Stewart Farnet: Architect

Part 1 of 2

By Patricia B. Mitchell, November 1974.

Stewart Farnet

Stewart Farnet on the courtyard at his office at the Devéze-Henderson House, 612 Royal Street.

Samuel Stewart Farnet was born in New Orleans on February 7, 1933. With the exception of two years when he was assigned as a commissioned Air Force officer to Boston with his wife Aimee (neé Dubus), he has always made New Orleans his home. “I was born here, most of my friends were here, my family lived here. We have roots. It was a natural thing to live and work in a place we knew so well and liked so well.”

Farnet is a family man. He and his wife have three sons and a daughter, all named after relatives. They live on Hawk Drive near Lake Pontchartrain. Although he might prefer eventually to live in the French Quarter, he feels the Quarter does not provide “the kinds of activities and involvements that children need. I felt they were able to find those things in the neighborhood where we chose to live.”

After his Air Force tour was over he returned to New Orleans. It was 1957. Behind him was a Bachelor of Science degree in architecture from Tulane University (1955) and two years of military service. Before him was his first civilian job as an architect — with a French Quarter firm, Colbert and Lowery, who at the time were designing the Lakeside Shopping Center. Over a short period of time the firm became Colbert, Lowery, Hess, Boudreaux, and Farnet — then Lowery, Hess, Boudreaux, and Farnet. In 1967 Farnet left to form his own architectural practice, with offices at 612 Royal Street.

In 1966 he was appointed by Mayor Schiro to the Vieux Carré Commission. In 1970 Mayor Landrieu reappointed him for another four-year term, during which he was elected chairman of the Commission's architectural committee. His term expired August 23, 1974.

Farnet has emerged as one of the most successful young architects of the city. The Community Standard interviewed him to learn his opinions about architecture in New Orleans. The interview will be presented in two installments. This first segment deals with contemporary issues and structures, such as the Superdome. The second will deal with the French Quarter and will be featured in the December issue.

Community Standard: What is your opinion of the general quality of architecture in New Orleans?

Farnet: Not too good. In general, it doesn't measure up in quality to work I have seen in other parts of the country. In New Orleans, we have buildings that are both poorly built and poorly designed. recently, more significant buildings have been added to our skyline and some of these fall into the category of well-constructed, high-quality buildings. Generally, though, our downtown area is out-of-date, not carefully planned, and not thoughtfully built.

Community Standard: What are some of the reasons for this poor quality?

Farnet: The two conditions that most determine the final product are: the local attitude of the market and the particular developer; and the budget and availability of funds. Especially important are the attitudes of the people, the attitudes of the architect's clients, and the attitudes of the user. The market has its demands. There are parts of this country where the user is more sophisticated and has been exposed to new ways of doing things, new attitudes about how to live, different life styles; those things are reflected in the freedom given to the architect to express living attitudes in the form of buildings.

One Shell Square

One Shell Square.

Community Standard: One Shell Square has been described as “Building of the Year” by the local Chamber of Commerce. Few people, however, praise its beauty. Do projects such as this and the domed stadium suggest that modern architecture effort is directed toward engineering rather than aesthetic accomplishment?

Farnet: The demands of urban life are indicating that buildings used purely for office space (as One Shell Square is) are rapidly becoming outdated.

There will be more multi-use buildings in the future where people can truly live and work in the same general area — where there would be more care and attention given to the social amenities and the environment, so that there will no longer be such sharp distinctions between where we work and where we live. Our urban environment will, I hope, be treated as a unit.

The domed stadium is in some ways an urban structure because it does combine many functions and its uses can be varied. Potentially, it can be a very important composite structure in the city. Unfortunately, it's totally out of scale with the surroundings and the scale of our city — scale not simply of relative size but as a measure of total impact. One Shell Square suffers for the same reason.

Community Standard: Is there a city that handles architectural challenges more successfully?

Farnet: In terms of buildings, Boston/Cambridge rates tops, particularly Boston's government center.

In terms of setting, Washington is superior due to its boulevards and consistent building heights in the inner city. I'm sure that land values and real estate pressures are as strong there as they are here. Their economy manages; the city manages; it grows; and there is still a scale to Washington that is very human and appropriate. It makes that city a more livable place.

Community Standard: What general construction trends do you foresee in the New Orleans area?

Farnet: New Orleans is on the brink of new growth. The center city is the place where I think it will happen. New Orleans is better equipped than most cities to deal with revitalization projects. We've done it in the Vieux Carré. Large-scale projects involving demolition, unfortunately, are also on the horizon. Recent CBD preservation efforts, which should be viewed more appropriately as “conservation” of our unique historic resources, are visionary and hopeful.

The Superdome

The Superdome.

Community Standard: Do you foresee continued expansion during the next few years of New Orleans' tourist and convention industry? Will visitor accommodations be expanded in the CBD à la Marriott Motor Hotel?

Farnet: Without question, the economy permitting, New Orleans will continue to have a tourist industry as the number one or two industry in the city. We will have more large hotels. Houston provides us with some idea of what can happen in the way of hotel development around a large sports facility such as the Superdome. For many years our city lacked ample hotel facilities, and growth pressures in that industry won't soon diminish.

Community Standard: Do you think the development of the central business district should be controlled by a commission similar to the one now operating in the Vieux Carré?

Farnet: To operate effectively in the central business district, a commission would need to have very broad powers, and it would be essential that the objectives and long-range goals for the CBD be established long before a commission be appointed. The appointment of a commission won't solve the problems; the city needs to determine what its objectives are, where we're going, what kind of a central city we want. If we can answer those questions, then we can appoint a commission to carry forward those objectives. I would have to serve on a commission where I am appointed to do something with the CBD but not know what our community wants and expects. There hasn't been a clearly definitive community statement about CBD objectives. Some objectives have already been identified but they tend to get lost alongside the many other issues.

One is the need that people recognized to preserve and restore the Vieux Carré.

Another is the desire to make the riverfront available to people — in the way of parks and similar public-use spaces. And so we've seen the riverfront in the French Quarter area become more and more open, more and more used, and more battles fought over the preservation of that piece of open space. The community seems to be saying, “We want to save and use the river's edge for things that people can enjoy.”

We also seem to be saying “We want to save our neighborhoods.” When bridge approaches are proposed uptown or in the Marigny area, and the community speaks out against it, I think it's a healthy sign. We can then begin to identify what's important and what isn't. If there is apathy in the community, no leader can ever know when he's performing properly and when he isn't. If there is insufficient interest in a neighborhood, then that neighborhood probably won't survive, anyway.

(See also Part 2 of this interview.)