No one expected it would be the design of the proposed Deutsches Haus building that would raise red flags with the City Planning Commission staff — no one connected with Deutsches Haus, at least.
Deutsches Haus and its architects knew that parking, hours of operation, accommodations for garbage handling and other such items would be carefully studied by the commission’s staff as it reviewed their application for a conditional use to build their new facility in an area next to Bayou St. John that is zoned residential. But comments on the building’s appearance? Those were a surprise.
“We aren’t really sure why the commission feels that the design of the building is part of what it has authority to review,” said Angela Morton, of Mathes Brierre Architects, the firm hired by Deutsches Haus to design the 18,000-square-foot building. “Proviso 3 in the staff report relating to the design sort of came out of left field.”
Deutsches Haus, the local German cultural center, was forced out of its original South Galvez Street location when the site was expropriated by the state for the medical complex under construction in Mid-City. As part of the settlement with the state, Deutsches Haus was offered the 5-acre site on Bayou St. John and funds to build the new center. In the meantime, the organization has been headquartered in Metairie.
Since the July 22 City Planning Commission meeting at which the conditional use application was approved subject to the provisos, reports have circulated that the commission staff objected to the design because it appeared “too German.” But a review of the video of the meeting and of the staff reports shows that the agency’s concerns went beyond that.
Commission staff member Stephen Kroll said the staff “and to some extent the administration” felt that the roof’s shape and patterning needed tweaking. He allowed that they are “sort of German” but said mainly that they are not “contextual” and do not have precedents in the vernacular architecture of New Orleans.
“What context?” asked Jimmy Fahrenholtz, of the Faubourg St. John Neighborhood Association. “All you have on the bayou there is that big apartment complex and two small rental houses. There isn’t really a context in that spot. Our president, Jim Danner, went to the commission meeting and expressed the neighborhood’s support. No one has any problem with the design, and we all want Deutsches Haus in the neighborhood.”
But Bob Rivers, executive director of the City Planning Commission, said the commission’s staff sees the issue of context and precedent in much broader terms.
“The site on Bayou St. John where the Deutsches Haus facility will be built is highly visible. It’s across from City Park and the (New Orleans) Museum (of Art),” Rivers said. “That’s the context we have concerns about. We are looking for a design that will complement this high-profile site.”
As for the proposed jerkinhead, or clipped-gable roof design, Rivers said his staff does not question whether the style can be found on homes near the site or in neighborhoods across the city.
“What we’re not comfortable with is trying to translate this element from residential design to a large institutional structure. The scope is vastly different,” he said. “We felt the design looked contrived, like something pulled out of a picture postcard.”
If the architects “do their homework,” as Rivers has urged them to do, they will need to find local examples of institutional architecture that expresses German culture to serve as inspiration for the appearance of the new building.
However, Irene Keil, of the Tulane School of Architecture, believes the fundamental premise of trying to design a building expressing German architecture is flawed.
“There is no one style of German architecture. It’s all regional,” she said. “The only time there was a national architecture in Germany was under the Third Reich.”
Where does that leave Deutsches Haus?
The City Council will take up the recommendations made by the Planning Commission in a matter of weeks. The council will have the option of approving the conditional use subject to Proviso 3 (which would require Deutsches Haus to revise the design before receiving a building permit), approving it without the proviso or rejecting it altogether — though the latter option is unlikely.
The site is in Councilwoman Susan Guidry’s district, and the council is likely, though not certain, to follow her recommendation.
Although Morton does not like the idea of asking the council to reject the commission’s design proviso, she said she feels the commission staff has overstepped its charge.
“The conflict is the result of the Planning Commission staff taking it upon itself to review and comment on the design, something that should be reserved for public buildings and those proposed in design overlay districts,” Morton said. “We can play by the rules, but we need to know what they are. They changed when the commission staff inserted itself into the design.”
But reviewing the design of a new building is nothing new for the commission and is appropriate in the case of an application for a conditional use, according to Rivers.
“It’s up to us to evaluate what kind of impact granting the conditional use will have on its surroundings and the community,” he said. “Part of our purpose is to protect the public interest in respect to design and ensure the city has a process in which good design can be debated. It’s a concern of this administration, and it’s important for the city that we are getting the best design possible.”