After spending a little time with professor emeritus Gene Cizek, it becomes clear that he hasn’t really retired.
Perhaps the founder of Tulane University’s Preservation Studies Program no longer lectures or leads studios, but he is far from idle. At his 1830s home, Sun Oak, on Burgundy Street in the Marigny Triangle, he spends his days archiving and organizing nearly 50 years of his own projects and the notebooks of his late partner Lloyd Sensat. Other days find him maintaining the vast tropical garden behind his home or planning an architectural tour for out of town guests.
Earlier this week, Cizek was gathering images to illustrate his Thursday talk at the Preservation Resource Center on “Contemporary Design in Historic Neighborhoods.” The talk begins at 6 p.m. at PRC headquarters, 923 Tchoupitoulas St. and admission is $5 (prcno.org).
“Contrary to what many think, contemporary design can fit very well into historic neighborhoods,” Cizek said. “But there are some basic principles that need to be followed.”
Some may be surprised that Cizek, an ardent preservationist, would promote the idea of contemporary design in historic districts like Faubourg Marigny, Bywater or the Irish Channel. But it helps to understand that most historical commissions and the Secretary of the Interior (who establishes guidelines for earning rehab tax credits) embrace the concept that buildings should “reflect the time in which they were built” and not imitate or attempt to replicate the look of historic houses.
“When we put on the rear addition to Sun Oak in 2004-2005, it was designed to have a contemporary feel with references to the front part of the house, but nothing that copied it exactly,” Cizek explained. “As much as anything, it’s an extension of the house out into the landscape but with simpler details and contemporary materials.”
The addition features large windows made of aluminum instead of wood. Unlike the heart pine floors in the historic portion of the house, those in the addition are Mexican tile. Smaller windows are of glass block and allow in light from outside. Instead of having a flat ceiling, the room has exposed ceiling rafters and beams. All of the windows are shaded by shutters that Cizek collected from the demolition of historic buildings.
“Shutters are one of the most functional elements you can have on a house,” Cizek remarked. “They protect your windows in a storm and control how much light comes in. I have always loved the view through partially opened louvers.”
Many of the private projects that Cizek has done for clients while teaching at Tulane are contemporary, including one in Natchez and another in Mandeville.
When Cizek owned the house next-door to his current residence, he rebuilt the deteriorated rear wall as a grid of glass and wood rather than as a more traditional exterior wall covered in weatherboards. Even while working on the restoration of landmark properties, including Laura and Woodland plantations, Cizek maintained his belief in contemporary design for new structures and major additions.
Cizek recalls one project from his many years of teaching at Tulane that began with his students conducting a survey of a portion of the historic New Marigny neighborhood and plotting vacant lots on a map.
“The point of it was for the students to identify areas for infill construction and to come up with ideas for what the infill could look like,” he said. “The first step was to establish the context.”
By “context,” Cizek means not only the size and characteristics of the lot but the scale, siting, style and massing of buildings on both sides of the block face.
“Which buildings are the tallest? How wide are they? Is there an identifiable rhythm?” he would ask his students. The answers would point the way to how the new houses would be designed so that they would complement rather than imitate the historic houses on the block. “When those factors are taken into consideration in the design, the new structures can contribute dramatically to the existing built environment.”