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An architecture critic (from Newark) looks at the bigger picture

So, in the third review of the new architectural plan for the Atlantic Yards project, after reviews in the Sun and Newsday (hey, where's the Times?), a critic finally looks at the bigger picture, not just the social forces behind the building battle but also whether it's worth it all. In an essay today under the cliched (and 16-towers avoiding) headline An arena grows in Brooklyn, Star-Ledger art/architecture critic Dan Bischoff notably opines that the community "givebacks... seem relatively paltry compared to the scale of the overall project."

Also, he acknowledges skepticism "about whether anything even remotely approaching these models will be built," given architect Frank Gehry's age and the typical fits and starts in an architectural project.

No, Bischoff doesn't try to assess the appropriate scale. He doesn't mention Forest City Ratner's sketchy architectural track record in Brooklyn. And he errs in describing the site as "just one of two or three large parcels of land within the core of New York City available for the kind of imaginative urban reconstruction that so many cities in Europe, China and India have used to modernize their cityscapes in the past two decades." Maybe the 8.3-acre railyard site would qualify, but the rest of the 22-acre site isn't so much available as assembled by a developer with deep pockets and the threat (and likely exercise) of eminent domain.

Still, he's notably not dazzled by Gehry.

It's about celebrity?

Bischoff begins:
Looking at the model for millionaire developer Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, a 17-building development designed around a state-of-the-art arena where the New Jersey Nets hope to move some time between 2010-16, you want to talk about modern architecture: You know, the massing of forms, the use of color, the cantilevered strusses in the arena's vast ceiling, maybe Frank Gehry's affection for cladding buildings with shiny metal surfaces--that sort of thing.
But somehow, it keeps coming out as a story about the uses of celebrity.
To begin with, there's Gehry himself, now 75, a gnomic, grey-haired, pleasantly self-effacing man (at least, that is how he is portrayed in the recently opened movie shot by film director Sydney Pollack, a long-time buddy of the architect, called "Sketches of Frank Gehry"). Gehry is one of those rarities, an architect who has become, by jingo, a celebrity in his own right, largely on the strength of his titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain....
Clearly, Ratner engaged Gehry for this project because he thought the architect's fame would smooth the way for the whole vast and long-troubled project, which faces determined neighborhood opposition.
But that opposition is itself not exactly celebrity-challenged. Part of the Atlantic Yards site abuts the indie movie studios where actor and director Steve Buscemi works, and he is unalterably opposed to the project. Also opposed is Museum of Modern Art photography curator Peter Galassi, who lives in the nabe, along with '80s painting star David Salle and movie stars Heath Ledger and Rosie Perez, who live there too. All of them decry the truly hulking size of the buildings, even in the new design unveiled this month, which shaves some 500,000 square feet off the total of last year's Gehry submission.


Bischoff makes a good point, echoing Kurt Andersen's observation that Bruce Ratner engaged Gehry to win over some of the chattering classes. Still, had Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn not assembled a celebrity-studded advisory board, would the valid criticisms being aired of this project just be ignored?

Only partly designed

Bischoff continues:
The core of Gehry's design -- and, as it happens, the only section of the tripartite design that he has yet to put a great deal of effort into -- is the arena section, at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, which Forest City Ratner Companies would like to open in 2010. Gehry proposes to solve the problem of the inevitable neighborhood-killing, forbidding blank curtain walls of an urban arena by essentially hiding the oval behind four high-rise buildings, the most spectacular of which he calls "Miss Brooklyn" because it reminds him of a Brooklyn bride trailing her elaborate train. It is a 650-foot-tall prow of glass and steel that opens at its point as a jagged, glass-encased "urban room," some four or five stories high, that would serve as a principal entrance to the arena. The narrowing wedge of sidewalk where the two avenues come together would be topped by a bleacher-sized set of stone steps that Gehry calls "the biggest stoop in all of Brooklyn."
The site is part of what's called the Atlantic railroad yards, the third largest mass transit hub in the city, where 10 subway lines and the Long Island Railroad come together. The land slopes rather steeply down toward Hudson Bay, and Gehry uses the grade to nestle the arena floor below the top level of the "stoop." That means passersby on the street could peer through the Post-Mod sheaths of glass on the outside of "Miss Brooklyn" to see the glow of the basketball court and its centrally-suspended scoreboard at eye-level, and presumably hear the roar of the crowd.


Bischoff makes a point that has seemed true since the project was unveiled in December 2003--Gehry has put the most work into the arena, the first arena he has ever designed.

The Atlantic railroad yards? Everyone has a problem with nomenclature. The hub is called Atlantic Terminal, the railyards are the Atlantic railyards or the Vanderbilt Yard, and the site as a whole has been dubbed Atlantic Yards by Forest City Ratner.

Questions of scale

After discussing the new Newark arena for the New Jersey Devils, Bischoff continues:
Gehry's plan, though, would trump the Newark arena with towering new construction, much of it residential -- something no arena has yet achieved (would you pay $1 million and up to live over the Meadowlands?)

He raises an important point--why exactly would people want to live so close to an arena? He might have acknowledged that the buildings around the planned Brooklyn arena were initially supposed to house offices, before Forest City Ratner traded office space for more lucrative housing.

Bischoff continues:
But that's just the start. If you include the other 13 high-rises proposed for the site, which stretches past four long urban blocks all the way to Vanderbilt Avenue, overall the project would generate 606,000 square feet of office space, 6.79 million square feet of residential space, 247,000 square feet of retail use and seven acres of open space cultivated by Bryant Park designer Laurie Olin. Taken altogether the project clocks in at $3.5 billion.
These secondary buildings would harbor the bulk of the project and march in a double line down the old rail lines toward the bay like plump and stately soldiers. Each would be 20 to 30 stories tall, and for now they are only sketched in by Gehry as square blocks stacked one upon another (with the occasional cube hanging over the one beneath or twisted slightly on its axis, like the way a child stacks his ABC blocks). Gehry also suggests a second iconic high-rise, taller than the rest, sheathed in shiny metal and subtly torqued to give interesting reflection patterns.


Only sketched in? Does Gehry really want to design the whole project, which is what (he says) he's been told to do?

Done deal?

Bischoff writes:
Ratner already controls 90 percent of the site. Momentum seems building toward an approval. There is little doubt that the site is just one of two or three large parcels of land within the core of New York City available for the kind of imaginative urban reconstruction that so many cities in Europe, China and India have used to modernize their cityscapes in the past two decades. New York does increasingly seem to be a quaint, 19th century environment of red brick tenements and '30s skyscrapers. It needs something bold to stay in the game.
But this design looks less like the new Shanghai than the old Eastern Europe, with its enormous high-rise blocks that bring a Le Corbusier geometric fantasy to mind. The givebacks to the community offered by Ratner's concept -- the outsized stoop, the "urban room" (closed four hours every day for clean-up only), 2,250 rental units priced at low- and moderate-income levels (out of 4,500 rentals, and not counting another 2,360 market-rate condos), promises to provide schools, day care, art galleries and health services sites, as well as reserving a sliver of seats in the arena for seniors and neighborhood folks at every Nets game -- seem relatively paltry compared to the scale of the overall project.


Well, his skepticism about the givebacks is welcome, but the environmental review remains in the early stages.

Getting "hairy"

Bischoff's final paragraphs:
Skepticism about whether anything even remotely approaching these models will be built can be forgiven, and not just because of the well-known divigations of the World Trade Center project. Gehry is, as we said, 75 years old -- they're making valedictory movies about him now -- and we can't be sure he will really be around to give his full attention to the completion of the design. Anyway, up to now he has proposed nothing that unifies the vast site, or that imaginatively reconfigures the neighborhood in a way that pleases all the different claimants to its use.
Part of the problem is Gehry's method. He rather famously proceeds in fits in starts, proposing designs, changing them, engaging his (usually) billionaire clients in the sturm und drang of artistic creation. It works great when you're focussed on the relationship between a single client and the architectural genius, but when the client is a thousand people, few of whom have ever wanted to live in an American suburb, it gets hairy. And we do remember the billion-dollar museum plan Gehry unveiled for the Guggenheim a few years back, slated for the East River just off the South Street Seaport. That'll never happen.
Celebrity is as celebrity does.


So, nothing unifies the site or reconfigures the neighborhood? The critic might have assessed the effect of the superblock, or whether the recently-modified view corridors in between buildings would increase site permeability. And he might have pointed out that "the client" is far more than a thousand people, given that the project could include more than 17,000 residents, some 2500 office workers, and a 20,000-seat arena--and some densely-populated nearby neighborhoods surely want a voice in the discussion.

Still, Bischoff's criticism raises a question: How "hairy" is it going to get?

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