Jacques Levet, Jr.

Terminal La Habana Vieja – An International Ferry Terminal For Havana, Cuba

Last week, President Obama announced major changes to American relations with Cuba that will greatly alter commercial and diplomatic ties between the two countries. This announcement came just a year after I paid a visit to the island to study its architecture and work on a design proposal for a project within Havana. My design was thankfully chosen to receive an Acanthus Award by the Chicago-Midwest chapter of the ICAA.

In 1960, the United States imposed a commercial, financial, and economic embargo on Cuba. Since this time, architectural development within the country has been almost nonexistent, and most of the capital city of Havana has fallen into a severe state of decay. Nonetheless, the architectural character of the city still shines through the neglect and offers a fantastic example of a traditional city for architectural study. As Michael Lykoudis, Dean of the School of Architecture at Notre Dame, says, the city is “one of the few intact cities that we have in the Americas that represents the connectivity to the European roots of American architecture.”

Map designed to demonstrate interconnectivity of proposed terminal to other forms of transportation infrastructure and international ports.

Map designed to demonstrate interconnectivity of proposed terminal to other forms of transportation infrastructure and international ports.

The project I developed was for a new international ferry terminal, the Terminal La Habana Vieja, located along the waterfront within the capital city. I started the project with the design and rendering of a map to demonstrate the international impact of such a terminal. The map was designed to highlight the interconnected transport systems that could be utilized with such a terminal and link the entire island to international ports. The main panel highlights the system of existing roads and railways that connect the hinterlands of the island both to the city and to the proposed terminal. The next panel, in the upper right, shows proposed ferry routes that would directly link this terminal to world ports. The routes were developed by first researching historical shipping routes used for travel and the transport of goods and then combining this knowledge with the statuses of current major ports in other countries. The last and smallest panel shows a view of the Morro Castle, which stands at the entry to the bay and would be viewed by all ships entering and leaving the port. The overall plate was laid out utilizing the self-replicating properties of the golden rectangle to both organize the sheet and to guide the views from panel to panel.

Terminal La Habana Vieja

Terminal La Habana Vieja

The design for the terminal started out with many challenges: there is no local precedence for a large ferry terminal in Cuba, passive cooling must be utilized for main spaces, and the site is directly in front of a historic waterfront walkway so that any proposed building will separate this public space from the harbor.

A precedent study led to the utilization of Spanish Cabildos, which are found throughout other Spanish colonies. The form uses the region’s vernacular architecture while maintaining a civic presence. It also demonstrates details and moldings capable with local materials that stand up to Havana’s tropical climate.

The designed plan adapts the Cuban courtyard for the main waiting room to allow for passive cooling, and the permeability of this central portion allows public access to the water. The two terminals, one for domestic travel and the other for international, are pushed to the sides of the building and form the two pavilions of the street and river façade. Commercial program was placed along the street. The central tower becomes the terminus for a series of streets and continues a Havana tradition of towers marking transit terminals. The height of the tower was also made so that it can be seen from the dock of the arriving boats, aiding in understanding the organization of the building before entering.

Visiting and designing within Havana was a remarkable experience that proved to be quite timely.  Below is a collection of images from the research trip that shows the current state of decay of most of the city.





A New Home for Columbia Plantation!

Colombia Plantation

Columbia Plantation, and important Louisiana Creole home, has recently been relocated to a piece of property between Evergreen and Whitney Plantation and is under restoration by a descendent of the original family.

The home is typical of a raised, creole plantation house, and was built by the Marmillion family in 1782.  While the home was originally raised a full level, it was, at some point, lowered to a single story.

Columbia Plantation before Restoration/Relocation

Columbia Plantation before Restoration/Relocation

The photo above was the first time I photographed the home and shows it in its lowered state.

Columbia Plantation after a little sprucing up!

Columbia Plantation after a little sprucing up!

The next time I visited, it had underwent minor restoration work, a paint-job, and obtained a new roof.  This was the state the home was in when it changed hands and was purchased by Norman Marmillion, a descendent of the original family and owner of nearby Laura Plantation.

Norman moved the home 6 miles upriver to a prime location in Edgard, LA, between two major plantations, Evergreen and Whitney, both of which boasts large, creole homes.

The house was unfortunately two wide for the River Road to make the journey directly upriver, so it had to be transported via a longer route, utilizing the width of a nearby highway.  The home made it to its new location safe and sound, and was placed, once again, upon a raised-basement to a height much more appropriate for the home.

The home at it's new location and under restoration!

The home at it’s new location and under restoration!

Norman is currently restoring the home to be a private residence, and there are plans to cover the property in elaborate gardens.

I’ll be posting more information as the project progresses!

All images, unless specified as from another source, are copyrighted J. Levet, Jr.

Bath, England Part 2! – A Georgian Townhouse and Society Hall

Proposed Townhouse Facade

Proposed Townhouse Facade

The previous post was regarding a proposed redevelopment in the World Heritage Site of the city of Bath, England.  Involved with that project was the design of two buildings, a row of adaptable townhouses and a Bath Society Hall and Conference Center.  Excitingly, my design for the Society Hall was chosen by our jurors to represent the design team by being included in the master plan and presented to the Bath Council!

I found the first project, the row of townhouses, particularly interesting, as it was my first residential design project while at Notre Dame.  The homes were to be three-and-a-half story single-family homes, the common fabric building found throughout the historic city.  What made the project challenging was that the homes had to allow for future adaptation into flats or offices on individual floors, and two plan configurations had to be developed: one for the single-family residence and one for the series of flats. In my personal research, I found that a lack of accessibility is also a major problem in the historic part of the city and is causing an aging population to seek residence elsewhere.  Noticing this, I also wanted my townhouses to be innately “visitable” by a person with a disability and also easily converted to become fully accessible if needed.

The townhouses found throughout Bath are often only two rooms deep to allow for light and ventilation and rely on a central perpendicular structural wall.  This makes it extremely difficult to reconfigure the various floors into separate flats when needed, a quickly realized design problem for this project!  The need of getting light and air deep into the interior rooms while retaining the character of the homes was a big challenge.  This need is especially important when considering converting the homes to flats.  My solution was creating an L-shaped floor plan that reversed itself with each townhouse.  This allowed for a small courtyard and enough open space to have privacy between the adjacent homes.  This also allowed for the general composition of the floor plan to remain similar to its historic models as well as maintain other characteristics such as the firewalls, rear gardens, and seamless front facades.

While I thought the first project was difficult to resolve in plan, the second design contained challenges all over the place!  The Bath Society Hall and Conference Center held two unique and separate programs in one building.   The building’s footprint was pre-determined and quite irregular.  And to make it even more difficult, there were three main entrances, three main level changes, and SIX highly-visible facades! ….all of this was to be carried out in the highly regular and strict Georgian language.  Needless to say, this was a study of organizing a building’s plan, spatial hierarchies, the architectural ‘promenade,’ centering and re-centering, etc.

After much trial and error, my final solution finally separated the two programs while maintaining the footprint that was allocated for the building.  After the review, the panel of jurors, which included architect Michael Dennis, voted to have my design represent the class in our master plan for the area when presented to the Bath Council on our trip to England.

For more information on the project and for pictures from the design team’s presentation in Bath, see my last post!

A Development within a World Heritage Site – Bath, England

For a full semester, our design studio focused on redeveloping an area in Bath, England, a World Heritage site known for its 18th-century Georgian buildings.  After focusing on numerous projects located within the city, the team traveled to England on a grant-funded trip to experience the city first-hand and present the design to the locals!


The Circus – Bath, England

The beginning of the project was a team effort in developing a master plan for an area in the fold of the river Avon, east of Manvers street, near the Bath Spa Railway Station.  Most of the city within the World Heritage site contains stunning Georgian townhouses and civic buildings.  This area, however, is less fortunate in its development and consists of modernist office buildings, multiple parking lots, a police station, and a large mail-sorting office.  Each of these is slated to either be moved to another site or have a short projected lifespan, opening the site for development in the near future.

Axonometric View of Existing Conditions (shown from the SE)

Axonometric View of Existing Conditions (shown from the SE)

The history of the site involves an initial development plan by John Wood the Elder, with which he proposed a large octagonal basin surrounded by an elevated portico supporting terraced buildings.  With the colossal size of the project (the space alone measured 1040x624ft), it was only partially completed.

The team’s resulting plan for the neighborhood envisions reinstituting traditional urban blocks and spaces, utilizing the building types found throughout the city.  A necklace of public spaces was formed by a number of mixed-use buildings.

Axonometric View of the Proposed Redevelopment (shown from the SE)

Axonometric View of the Proposed Redevelopment (shown from the SE)

Above, one can see the redevelopment in its final phase.  An elegant gate welcomes those arriving by train into Ralph Allen Court, an intimate plaza lined with shops and apartments.  With the river now being used for pleasure instead of utility as it was in the past, an emphasis was placed on how to face the river as well as providing public access to the water.  Thus, the spaces are designed to bring the visitor further through Padmore Square and into Riverview Terrace.  At this interesting location near the bridge, a new home for the Bath Society Hall and Conference Center is planned, which was designed in detail in another project.  Fronting Riverview Terrace is a large row of adaptable terraced houses, also designed in detail.  A series of mews provide access to the rear of buildings for private use and more utilitarian purposes.  An open-air market hall is strategically placed at the connecting point of the Riverview Terrace and Forum Square and stands directly in front of a descent to the water, similar to the Porta Ripeta in Rome. This connection to the water continues along the river with a riverside walkway along the entire project.  The sunken parking lot in front of the large St. John’s Church is kept but is simply covered to create a formalized public garden.

In the research stage, a Georgian building used as a post office was found hidden among the modern postal sorting office, disguised by a large, shed roof.  This building is uncovered in the plan and is set to remain serving as a civic building.  Coincidentally, the structure is aligned exactly with the center of John Wood’s plan, and a marker was set across the river at the midpoint of his proposed colossal forum.

River Elevation of the Proposed Design

River Elevation of the Proposed Design

Excitingly, after the project’s completion, the team won a series of grants to travel to Bath and presented the design to the City Council, local architects and developers, interested citizens, and several representatives from local organizations.  Both the Chairman of the Council and the Council Leader gave welcoming addresses.

In Bath, the team stayed in an 18th-century Georgian townhouse, and toured the city in its entirety.  While, that’s a topic for another post, here are a few pictures from our visit!

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The team involved with the design of this project and the produced drawings include Patrick Alles, Mary Elizabeth Bland, Taksit Dhanagom, Ricardo Gonzalez, Cameron Henry, Kelsie Hoke, Jacques Levet, Caroline Swinehart, Katherine Torvinen, Daniel Witt, Jingwen Zhao under Prof. Richard Economakis

What’s on your bookshelf?


Much can be learned about a person by merely looking at his books, and I am no exception. They dominate my living room, overstuffing shelves and spilling into stacks on the floor.  With a quick glance, one sees: Engineering Biomaterials, Creole Houses, Fractal Mathematics, and Photographer to Architects.  My bookcase and its seemingly unrelated contents are evidence to my perspective on design and how I position myself in the world.  They also represent the various interests I have developed which directed my educational path to first obtaining a degree in biomedical engineering, continuing on to medical school, and finally working towards a degree in classical architecture.

Other bibliophiles understand why I cherish my books so much.  Nonetheless, amongst all of them, there are three books I always keep within reach, not because of the useful information they contain, but because of the sentimental value I have for them.  I encountered these books at a young age, and they caused me to fall completely in love with Louisiana’s architecture and culture.

  • Along the River Road – Mary Ann Sternburg
  • The Louisiana Houses of A. Hays Town – Cyril E. Vetter and Philip Gould
  • Ghosts along the Mississippi – Clarence Laughlin

This post will be written in three parts, one per book.

Along the River Road

Shortly after my middle-school graduation, I was randomly given this book as a congratulatory gift by an older neighbor whom I barely knew.  It was a strange surprise, but I appreciated it.  The book, by Mary Ann Sternburg, takes you along a historical driving tour of the Great River Road from New Orleans to Baton Rouge.

In her introduction, she pointed out meeting two individuals. One was a visitor, who was unable to identify what she saw along the River Road, and thus lost interest.  The other was an aficionado, who was still able to identify and understood the history regardless of the small number of sites remaining.  With this, she recognized the need to identify the missing link and work towards connecting the two individuals’ interest and knowledge.

She completed a book that was to serve as a portable reference guide.  Covering both banks of the Mississippi River, she provided historical information at hundreds of sites along the way.  Organizing and labeling the sites by a car’s mileage, she pointed out ditches, trees, and other seemingly unimportant markers to find (“A dark treeline of cypresses and willows at the far end of the open field denotes the upriver line of Manchac Plantation”).  With each of these, she explained what once existed at the location, and constantly connects the site’s history to other information in the area.  By doing so, she demonstrated the richness and density of history found on the Great River Road that is unknown even by most locals.  Much like modern iPhone apps and websites (such as www.HistoryPin.com), she gave the reader a look back in time in a format he or she can carry around and use at the specific, historic location.  I would constantly drag friends of mine around to hold the book as I drove, so they could point out each and every marker she identified.  I own two copies of the book: the one I was originally given, which is now worn, banged up, and covered in notes, dirt, and mold stains, and another, more pristine copy that I keep on a shelf for reference.

For me, and I hope for many others, she provided a cherished resource that connected me to my region’s history.   Her book literally got me driving on the River Road and exploring the sugarcane fields of Louisiana to see what I could find.

And gosh, I found a lot. And I’m still searching for more!

(Find it on Amazon here!)

A New Orleans Town House

I often get asked to point out my favorite place in New Orleans.  It’s a tough question for any New Orleanian as there are so many great places for so many different reasons.  But when I have to choose, I usually talk about my favorite home to photograph, Maison Vitry.  I’ve written before about a project I’ve helped with at the home, but the place is definitely worth a closer look.  It’s a private home in Treme with an intriguing history, amazing decorative and architectural features, and an interesting state of preservation.

Maison Vitry

Maison Vitry

Maison Vitry’s history is very characteristic of New Orleans.  The home was built in 1855 for a free woman of color, Louise Arsene Vitry, by her consort, Achille Barthelmy Courcelle, a Frenchman.  Louise was born in Louisiana to refugees of the Haitian slave revolts that occurred at the turn of the 18th century.  In 1857, there was a bank panic which caused Courcelle to sue Ms. Vitry.  Let me emphasize the point that Courcelle was a white male suing a free woman of color in antebellum Louisiana.  Nonetheless, Courcelle lost the case.  He appealed to the Louisiana State Supreme Court, which again ruled in Ms. Vitry’s favor.  At this time, Ms. Vitry’s grand home had a lot that spanned the entire block and was serviced by her seven slaves.  When the home was sold in 1882, a full column newspaper description, written in both French and English, described the “Elegant Family Dwelling,” its gardens, and all of the outbuildings which included a kitchen, four water cisterns, a green house, and a wine cellar.

Louise Vitry's Carte-de-Visite Portrait

Louise Vitry

Interestingly, while the family was very Creole, the house was designed as an American style, side-hall town house.  After passing through the large, greek-revival front door, one enters the stair-hall with the original, mahogany staircase and wonderful, frescoed walls.  The ground floor is dominated by it’s double parlor, which is separated by a pair of large, pocket doors.  The back dining room also has the original frescoed plaster.

The home remains a private residence.  Instead of rushing into a complete renovation, the owners decided to take their time to learn as much as possible about the building and it’s history.  They have undertaken much preservation work, to safeguard the building from any further time-related damage, and thus have frozen the home in an elegant state of decay.  While there is plenty of work to be done, the home has luckily been saved  from both further damage and from a “sterile” renovation.

All photos (except for the portrait) are property of J. Levet, Jr.  More information about Maison Vitry can be found at http://www.MaisonVitry.com.

Inside Timothy Richards’ Architectural Model Workshop

Drayton Hall model by Timothy Richards

Drayton Hall model by Timothy Richards

I was recently able to get a insider’s look at Timothy Richards’ studio in Bath, England where he creates his fantastic architectural models!  Timothy Richards, for over 25 years ,has been creating architectural models of (mostly) classical architecture out of traditional materials such as plaster, bronze, and brass.  In recent years, Richards was asked by the Royal Institute of British Architects to build a series of replicas of Palladio’s works which were shown in a traveling exhibition.

Timothy Richards' Workshop

Timothy Richards’ Workshop

The process of building one of his models starts out with analyzing the building’s plan and elevation in great detail.  A master model is built from styrene sheets, resin, and wood.  Silicone-rubber molds are made from this master form which are used to cast the plaster for the finished piece.  The plaster for each piece is pigmented accordingly for the building so that no paint is used on the final product, creating an extremely realistic look.

More information about Timothy Richards, the workshop, and his models can be found at www.TimothyRichards.com.

Creole Proportions

The importance of ratios and proportion is rooted deep in the ideals and design process of classical architecture, creating rooms and buildings that feel in place with itself, its components, and its surroundings.  While such principles found in ancient buildings are researched and written about quite often, many individuals are surprised to learn of their usage in more traditional and later architectural forms.  Creole homes throughout Louisiana, as vernacular as they are, are often designed by these classical shapes, creating cottages and plantation homes with wonderful proportions and comfortable rooms.

Now don’t get me wrong, the builders of Louisiana’s early homes were not all following Alberti’s guiding principles exactly.  If you try to measure and compare early Louisiana columns, for instance, you’ll find that they are all somewhat different.  However, with a closer look, one can realize that the builders of the state’s early homes knew and understood the importance of implementing classical knowledge.

Architectural proportion is simply a relationship between two ratios, commonly seen as the association between two or more rectangles.  Simply put, to design with “good proportions” involves paying close attention to the shape of a singular rectangle (a room) and how it fits among a unified whole (the plan).  Steven Semes, in his book The Architecture of the Classical Interior, describes how the relationship between rooms (A and B) can usually be described by three terms: equality (where A and B are equal), punctuation (where the disparity in size between A and B is large and one serves as a bordering or framing element), and differentiation (which is a comfortable midpoint between equality and punctuation).  Differentiation can provide a variety of room sizes while creating the sense of hierarchy necessary in a classical plan.

Golden Spiral

Golden Spiral

Many proportions and classical room shapes can be found in Creole architecture, from perfect squares, whole-number rectangles, root-2 rectangles, and so on.  To limit the discussion, I’m going to mostly focus on a common ratio used for differentiation, the Golden Section.  Based on the half-diagonal of a square, the Golden Section ratio has the unique trait of self-replication.  If one starts with a golden rectangle and subtracts out a square based on the shorter side, another golden rectangle emerges 90 degrees to the first.  This can be repeated and forms the commonly seen Golden Section spiral, which I use to represent the shape and components of a golden rectangle.


The Homeplace-Keller Plantation home is a raised, creole plantation in Louisiana’s colonial style.  Constructed around 1790, it is one of Louisiana’s oldest and most original large-scale creole homes.  It’s plan is typical of an early Creole home, consisting of large, central rooms, with smaller rooms around the sides.

If one takes a look at the plan of the entire building, one can see that the overall dimensions form one large and exact Golden Section rectangle (represented with the Golden Section spiral in the images below).  The rooms, themselves, are based on two squares, or a 1:2 ratio.

Taking a closer look at the plan, one can see a pair of square rooms standing front-and-center.  In the traditional Louisiana form, these rooms are arranged with the salle-et-chambre plan, a core module found in creole floor plans that has roots in northern France. The module consists of square sale coupled with a narrower chambre, utilizing the concept of differentiationThe proportional scheme relating the chambre to the salle is seen as the Golden Section.  This proportional system and ratio for individual rooms resonates throughout the entire plan of Homeplace-Keller, but with more observations, even more proportional schemes can undoubtedly be found throughout the home.

(Click images to enlarge)


Another example can be seen in the Evergreen Plantation home, which was originally a raised, creole home before it was modernized in the Greek Revival style.  Luckily, the original floor plan from the 1830’s is still in place.  Like Homeplace-Keller, the entire plan of the house is a large Golden Section rectangle.  The plan of the rooms is a little different, however.  Evergreen represents a different family of creole floor plans that posses a single, central parlor with symmetrically placed rooms surrounding it.  The main core of rooms is seen as another Golden Section rectangle which is set centrally and to the back of the surrounding gallery.  The two side-rooms adjoining the main parlor can each be seen as being a Golden Section rectangle and forming a larger golden rectangle when placed with the core room.  All three rooms, when joined, form what is called a root-five rectangle.  Even the two, small cabinets in the rear are Golden Section rectangles.  Evergreen, as well, consists of many different proportions to compose the plan and facade, so these are only a few examples that helped guide its form.

Determining an architect’s or builder’s underlying proportional scheme is always interesting, and while I stressed the use of the Golden Section in these examples, many more classical proportions can be found throughout Louisiana’s historic architecture.  Below are a few more examples that show how less grand and more ancillary buildings were also guided by these principles.  These time-tested design methods, spanning from ancient Greece to coastal Louisiana, help tell the story of the classical language of architecture and is one of the many reason Louisiana’s traditional architecture is still appreciated today.

All architectural drawings shown are from the Historic American Building Survey.

A New Orleans Floorcloth

Maison Vitry, and 1850’s townhouse, is perhaps my favorite home in New Orleans.  It’s “elegantly decayed” state makes it extremely photogenic and has a history that is positively New Orleans.  I recently worked on a canvas floorcloth for the upstairs hall, and in doing this, I realized how few are aware of how common and intricate these floor coverings once were.  Here’s a little bit about their history and the steps we took to give Maison Vitry a new, hand-painted floorcloth!

Floorcloths are simply painted canvas floor coverings and have been used since the Renaissance.  They are easy to keep clean, protect wood flooring from damage, and help keep cold air from coming up through the floor.  By the middle to end of the 19th century, kamptulicon and, later, linoleum replaced their production.

Period image showing a floorcloth

Period image showing a floorcloth

Floorcloths were common in high traffic areas, and this is why the upper stair hall of the home was chosen.  The design and colors I chose are consistent to what Louise Vitry would have had in her home during the mid-19th century.

We received the floorcloth pre-cut and primed from Lisa Mair of Vermont.  Luckily, the home’s double parlor gave us enough room to fully stretch out the canvas and iron it flat before we got started.

After ironing, we covered the entire canvas in two coats of the base color, which was definitely the fastest part of the entire project!

Me, naively thinking the rest of the project will go as quickly as the base coat.....

Me, naively thinking the rest of the project will go as quickly as the base coat…..

I cut a series of stencils for each color of the design, and then continued on layering the pattern.

After a few weeks of evening painting, the floorcloth was finally finished!  We covered it in a few layers of polyurethane and moved it in place!

While it was definitely not a quick project, the new floorcloth looks right at home in the 1850’s townhouse!