Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Newsday critic: project would be west (?) of Atlantic/Flatbush intersection

In his 5/22/06 assessment of Frank Gehry's Atlantic Yards project, headlined Time to catch the wave, Newsday critic Justin Davidson makes two basic factual errors. First, he describes the project as 16 buildings covering 21 acres. Actually, it's 17 buildings (16 towers + arena) covering 22 acres.

He makes a more fundamental error, writing:
The developer Bruce Ratner wants to import the New Jersey Nets and erect for them a majestic yet intimate arena on the arrowhead-shaped lot where Atlantic and Flatbush avenues cross. Stretching to the west would be a high-rise Xanadu of offices, apartments, stores and restaurants, turning a dingy-chic wedge of city into a bright new campus. (Emphasis added)

Now that error could have been averted had the critic spent a minimal amount of time reading the documents associated with the project or walking around the proposed footprint. If he can't get the basics right, how could we expect him to engage the broader issues?

Questions of scale

Davidson writes:
Gehry has not exactly endeared himself to the locals. His position is that his design represents inexorable progress, and opponents are, by definition, reactionary. "They should have been picketing Henry Ford," he scoffed at the news conference, which was another way of saying that small-minded people were objecting to a titan of creative thought.
As a matter of fact, that's exactly what he is. To wish that he would design something more self-effacing is to protest that the pyramids of Giza stand out too boldly. Gehry does not blend in. He builds blockbusters. He manufactures his own limelight.


But the issue isn't a question of whether the project is self-effacing or not; it's whether the scale--the sheer size of the project--is inappropriate for the site and would cause undue effects on traffic and other facets of urban life.

Gehry and Ratner

Davidson writes:
It would be a mistake, however, to write Gehry off as Ratner's corporate tool. Few architects are as sensitive to the cultural implications of steel and glass, or to the way human beings move through the spaces he molds. He is expert at accommodating a welter of conflicting agendas and making it seem like it was all his idea. Disney Hall, for instance, addresses and nearly solves an impossible conundrum: how to create an environment for symphonic music that combines democracy and luxe.

Well, Gehry may not be Ratner's corporate tool, but he has agreed to his client's policy of preventing him from meeting with community members, and he has acquiesced to the request that he design the entire project himself, rather than bring in other architects. As for Disney Hall, it may be a good neighbor, but Miss Brooklyn may be more of an "ego trip."

The critic's qualms

Davidson does wag his finger:
The most dismaying aspect of the project is neither the sore-thumbness of the design or even the traffic the complex might create. It's the fact that government has outsourced the building of public space to private developers. Gehry's plans call for an ungated community, enclosed but accessible and sumptuously landscaped by Laurie Olin.

He does not, however, point out that the amount of open space would be much too little for the proposed population, or that the much-ballyhooed open park space on top of the arena has been turned into private space.

Atlantic Center redux?

Davidson writes:
The protesters are technically correct: Atlantic Yards, Miss Brooklyn and the arena all violate the spirit of Brooklyn architecture. But if neighbors succeed in defeating this project, they may eventually regret it. They could get acres of more "sensitive" and "contextual" plain brown wrapping, a development slightly less massive but also far less nuanced than Gehry's. This alternative might look rather like Ratner's last project, Atlantic Center Mall, the architect Hugh Hardy's egregious attempt to tuck a hulk among brownstones and hope it would blend in.

Actually, the last project was the Atlantic Terminal mall that Hardy designed. (Though Hardy's web site says the firm designed Atlantic Center, it appears that was designed by Ehrenkrantz & Eckstut. People get confused.) Is the critic saying the choice is between Gehry and the mall (above)? Doesn't the developer bear any responsibility? Or, in the case of public land, should the community have any voice?

In conclusion

Davidson's concluding paragraph:
But if Gehry's preferred facades of wavy glass and shiny metal have nothing to do with Brooklyn, his hubris and imagination sure do. He and Ratner are not Manhattanizing Brooklyn, as his opponents claim. Rather they are selling the borough on a new boast. Manhattan may get a building or two, but only Brooklyn will have a whole New Jerusalem, signed Frank Gehry.

A whole New Jerusalem? Is Davidson channeling Herbert Muschamp? And does the hubris belong to Brooklyn, or to the developer?

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