optimism in the face of the destructive powers of nature and man. It is a defiant standing of ground bet ween the wh im of nature and the will of man. Architects seek to design places of meaning and permanence, but we are constantly reminded of the forces at work against the built environment. Last year’s catastrophic storm surge from Hurricane Katrina is among the most recent demonstrations of how nature holds sway over man’s creations. Inundated New Orleans and devastated swaths of the Mississippi Gulf Coast are images we are not likely to forget. Unlike Katrina, Hurricane Rita wielded wind, not w ater, w hen s he assaulted Beaumont last September. In her aftermath I was surprised to discover that my city possesses several humble works of modernist residential architecture. Fortunately, Rita did little or no significant damage to these houses, but almost completely defoliated the trees that for decades had hidden these jewels from public view. Of particular note is a modest home that local architect Marvin Gordy designed and built in
1973. In its first few years, the house enjoyed a degree of seclusion due to its remote location on the western outskirts of town. But by the mid-1970s, suburban development began to encroach on its privacy. Rita finished the job, stripping a previously impenetrable layer of trees from the front portion of the site. Gordy, who still lives in the house, has since designed a stucco wall to restore his “refuge” by creating a private courtyard at the front. The discovery of Gordy’s residence, along with several others that have been suddenly revealed, has led me to look more closely for evidence of Beaumont’s modernist heritage. Luckily, Rita did not “wipe the slate clean.” Nor, as natural disasters have done elsewhere, did Rita expose dysfunctional manifestations of misguided or nefarious social, economic, and political action. But the damage she inflicted in and around Beaumont is still keeping us busy. While our post-hurricane work is mostly focused on the tedious fundamentals of building performance – repairs, replacing roofs, and the like – we are reminded of our profession’s essential responsibility to provide both prospect and refuge, the simultaneous attributes of good design that allow people the freedom to engage their surroundings while also protecting them from nature’s forces. That responsibility, seen anew in Rita’s aftermath, humbles me, and with a deeper respect for nature my eyes have opened to an inspiring tradition of architecture in my own community that I had previously overlooked. Justin Howard, AIA, practices in Beaumont.
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