We can now officially say that the New Orleans City Planning Commission is insane. This week, the Planning Commission asked members of the Deutsches Haus to revisit the plans for their new building in Mid-City — because it is too Germanic-looking.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Now, when you go car shopping, you don’t say to the salesman: “I like this car, but it looks too much like, you know, a car. Don’t you have anything that looks like a bicycle?”
Likewise, you don’t call a realtor and ask to see a house, and then say: “Why do you keep showing me these buildings with bedrooms and bathrooms and pitched roofs? I want something emblazoned with Golden Arches that has a ball pit in front.”
Accordingly, the Planning Commission should hardly have been shocked when Deutsches Haus, which literally translates to “German House,” issued plans that looked very German. Of course the designs were strongly Germanic. That’s the whole damn point.
The Planning Commission’s reasoning was that the design “does not mesh well” with either the city or the surrounding neighborhood. Apparently, the Planning Commission subscribes to the bizarre and radical notion that a Germanic structure, located anywhere in New Orleans, is direly offensive to the architectural fabric of the entire city.
Of course, New Orleans actually does have a diverse stock of architecture, and even those buildings from similar eras can differ radically in appearance depending on their size and function. We have shotgun homes, double galleries, commercial structures and churches.
A church may not look anything like a single-family home, but they can still complement each other. We accept, both aesthetically and practically, that buildings with diverse uses and backgrounds will also have different appearances.
In the case of the planned site for Deutsches Haus, the immediate surrounding area consists of small homes that aren’t particularly distinctive. The design of Deutsches Haus is never going to mirror that of its neighbors, and it would be ridiculous for it to try. Were I a bit more cynical, I might argue that the Planning Commission was simply making vapid criticisms to justify its own existence.
For its part, Deutsches House seemed exasperated with the Planning Commission.
“We had the pre-eminent architectural firm in New Orleans to design us a Germanic building, and this is what the pre-eminent architectural firm says is a Germanic building,” said member George Mahl. “So we’d like to keep what we have there on paper.”
Personally, I don’t even like the proposed Deutsches Haus design all that much. It’s fairly modern-looking and I greatly prefer traditional architecture. Moreover, the stone walls give it a weird “mausoleum” vibe.
However, that’s how architecture works. To a large degree it’s subjective. Some people love modern design and others hate it. Some designs are hits, others are misses. This immutable reality is precisely the reason why it’s not a great idea to have a panel of aesthetic Pooh-Bahs with bizarre and unreasonable standards imposing their will on infill development.
Noted urbanist Jane Jacobs was famous for saying that “[i]n our American cities, we need all kinds of diversity.” This sentiment encompassed architectural diversity. Jacobs derided planners who pushed for architectural uniformity and celebrated the idea of having both traditional and contemporary structures throughout a city.
“Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else,” Jacobs wrote. “But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.”
What this means is that cities that demand uniformity tend to lack the dynamism necessary to sustain themselves. Here, a bureaucratic demand for architectural sameness is precisely the type of “dull” thinking that we need to nip in the bud.
Ultimately, it’s absurd that the City Planning Commission is obsessed with the notion of whether the plans for Deutsches Haus are too Germanic, or whether its roof design is out of place. A unique design closely mirroring the purpose of the structure should have been celebrated, not derided.
The city council will have the opportunity to bypass the Planning Commission’s recommendation, and I for one certainly hope they do. Unless planning in this city has truly become a cruel and inane exercise, there should be an allowance to permit the “German House” to look German.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.