Jul 282014
 

The bayou facade of the proposed Deutsches Haus building on Moss Street (via Mathes Brierre architects)

Owen Courreges

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.

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  • pfvayda

    bravo, Owen!

  • nolagal70118

    The CPC’s statement was surprising to me, but then, so was the picture of the proposed structure once I saw it. Apparently, I don’t know what “Germanic” is supposed to look like, as I was picturing something along the traditional lines, like this — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Architecture_of_Germany. Perhaps CPC meant to say it is too modernistic.

    Of course, if they choose this modern style, that is their right to do so. I had just always imagined that the organization sought to preserve the historical German culture. While I am not a fan of the proposed design, ultimately I believe it is their right to choose the design of their building.

    • Owen Courrèges

      nolagal,

      It’s a contemporary Germanic design, but they didn’t really appear to complain about the contemporary part. Based on the CPC’s recommendations, I would wager than any new design submitted will still be contemporary, but the roof will less pitched and the tile design will be absent. In other words, it will make it look worse.

      Anyway, kudos on agreeing with their right to choose their own design. I understand that some aesthetic design mandates ought to be be imposed in some cases (such as with any new structures in the French Quarter), but I don’t see the purpose here.

  • H. J. Bosworth JR.

    Thank you Owen for another pointed and honest story about the absurd events that surround us. The old club house was in the way of the mega medical center and the group was forced out – thanks to the State of LA. They have been struggling with red tape for years now and now they must endure the foolishness of the Planning Commission.

    And when something we have all know as the Deutches Haus is proposed to look like a large German house, is there really any harm? I think Mathes Brierre executed a fine rendering of what we should all come to appreciate in years to come. Sehr gut!

  • Jim McArthur

    Maybe the Planning Commission has a point. After all, the French Quarter doesn’t look ‘too French’: maybe because it’s Spanish.

  • littlewitch

    I do not know about all that, but this building is very ugly, weird and out of place by any standard. Perhaps the Planning Commission needs to be more clear on what those standards are . How can anyone correct too “Germanic”…but in spirit they are completely correct, large contemporary buildings made with cheap building materials do not mesh well with our City’s Architecture.

    Also the modified “chalet” look is very contemporary, existing surrounding buildings are “period”. Maybe if this building was more of a “period interpretation “of a “Germanic structure” (whatever that is) , it would mesh. Right now this is a very commercial cheesy version of a Chalet… In Germany this might be viewed as not Germanic enough or at least too cartoonish.

    The Planning Commission needs clearer guidelines, but I agree with their opinion completely that this building does not relate to the surrounding neighborhood or the City in general. It will be an eyesore from day one.

    Fussiness and resistance to change on the part of the Planning Commission may be annoying, even maddening but it is a big reason why our city is considered one of the most beautiful in the USA. Preserving what is gorgeous means not allowing a hodge podge in the name of “Diversity”. No one would ever say that New Orleans is a “dull, inert city”. We must be doing something right.

    • Owen Courrèges

      littlewitch,

      I think I addressed your arguments in my piece. I don’t find the plans to be very attractive either, but then again, I’m not a big fan of contemporary architecture. However, that’s a personal bias and I don’t believe in imposing that on everyone else.

      In any event, the basis for the CPC’s criticism here was not that the building is insufficiently traditional, but that it was too “German,” particularly with respect to the pitch and design of the roof. I don’t think they were rejecting contemporary designs per se.

      I believe the rest of your arguments go well beyond the facts. “Cheap building materials?” That’s certainly a reality these days, but nothing in the CPC’s decision has anything to do with that. You want “clearer guidelines?” Sorry, but what you’re arguing is a visceral reaction to the design. You can’t create objective standards for “cheesy” or “commercial.” You can only arbitrarily impose your subjective aesthetic views, or restrict architecture to traditional forms.

      Finally, I would argue that the reason why New Orleans is considered beautiful is because we have preserved a large stock of traditional architecture from the Victorian era and earlier, not because we started micro-managing land use and new development in the 20th century. Trying to attribute our current aesthetic state to overregulation is farcical — New Orleans developed in the absence of that.

  • Deux amours

    Are style and aesthetic questions even within the purview of the City Planning Commission?

    • Owen Courrèges

      Deux,

      You wouldn’t think so, but… Here we are. The bottom line is that when the city gets to approve a conditional use it can tack on whatever “provisos” it wants.

      • Deux amours

        The “city” has not tacked on anything yet, I think there is a recommendation, without a legal basis, by the CPC, but you are right that the City can predicate conditional uses on changes it wants. I predict the Germans will win this like they ran over Argentina.

        • Owen Courrèges

          Deux,

          Fair enough. I hope you’re right.

  • Owen Courrèges

    frustrated,

    It’s not a slur. I’ve seen the immediate surrounding homes and they’re not particularly distinctive. That doesn’t mean that they’re ugly or bad; they just aren’t uniquely historical nor are they iconic examples of New Orleans residential architecture They don’t stand out in such a way that you’d say: “Boy, we’d better prevent somebody from building something GERMAN-LOOKING around here!”

    How you spun that comment into an “elitist attack on the middle class” and “offensive” is beyond me.

  • Leeandra Nolting

    OK, who did they neglect to pay off?

  • Michael Jones

    Someone forgot to pay off the commission.

  • Thankyoulordiamretired

    Diversity is lauded in this country, only if it is the politically correct culture (eg. Hispanic,Islamic, Black). Since German heritage is not in that group, tough luck suckers. I am sure Jefferson Parish would welcome such a structure. I do not see the hospital complexes messing with anything but they are a go. Just a random thought.