2015 - Bruce Tolar

Bruce-Tolar

I want to thank Nathan for being the first to choke up this evening, while presenting the Groves Award. This is a heartfelt kind of situation. For those of us who knew Michael Barranco and were there for the Katrina charrettes, this is a person who really made a mark on our lives, not just because we showed up and did work together, but because his character was such that it was like playing in a pro-am: You really upped your game when playing around Michael. Very genuine. No artifice. No phoniness. He was genuinely concerned about every person he ever met, and wanted everyone’s life to be better. He decided that architecture was his way to do that.

With his passing, there is a hole in the CNU, but the New Urban Guild offers the Barranco Award to practitioners who are that kind of stand-up guy. It’s about the character with which you comport yourself. It’s about how hungry you are to learn. It’s about how much you care about your community. It’s about how much you love and encourage your fellow-citizens. With that said, I’d like to introduce you to this year’s award-winner, Bruce Tolar, through some of his work. <begin slides>

The original Katrina Cottage which by itself was great, but Bruce took it out of the total chaos and mayhem and bad financial circumstances that were pretty much an everyday deal in Ocean Springs at that time, and all along the coast. And from nothing, he created the peaceful excellence of Cottage Square, where he put the pieces together into something amazing which that community cherishes. It has even become a tourist destination. Imagine that: an interim housing solution after a hurricane has become a tourist destination!

So Bruce pulled together all the Katrina Cottages that were built as prototypes for demonstration purposes and brought them to Cottage Square. And he made something out of the pieces, just as we all try to do, which is to aggregate a great place from small incremental parts. It is a modest place, with gravel sidewalks; a place where you can operate a tiny business out of those tiny buildings. And the community that has formed there has become a real anchor to Ocean Springs. From there, Bruce launched an expansion, which was an incredibly ambitious project in a place governed by FEMA… <cough> <laughs and applause> … a terrible environment to work under, but he is doing amazing, excellent work with modest little pieces.

He reached out to nonprofits in the area; he connects with so many people; he’s been in that town forever, serving on many boards; and the idea that there was something to be done after a hurricane, and fixing civilization in general, was a natural thing for Bruce. The people love this neighborhood. The nonprofits he’s been working with have been tremendously empowered by seeing one guy’s ability to put people together and make things work. Bruce is the best design caulking gun you can imagine, pulling everything together on modest means and making things happen. So with that, I’d like to present this year’s Barranco Award to Bruce Tolar.

~R. John Anderson

<The following was a later news release on Bruce’s award>

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.

~Steve Mouzon


© New Urban Guild 2014