THE RIVERGATE title page | contents | appendices | cd-book cover

chapter 4

the design process
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by nathaniel curtis

The value of the Rivergate lay in its unswerving employment of its structural material. The Rivergate was a concrete building: some of the concrete was in compression, some in tension; some was plain and smooth, some bush-hammered exposed aggregate. But the whole building was an expression of the plasticity and the infinite variety of forms and finishes which this material can express.


I. Five American Government Projects, Selection Of Curtis And Davis
II. A Philosophical Approach To The Rivergate Design
III. The Program
IV. Design Guidelines
V. Three-dimensional Translation Of The Plan
VI. The Creative Act

I. Five American Government Projects, Selection Of Curtis And Davis

Curtis and Davis Architects and Planners managed to be awarded five large and prestigious government projects, four in Louisiana, and one in Washington. Three were controlled by State Government: the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the Rivergate, and the Louisiana Superdome. The fourth, the New Orleans Public Library, was controlled by the City. The fifth, the James Forrestal Building in Washington, D.C., was controlled by the Federal Government.

In spite of the political environment that surrounds the selection process, that we, creative designers, were chosen was unusual. Furthermore, that we carried out the design process with no political interference, at all, is unique and amazing, if not miraculous.

There were six ingredients to the Curtis and Davis selection success. The strategy was unplanned with each step contingent upon the other.

There was extreme public interest in the project. The news media spot-lighting the project enabled the selection process to be conducted in a fishbowl subject to public scrutiny making it difficult for political skullduggery.

A reputation of our firm for honesty. Success came from design awards, publication of work in the architectural press, news coverage, and national recognition.

Intense enthusiasm affected others in the client-architect relationship.

Most importantly, a sensitive, honest, influential, and powerful individual representing the client who wants a well designed building.

Politically oriented joint venture architect partners took a secondary role; design and project control remained with us.

Luck and timing.

Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola (1956)

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Louisiana State
Penitentiary, Angola (1956).
Sketch by Nathaniel Curtis, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Tulane Library.
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The need for a new correctional institution at Angola was brought to public attention by a series of six articles in the New Orleans Item by Thomas Sancton (22-27 April 1951). Prisoners at the old dilapidated prison farm were slashing their heel tendons so they would be sent to a hospital and away from the most evil, cruelest place on earth. The public was horrified, and Robert F. Kennon, a candidate for governor, campaigned on the platform to reform Angola. Kennon won the election (governor, 1952-1956), and his first act as Governor was to operate the bulldozer that destroyed this hell hole. A picture of this event was carried on the front page of the Times-Picayune.

To run Angola the new Governor, a Presbyterian, immediately recruited members of his national church organization, one of whom was James V. Bennett, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Bennett filled the role of the sensitive, honest, influential and powerful individual representing the client. Our entrée to Bennett was through our new Marketing Director, Albert Terkuhle, an ardent Presbyterian (luck). We convinced Bennett that we would design the institution, and we would cooperate by simply translating his wishes into three dimensions. An advantage we had, we maintained, was that we were young and inexperienced and would bring fresh ideas into the design. There was no need to introduce other, politically oriented, architects into this equation.

New Orleans Public Library (1957)

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New Orleans Public Library,
219 Loyola Avenue (1957).
Sketch, perspective view from Loyola Avenue by Nathaniel Curtis, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Tulane Library.

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In the case of the New Orleans Public Library, the keen public interest in the project was generated by a series of newspaper articles, probably instigated by the librarian, pointing out the need in New Orleans for such a building. The librarian was John Hall Jacobs, a professional of national reputation, an honest, forceful man who wanted a modern "supermarket" for books. There was no doubt that Jacobs would be in charge and would brook no political or any other kind of interference. Jacobs selected us and nobody argued with him about it, but as a concession, he permitted Mayor deLesseps Story "Chep" Morrison (mayor 1946-1961) to name his close friend, William Bergman (Favrot, Reed, Mathes and Bergman) and the prominent and gentlemanly architect, Moise H. Goldstein, to be our joint venture partners.

Every time joint venture partners were involved, an argument ensued amongst the egoistical architects over whose name would appear first. The fact that our firm was in charge was not deemed to be a qualifying factor so we agreed to flip a coin. We won and won on every other joint venture coin toss that followed. Incidentally, the fact that the name Curtis appeared first in our firm, Curtis and Davis, was also the result of a coin toss.

Rivergate (1968)

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Rivergate, 4 Canal Street (1968).
Sketch, perspective view from Poydras Street and Convention Center Boulevard
by Nathaniel Curtis, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Tulane Library.

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The Rivergate was originally called the International Exhibition Facility. It was to be a key element with International House, the International Trade Mart, and the hotels in downtown New Orleans as the necessary units required to qualify the City as a World Trade Center. The concept of the World Trade Center was conceived at the International House by Dr. Paul Fabry and was the first such institution in what has now become a great worldwide organization. The idea was picked up by the leadership of International Trade Mart, and later the Chamber of Commerce came into the picture. The membership of these three organizations, often overlapping, contained practically all of the powerful and energetic civic leaders of the City. It was only natural, therefore, for the project to receive the blessing of Mayor "Chep" Morrison and the City administration especially if International House, International Trade Mart, and the Chamber of Commerce would carry the ball, and the City could share in the credit. There was unanimous agreement that the project would be of great benefit and importance to the community.

Speculation began in the press as to a suitable architect for such an important public building. But the three civic organizations involved disallowed any political pressure. The International Trade Mart already had its building under construction and had made a non-political selection of its architect, the internationally recognized New York based architect from Arkansas, Edward Durell Stone, whose picture had just appeared on the cover of Time magazine. This bypassing of local talent drew some criticism from the New Orleans Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

The problem facing the entrepreneurs was not that of selecting an architect. That could come later. The real quandary was financing. There was doubt that the project would even materialize. The bonding capacity of the International Trade Mart and the City was exhausted, and the State was in no position to help. There were men behind the project, however, who knew how to get things done. They were being prodded, also, by women's groups whose spokesperson was Edith Stern. Lindy Boggs, wife of Congressman Hale Boggs who was still alive, was active in urging that the project move ahead. New Orleans was at the crossroads, they pronounced. If this project failed, New Orleans would take a great step backwards.

At this point the New Orleans Dock Board reluctantly entered the picture, probably after great pressure from the prominent citizens seeking to construct this great building. The Dock Board was one State agency that operated completely independently, almost as a private corporation with no or inconsequential political involvement. The Board was composed of prominent local businessmen concerned solely with the proper operation of the Port of New Orleans, the second largest port (ranked by tonnage) in the U.S. This unique and highly successful organization was not in the business of building convention centers, they reasoned. But as a civic gesture and as a good citizen, the Port of New Orleans stepped forward.

The Director of the New Orleans Dock Board was Jim Amoss, honest, socially prominent, aesthetically sensitive, and capable. To him fell the prerogative of selecting the architect which he, and he alone, did without any apparent set of criteria or selection procedure. The selection of an architect was part of his job, and if anyone tried to interfere with his job, he would resign. He was a man of integrity, of the school not often found today.

Amoss picked Curtis and Davis as the architects in charge as he picked a suit of clothes. He was a businessman and a dealer. He picked a New Orleans based firm to begin with. Additionally, he selected the Mayor's friend, Bill Bergman (Mathes and Bergman) and architect Edward Silverstein, brother-in-law of Sam Israel, President of the Dock Board. He appointed a trusted staff member, Floyd Lewis, an engineer, to handle everything for him and to report periodically to the Board. He entrusted the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce to write the program, and then he and his Board sat back, hands off, to await the realization of the dream that was to become the Rivergate.

James Forrestal Building, Washington, D.C. (1970)

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James Forrestal Building,
Washington, D.C. (1970), Independence Avenue and 10th Street SW. Nathaniel Curtis and model of the building.
Photo, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Tulane Library.

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The James Forrestal Building received its attention as the first truly modern building to be designed for the National Capitol. This was proposed by President John F. Kennedy to fulfill his intentions to make Washington a showcase for contemporary American architecture. A controversy existed between those who wanted to maintain the granite and marble of the Federal City and the new thinkers who favored exposed aggregate concrete, steel, and glass. William Zeckendorf, the prominent New York developer, entered the fray claiming that the new building would act as a Chinese Wall blocking access to his hotel development in Southwest Washington. President Kennedy, himself, and no other, was the deciding factor in the selection process. Our political joint venture partners were prominent firms in New York and New Jersey and also I.M. Pei, an in-house architect of Zeckendorf at the time. Pei collaborated with us on the design of the 10th Street Mall, "Gateway to the Southwest," that ran beneath our building. The luck in this situation was that I happened to sit next to my friend Bob Troutman on the plane from Atlanta. Troutman was the Campaign Director in the Southeast U.S. for Jack Kennedy.

Louisiana Superdome (1975)

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Louisiana Superdome,
1300 Poydras Street (1975).
Sketch, perspective view of the stadium by Nathaniel Curtis, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Tulane Library.

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The Superdome was embroiled in tremendous controversy from its very inception -- a building in New Orleans to be financed by funds generated in part from the northern part of the State. The concept of a domed stadium was attacked, and the method of financing provoked numerous lawsuits from such as John Schwegmann, the supermarket king. Almost every day there appeared a story on television or in the newspaper about the Superdome. The man who prevailed in this turmoil was David Dixon who proposed the building in the first place. He derived his authority and power from then-Gov. John J. McKeithen to whom Dixon initially sold the idea for the Superdome.

There was still unbelievable pressure from architects, not only in Louisiana, but nationwide. Political pressure was intense until Dixon transferred the problem of architect selection to a Committee of Deans from the Tulane School of Architecture, the Louisiana State Engineering School, and the Louisiana State University School of Environmental Design. The Committee, after extensive televised interviews, selected Curtis and Davis to lead the design team for the building. Two firms were forced on to the design team by Mayor Victor Schiro and others, and a violent argument as to who would be in charge of the project ensued. The argument was settled by then-Gov. McKeithen, Dave Dixon, and Theo Cangelosi, a Baton Rouge attorney.

II. A Philosophical Approach To The Rivergate Design

What makes the architecture of the Rivergate unique?

The design approach respects the very nature of architecture and its fundamental laws as defined by the opinions of the foremost teachers of architecture from its beginnings in Greece and Rome down through modern times. From that came the primary emphasis on the study of the plan which, while not neglected by others, has been relegated to a comparatively subordinate position during the last fifty years or so. This emphasis on the plan detaches the architecture from stylistic preoccupation. The requirements of habitation in a building and its efficient use are so strong in this approach that they transcend everything else in the creative process and instantly establish two of the three dimensions in a building.

The plan requires the designer to think in three dimensions. A well composed plan must harmoniously combine the requirements of use and the requirements of appearance, where all the exterior and interior parts are honestly expressed in terms of aesthetics and proportion. The development of a plan is a further development from the Greeks who were actuated by the search for purity of form. Above all else the plan proves that we cannot detach ourselves from tradition in architecture any more than we can detach ourselves from tradition in any other art or progressive form of knowledge.

In the Rivergate plan emphasis was thus placed on the development of the parti, a word from the Ecole de Beaux Arts that describes the initial and early creative process in the logical development of a design where the plan cannot be pursued independently of the study of sections and facades; and where proportions are studied, modified, and perfected. It is the part of the architecture that requires creative and artistic ability -- the ability to sketch -- for me more easily accomplished by hand than by computer.

The design of the systems -- structural, mechanical, electrical -- had to integrate art and engineering so they, too, were precise, rhythmic and, in themselves, objects of beauty, truthfully and honestly expressed.

The architecture was influenced, but not dominated, by ancient architectural heritage and by such geniuses as the pioneer architects -- Americans Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, and the German born Ludwig Mies van der Rohe -- advocates of simplicity, order, and rhythm.

From this point, the architecture of the Rivergate went in another new direction that produced a sense of belonging called Regionalism. It includes, but goes beyond, the attention given to scale in connection with human beings, charm, poetry, texture, pattern, readability, color and light. It is the use of forms, devices, systems, and elements of the architecture that respect and respond to the natural environment specific to the place where the architecture stands. It is the use of materials native to the locale whenever possible and appropriate. It means that the natural beauty of the land be preserved and that historic architecture not be destroyed.

Finally, in the Rivergate design there was an ingredient of playfulness and joy that is evident.

All of this makes the architecture of the Rivergate unique!

III. The Program

The Program statement for the Rivergate centered on the size of the exhibition space. This area was determined by a survey of the space requirements of potential exhibitors. After the initial survey, space was reduced by 25 percent when it was conceded that the size of the site, the budget, and the number of hotel rooms could not accommodate large conventions. At that time, the large conventions were centered in Chicago, Detroit, and New York. The Rivergate should contain 130,000 square feet in its Exhibit Hall to make New Orleans eligible, in 1964, for 75 percent of all convention business and be competitive with Houston, Miami, Dallas, and Atlanta. The rest of the program requirements then fell into place since these spaces -- meeting rooms, offices, concessions, parking, service facilities etc. -- were all factors of the size of the exhibit space and easily computed after a judgment was made about the kinds of activities that were to be accommodated, such as world trade shows, carnival parades and balls, large banquets and other social events, exhibits of all kinds, and auditorium type events. It was decided to have very generous circulation space, both pedestrian and vehicular. The standards of floor live-load capacities (300 pounds per square foot), loading docks for semi-trailer trucks and the ability to have trucks drive directly onto the floor, the lighting levels, the under-floor utilities such as water, gas, electricity, telephone on a modular grid, and ceiling heights were readily available, although many of these were proven out, adjusted, or altered as a result of visits to other facilities.

The orientation of the new building on the site, an important decision, was made almost immediately. The building was to face toward the Mississippi River and relate to the new, recently completed International Trade Mart Tower and tie these two elements together by means of a spacious pedestrian plaza. This decision was driven by the river's being the raison d'être for the City Plan of New Orleans and the conviction that the Rivergate, with the International Trade Mart building, would be the anchor location of the World Trade Center concept in New Orleans. The other elements of such a concept were the International House and the existing hotels and office buildings in the Central Business District.

The decision to orient the Rivergate toward the river required courage, even audacity, since the building would face away from the City with its service entrances toward the City (although this made sense from a practical point of view). The side of the building would then be facing Canal Street. To overcome these possible objections, prominent pedestrian entrances were placed on all of the principal corners of the site with automobile access to the parking garage, properly placed toward the City.

The idea for the large vehicular covered driveway facing the river came about from unexpected problems that arose during the design process.

A tremendous controversy raged in New Orleans over a plan to construct an elevated expressway along the riverfront. Those with keen foresight fought the plan on the grounds that such a construction would separate the City, particularly the Vieux Carré, from the river -- the very reason for the City's existence. This plan would also destroy the site plan of the Rivergate, effectively separating the new building from the river and from the International Trade Mart office building. The obvious solution, but an expensive one, would be to place the expressway underground in a tunnel, if not for its entire length, at least, as it transected the Rivergate site. To convince the client that it was worthwhile, in the interest of aesthetics, to spend over a million and a half dollars was an elaborate exercise illustrating where some architects are willing to tread in the interest of preserving the integrity of a design.

The entire tunnel affair stretched out much longer than expected. The expressway controversy was far from being settled; the client was dubious about spending the money for the tunnel, and the plans for the Rivergate were being seriously delayed. At this point the idea for the great covered porch materialized. The sheltered driveway not only made good sense as a way to deal with the possibility of tropical downpours during Rivergate events, but it also left open the option of constructing the tunnel at a later date while allowing construction of the building to proceed on schedule. In time the tunnel, 6 lanes wide and 30' high, was authorized, designed into the plan, and constructed! The Riverfront Expressway, however, was eventually defeated, and the tunnel remained, unused, during the life of the Rivergate.

IV. Design Guidelines

With the Program Statement in place, the guidelines clearly understood, and the site plan configuration decided upon and approved, the design translation of the Rivergate into three dimensions became a matter of close architecture-engineering collaboration. A preliminary study indicated that concrete was the most economical structural material to use. It was the architect's prerogative to set the guidelines for the design which follow:

The solution should be an honest expression of the plasticity of concrete.

The structure should be exposed with no cosmetic finishes applied.

The structure should be precise, strong, graceful, elegant, and in itself, beautiful.

The solution must be a total integration by the engineers, working with the architect, of all engineering systems involved -- mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and structural.

There must be no visual appearance of the artificial light sources.

The structure, when constructed, would constitute the finished building requiring only glazing and doors to keep out the weather.

The forms and shapes of the building would properly combat the unique climatic conditions of New Orleans.

The structure should utilize and benefit from the latest techniques of pre-stressing and post-tensioning of concrete.

All of these guidelines were utilized to translate into three dimensions a rather simple plan with column-free exhibit space, proper circulation, and proper relationship of all of the elements contained in the Program Statement.

V. Three-dimensional Translation Of The Plan

Integral to the design were the construction techniques designed with the building, such as the design of the wooden false work and forming for the roof and columns, not unlike the compound curves found in ship construction. The pre-stressing, post-tensioning, and concrete pouring sequences were all an integral part of the structural design and were carefully monitored during construction.

The three-dimensional translation of the plan, closely following the guidelines established at the outset did, indeed, result in the kind of building that was foreseen. The undulating forms of the thin barrel vaults were not whimsical but are the precise shape necessary to manage the unusually long spans required for the roof over the column free space below. The cantilevers all around contribute to the stability of the roof structure. The selection of six temple like bays utilized to the limit the spans between columns; the columns themselves are slender and graceful, suited to the task of support.

The building is the structural system itself with glazing and doorways added to keep out the weather.

The detailing was carefully monitored in all of the parts and connections -- hardware, fixtures, water fountains, and telephone stations.

Lighting was indirect, both interior and exterior, with scant indication of the sources of illumination; the air conditioning duct work and registers were integrated with the structure.

The Rivergate, while it stood in New Orleans, was looked upon as a significant example of outstanding national and international contemporary architecture and was compared to the recognized masterpieces of its period.

VI. The Creative Act

To be an architect takes more than talent, ability, and leadership; it takes sacrifice, a deep interest, a strong desire -- a fetish -- to build, to create, to make something out of nothing. It takes tenacity and dedication to endure the agony of architecture to enjoy its ecstasy. One needs to value the joy of making an idea become a three dimensional reality to realize the thrill and to know it when it comes.

The creative act is a lonely one: a dream occurs in your mind. A dream that seems real. You imagine how the building goes together in plan. You see it in three dimensions in your imagination. You walk around it and through it as if it were already there. You think about it very intensely and that programs your subconscious mind to overcome the problem areas and refine the scheme. All of this is translated to your hand and fingers. You sit there with pencil and blank tracing paper and, as if by a miracle, the thing begins to be legible -- a few scratches. And then it is refined over and over and thought about and dreamed about even more. Then others are brought in to further develop and refine: designers, draftsmen, engineers. All of this time you are the one responsible person who must supervise and guide the process and guard the original germ of an idea from being diluted or even changed or destroyed.

This process of guarding the original germ of an idea is an emotional one. So many threatening forces are encountered: the client, the budget, the regulatory agencies. Then to build it and build it properly. All of this involvement takes place in what appears to be a hostile world where beauty and poetry and honesty of expression are not important. Enemies are out there -- litigation that is so prevalent today, criticism that must be endured.

The entire emotional process at last comes to an end; and all of the tremendous effort and mental stress is expended-exhausted; the building is completed and there it stands. You walk around it, and through it, and see it being used as it was intended. The building is secretly your brainchild, and you merely lend it to the client. It works, the client is satisfied, and people like it. You can say to yourself, "I did that" or "I helped do that." That's the reward of Architecture. But that warm, delightful feeling doesn't last. Your lust to build is never satisfied. You long for the next challenge. It is an irresistible sadomasochistic, maniacal craving for more punishment in order to gain that elusive reward of Architecture! bottom_line.GIF

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