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Barranco Award 2015 - Bruce Tolar


The New Urbanism is a movement filled with heroes, but few stand taller either in heroism or in physical stature than Bruce Tolar. Most of us first became acquainted with Bruce at the Mississippi Renewal Forum, just six weeks after Hurricane Katrina. That event began with a phone call from Michael Barranco, who wanted to assure that the Mississippi coast was rebuilt according to New Urbanist patterns. Over a hundred New Urbanists joined with dozens of local architects and planners in the smashed wreckage of a Biloxi casino in what was arguably the largest planning event in human history, with a total design team of nearly 200. For many, it was the start of months or even years of pro bono work in hopes of fulfilling Michael's vision.

Those weeks and months after the Forum were filled with heady days, when we all felt that we could actually help change the region, turning the curse of Katrina into a blessing. And our architect on the ground just a few miles from Ground Zero was Bruce Tolar. The first built Katrina Cottage made its debut at the International Builders' Show in Orlando the next January, and it stole the show. Later that year, it won the People's Choice Award from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award program.

But as days and weeks turned to months and years, it became clear that the most basic human response to tragedy is to try to put things back the way they were as quickly as possible, not to try some lofty new design concepts. At one point a couple years after the storm, it was clear that the only initiative left standing from Michael's original vision was the one focusing on Katrina Cottages. But even the cottages were in peril, as the Herculean efforts of Bruce and several others to convert the manufactured and modular housing industries were foundering. In the gathering storm leading to the Great Recession, it was a bridge too far.

In this bleak time with hopes of achieving any of Michael's vision fading and the economy collapsing around what appeared to be our years of wasted efforts, Bruce Tolar stepped into the gap. He bet everything he owned, his reputation, and likely his very survival on a little place known as Cottage Square in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. He took on the mantles of developer, builder, and architect, first assembling the historic original cottages, then building other Katrina Cottage designs that had first been built elsewhere. When FEMA pulled out the Mississippi Cottages, Bruce acquired several of those as well, dressing them up to complete the first square. The first Barranco Award was presented posthumously to Michael Barranco in the summer of 2011 at Cottage Square, with Bruce and Michael's family present.

In the years since, Cottage Square has flourished, adding a new square to the east filled with fascinating new Katrina Cottage types. Today, dozens of people live there and numerous businesses operate there as well... a true American village, the way we used to build them. And there is no question that this tiny place is incubating the wisdom of how to build emergency housing with dignity, for the day we will surely need that wisdom again.

It is a great honor to be able to present the 2015 Barranco Award for Architecture to Bruce Tolar. It is hard to imagine anyone more worthy of this award. 

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