August Perez III had an incredible impact on the way New Orleans looks today, from its skyline to Mardi Gras. Perez, one of the city's most important architects of the 20th century, passed away last week at the age of 81. His funeral will take place on Saturday in Metairie, just outside the city he helped transform.
Taking over his father's architecture firm in 1975, Perez quickly made his mark on postmodern architecture, teaming up with Charles Moore to design the Piazza D'Italia in 1978. The public plaza, filled with architectural winks, remains one of the most defining pieces of postmodern design to this day.
Perez and his firm were given an even bigger responsibility soon after the plaza's completion, the 1984 World's Fair. The event's architecture expressed a playfulness much like Moore and Perez's piazza.
It also introduced the gondola lift commute to the United States. Developed by Perez along with the Mississippi Aerial River Transit, the network took riders over the Mississippi River from the West Bank to the Warehouse District, where the fairgrounds were located. Like the rest of the event it was built for, MART was a financial disaster. Shut down due to low ridership in 1985, the group behind it defaulted on an $8 million loan that same year, and in 1989 the gondolas themselves were seized by U.S. Marshals. (They live on in a climactic chase scene in the 1986 thriller French Quarter Undercover.)
The fair's financial woes and low attendance dampened its legacy, but the event accomplished what Perez and its organizers had hoped for: a revitalized Warehouse District. After years of decline, the former industrial area (where Perez moved his firm to before the fair) began a slow transformation into an arts and culture district. Today, galleries and restaurants have turned the area into a popular tourist spot.
Even outside the world of architecture, Perez found ways to make an impact on New Orleans. The Krewe of Bacchus, of which Perez was a founding member, built larger, more elaborate Mardi Gras floats than the typical krewe and, breaking convention, invited celebrities to be parade kings.
It's hard to look at the New Orleans skyline today without seeing something that Perez had his hands on. From hotels to casinos to public squares, the architect stayed busy until his retirement in 2000. "He was responsible for half, if not more, of the high rises going up in the city at the time," says Perez's successor at the firm, Angela O'Byrne. "He was deeply committed to improving the city."