I first met Allen Eskew in the spring of 1978, when I was a student at Tulane. He was one of the young bucks shaking up Perez Associates, a staid New Orleans firm that had recently been passed down from August Perez, Sr. to August Perez, Jr., who was open to new possibilities. Allen’s partner in crime at Perez was my studio professor, Mac Heard. Mac’s studio was an eye-opener for me. It was steeped in cultural sources. We were asked to design a space for serving a meal of our devising; another based on Edward Hopper’s Rooms by the Sea; and—most profoundly—a building shaped by our reading of The Moviegoer, Walker Percy’s peerless rendering of the tangled culture of twentieth century New Orleans.
Such sources for design investigation may not seem like a big deal now; at the time, certainly at Tulane but probably at any school, they were revolutionary. Allen brought his gentle questioning and cheerful encouragement to Mac’s reviews, and in their rapport we got a glimpse of something new that was bubbling up in architecture. It bubbled up and cascaded down with crazy abandon in the design that Allen and Mac shepherded into being for the Piazza d’Italia. Their entry—Perez’s entry—had won that competition, but they chose to do something unheard of before or since: They invited one of the losers, Charles Moore, to join them in the Piazza’s design. The notorious result, a fountain in the shape of a map of Italy, with colorful colonnades and stainless steel capitals and acanthus leaves rendered in sprays of water, may be the most rectified distillation of all that was wrong with Postmodernism, as well as all that was right. What was unquestionably right, at that moment in New Orleans, was that it invited culture back into architecture.
Ever since, Allen was a tenacious advocate for the role of culture in architecture and of architecture in culture. As was Mac, who among his many gifts to the city that he and Allen loved, created at Tulane, with English professor Teresa Toulouse, a cross-disciplinary course in the culture of New Orleans, encompassing architecture, music, Carnival, and food. These interwoven arts were important to Allen, as well. He especially loved bringing people together around food: at his home, in restaurants, even at the office. In the 80s, that office was Eskew Filson Architects, and it was situated on the second floor of a building in the French Market. I was never there myself, but Reed Kroloff tells me that what you first encountered when you walked in the door was neither the stylish, uncomfortable furniture of the corporate reception area, nor the line of hollow core doors cum drafting tables of the more seat-of-the-pants practice, but, rather, a full, working kitchen. The kitchen was there to offer lagniappe, which Wikipedia tells us is “a small gift given to a customer by a merchant at the time of a purchase (such as a 13th doughnut when buying a dozen), or more broadly, ‘something given or obtained gratuitously or by way of good measure,’” a definition to which Allen added (this also according to Reed), “to show someone that you appreciate them.”
I’ve talked to a lot of people about Allen over the last couple of weeks, and the consistency of their recollections of him is remarkable but not surprising. I can’t manage gracefully to quote them all, so I’ll just rattle off the names, with thanks: in addition to Reed, Chuck Sanders, Wellington Reiter, Lee Askew, Kem Hinton, John Klingman, Alicia Heard, Nancy Eskew, Ray Manning, Michael Willis, Wayne Troyer, Z Smith, Errol Barron. I can’t not name them, as it was Allen’s practice to give credit to everyone, without the least concern for taking credit himself. This trait made him a masterful leader of collaborative endeavors, from the 1984 Louisiana World’s Fair to Reinventing the Crescent, the master plan for the New Orleans waterfront now under construction. People talk about the intensity with which Allen listened to you. I’ve enjoyed that intent look and the pleasure—and challenge—that came with knowing that he genuinely wanted to understand what you were trying to say.
Allen Eskew was the big dog in the New Orleans architectural community, going on two decades or more. As John Klingman told me, “He was always so far ahead of the curve, most people in town didn’t even know there was a curve.” His passing is a Category 5 blow to New Orleans, as it is to Eskew+Dumez+Ripple. But because Allen shared as he did; because he was, as much as anything else, a mentor; because he always sought to bring people up as he brought them along, he has left both city and firm able, strong, and ever optimistic.