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Gehry interviewed by Ouroussoff: signage but not scale

Atlantic Yards project architect Frank Gehry appeared on the Charlie Rose show last night on PBS, in a chummy interview with New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, and it was not as illuminating as when Ouroussoff talked to Rose about Gehry ("he's now getting into a kind of unfamiliar territory'), now when Ouroussoff interviewed Gehry in New York, when the architect seemed unprepared for questions about Atlantic Yards.

Indeed, while Gehry talked mainly about topics other than the Atlantic Yards project, he did manage to repeat some praise for his client, Bruce Ratner, and to discuss plans for signage and design at the Brooklyn Arena, in partnership with a name we'll probably hear much more of: Peter Arnell. (Screenshots right and below from show video.)

Ouroussoff didn't raise any questions about the scale of the project--Gehry told him in January that "it's coming way back" but those words were repudiated when Forest City Ratner announced reductions of only five percent on March 31.

(Was this just the first stage of a Forest City Ratner plan to keep scaling back the plan slightly, to appear to be responding to the community? Did Gehry's handlers insist that he not be pressed about scale? Did Ouroussff not read his own newspaper?)

Ouroussoff asked what it's like working with developers, working on an urban scale, not simply a building, and Gehry went on to explain the arc of his career, how he initially worked with developers, then went solo, until recently,

FG: I guess I became attractive to some developers, recently, and I resisted it at first. For me it's like the people, if I like them--Bruce Ratner is politically my kind of guy, he's a do-gooder, liberal, we can talk, he likes classical music, and he collects art. So he's a guy I can play with.

As noted, Gehry also characterized Ratner as a fellow "liberal, do-gooder" in the 7/25/05 New York Observer; others, like Cooper Union's Fred Siegel, have called Ratner "master of the subsidy."

From Renzo to Frank

NO: You met Bruce Ratner at a competition for our building, the New York Times tower. He ended up hiring Renzo Piano.... He told me not that long ago that's when you guys hit it off. And he had to change his culture too, in a way, because he was working with an architect he wasn't used to working with.

FG: I think the experience with Renzo was good for him. I think he's a guy that really wants to do stuff, and good things. The Renzo experience felt good, and he met me, he felt like he could talk to me. It has been really good.

NO: There has been a process of education on both your parts. In Ratner's case, you've tried to push him into places where he's not used to going.

FG: It's not that I'm trying to push him. He's asking me to do something, and he's very clear that he wants to do something special. He has a pro forma, he has a responsibility--he's a public company, he's got responsibility to stockholders and things like that, so it's got to work, and being a developer, I know very well, it can get precarious, because it shifts, and the economy shifts, and all kinds of shifts can happen. Like if housing--there's a boom now, next week it isn't, and he's building housing, you've got to have staying power, which I think the people I'm working with do that and understand.

(That's probably why Forest City Ratner is also considering a variation that restores office space previously traded for market-rate housing. And that pro forma remains under wraps.)

Dealing with developers

Ouroussoff went on to talk with Gehry about how he studied as an urban planner, "part of a your do-gooder background." The conversation eventually returned to how Gehry maintains his principles when dealing with developers.

NO: How do you keep in that context, when you're dealing with the bottom line, when you're dealing with people who come out of a certain culture, and maybe are just learning to deal with architecs like you, how do you keep that toughness in your work?

FG: I don't know that I can verbalize it. I have a set of criteria I'm sure in my head, but they're not verbal. There's things I like and things I don't like. I'll take directions based on that, but it's intuitive.

NO: You've been collaborating a bit, in Brooklyn and in other projects, with younger guys... you've brought people into the office you haven't worked with, Peter Arnett--

"Peter Arnell," Gehry corrected, and went on to discuss his role working with younger architects from inside and outside his office.

Arnell and the animated arena

NO: How about Peter? What's it like--Peter's in the advertising world, and you've described yourself as computer-illiterate. You guys have been working in a space that's been new for you. Can you talk a little about what you're doing with him in Brooklyn?

FG: Peter Arnell did my first book, many years ago. He studied with Michael Graves, and he has a great background in architectural history, he reads everything, he knows classical music, he's a great photographer, takes wonderful pictures. He's kind of a genius. It's mind-boggling.... I asked Bruce Ratner to meet Peter Arnell. But I didn't know Peter Arnell did what--I knew he did stuff like that--and he's been just great doing the signage, and the wayfinding. But he also has invented things, like the floor of the Nets, floor for the basketball--

NO: which will be completely animated, as well as the--

FG: as well as the ceiling. And what I'm interested in... I did a proposal a few years ago for a Times Square store, for Time-Warner--

NO: The chain-link curtains that started lifting up like the building was undressing.

FG: Like a cuckoo clock, with Time-Warner figures. It's obvious that buildings are becoming billboards, all around the world. And Venturi was right, Learning from Las Vegas, you go to Times Square and it's all there.

NO: But these aren't Venturi's billboards any more.

FG: But how does an architect get ahead of that? How does our profession find out what to do with that idea, which is ubiquitous, coming? You're not going to be able to close that barn door. So how do you deal with that. That's what fascinated me with Arnell's kind of thinking, of how to develop something that connects with the architecture, that makes the architecture better.

NO: Let's be more specific--you're talking about a kind of layering--is it OK to talk about the models that I saw? We're talking about a layering around the exterior, this is around the arena in Brooklyn, it starts to peel apart, where the advertising and the facades of the buildings start to blur.

Note that Ouroussoff has been made privy to designs that the public hasn't seen.

FG: So it's not there sometimes and it's there sometimes. There's a little bit of it, and there's more of it. And it can be used for community issues, as well as advertising. It has a social function, if it's played right, it can be used for art... How do you make that--everybody's getting it, whether they like it or not, it's all over us.

NO: Meaning people will have to live with this, so the question is: what can you turn it into.

FG: If I look at what Peter Arnell and I are doing right now, they're baby steps. I really think we've got to get into the technology and see where really the root of it. Y'know, LED is little tiny things, they sit on black background--it's not pretty yet. How do you turn it into something--that's the trick. And maybe there's something other than LED.

The trick is also whether the signage would cause enough glare to be considered light pollution.

More on Arnell

The only other reference to Arnell in the Atlantic Yards project came in the December 2005 newsletter of the American Institute of Architects New York chapter:
Working with advertising/marketing/design guru Peter Arnell, Gehry is exploring innovative lighting projections on the scoreboard and on the floor, and wants so many things happening visually that the arena feels full but intimate at the same time.

And there's another curious connection between Arnell and the rapper Jay-Z, who's got a high profile among the several shareholders with small stakes in the Nets. A 11/18/03 Ad Age article described how Arnell and his wife sold their apartment in TriBeCa, "after a much-publicized dispute with other tenants in the building who blocked Arnell’s effort to sell the property to rapper and friend Jay-Z."


  1. I had a dream that the entire project was just a holographic projection and that Gehry stopped claiming that he was a liberal do-godder and actually did some good.

  2. Hi! I'm the one who is offended because Charlie Gargano made a million bucks from fake anti-terrorism equipment while dead bodies were still being pulled from the rubble of the WTC (Ask me about Eagle Building Technologies - Charlie was a director).

    I have a question about NYC real estate. I was searching the NYC secretary of state corporate database and came across hundreds of not-for-profit entities that have "housing development fund corporation" in their names and they are all in NYC. The address in some cases appear to be private homes.

    Is this some sort of tax scam? Does everyone in NYC incorporate as a housing development fund corp? I'd really, really like to know the answer. If you have any info, could you post it here or email me at I'd appreciate any help ever so much. And let me know if you need any dirt on Gargano - I have lots of it. I'm also the one who thinks Lawrence, Gargano's son, was doing subcontracting for Ratner.

    mrs p


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