It is hard sometimes to believe that until the 1960s when I was a student here, the historic fabric of this city was seen almost as a liability. The confidence and prosperity spun off by the victories over Germany and Japan in WWII propelled this country into a frenzy of modernizing often at the expense of many extraordinary buildings and neighborhoods central to our understanding of who and what we are as a culture.
There was even a slight embarrassment in the school of architecture for was mistakenly seen as an out of date inheritance - the French quarter, the old neighborhoods - that had somehow been spared in this city ( perhaps out of inertia as much as foresight). So great was the desire to promote international modernism.
All the pressure was on to bring New Orleans into the modern world, a worthy goal but the dangers to a deeply embedded but ultimately fragile culture were very real.
Richard Koch was one of the first architects to see what was here and he acted to call attention to what we know today is one of America’s treasures, the historic fabric of this city. He was a talented designer (and a kind, civilized, deeply respected man). He and others (Like John Lawrence, the dean when I was a student) recognized the value of the buildings of the 18th and 19th century and help start and organize preservation groups - he argued for a respect of past as well as a hope for the future.
His greatest achievement arguably was his stewardship of the National Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) that produced the remarkable measured drawings and evocative photographs that documented scores of buildings, many of which were saved by these actions( WPA FORMED AND A CLEAR EXAMPLE OF THE POSITIVE POWER OF AN ENLIGHTENED GOVERNMENT ACTION.). ( by the way, I recommend these graphic treasures to our students today as a model of careful observation, documentation and clarity – they are in the library, go look at them!)
We take all this work for granted now especially since the great hurricane alerted the world to our delicate city as a treasure we almost lost and an urban world to be cherished and protected. But this appreciation was not always the case.
For me this new position has special meaning having seen the city evolve from a kind of backward embarrassment to modernism to what it is today, one of the few places in North America with a true urban character and history, as yet un trammeled by the ubiquitous homogenous culture that has had such a negative effect on the country - And I might say that has been an inspiration to architects especially those contemporary architects who deeply believe in the value of a rich idiosyncratic culture as an inspiring context for action.
Lastly this appointment has special meaning because of those that have held this chair before me beginning with my former teacher and mentor James Lamantia, and my colleagues today, Geoffrey Baker, Gene Cizek and John Klingman. I look forward to carrying on their fine work as architects and educators and to continuing to promote the values of Richard Koch who so generously endowed this chair.
Thank you all for being here and for helping celebrate the memory of this important figure in the history the architectural heritage of our nation, our city, and our school.
Errol Barron, FAIA