Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ratner lowers our architectural expections; will Gehry ease away?

Yes, the "news" (as hinted by the New York Observer) from the fairly gentle profile NY1 ran last night of Bruce Ratner is that the Atlantic Yards developer is talking populism, not Gehry-ism:
“We need jobs, we need shopping that's appropriate and the right price and quality goods, we need supermarkets that provide food that is of quality and well-priced, we need housing, and you know what? The architecture is important, but it's not that important,” says Ratner.

"I want to do great architecture, but I have to say something, which is that, if one is going to boil life down to architecture, then you know what? It's not for me,” he adds.


Pending estrangement?

Interviewer Budd Mishkin, host of the "One On 1" series, didn't raise the suggestion, but to me it hinted as a potential estrangement from Frank Gehry. (Gehry's not mentioned at all in the piece, though models of his buildings are evident and, of course, such video segments are edited.)

After all, Ratner not so long ago was emphasizing his commitment to architecture: "I’ve been talking for ten years about trying to use ‘design architects’ instead of ‘developer architects," he told New York magazine's Kurt Andersen in 2005. (Citation below.)

Gehry's never designed an arena, so to him that may be the prime lure of the Atlantic Yards commission. Given that most of the project, including the Miss Brooklyn tower (which Gehry called "my ego trip"), has been delayed and layoffs have occurred in Gehry's office, it's possible that Gehry--who has publicly said that typically he'd bring in other architects to work with him--sees a light at the end of the tunnel.

Ratner is now talking about housing and jobs and big box shopping, not architecture.

(The profile offered a look at Ratner in his earlier days, right, as well as a reasonable survey of his life and career.)

Some ironies

Oddly enough, Ratner was making his point while in the invitation-only Atlantic Yards Information Center, behind closed steel doors on the third floor of the Atlantic Center mall, where he's already apologized for the architecture. ("It's not something that we would build again," he told the New York Times in 2004.)

And given that Atlantic Yards would have relatively little retail--and none of the big box stores (at least according to former project executive Jim Stuckey) in the two malls--it was a bit of a nonsequitur.

But earlier in the piece he defended the malls:
"I'm proud of both of these, because the jobs they create number one and number two they save people money and allow people to buy good quality goods at lower prices and this serves a large part of Brooklyn. So, you know, those who focus on the architecture are frankly misguided about what's really important in this world,” says Ratner.

Mishkin suggests another irony:
It’s ironic [that Ratner has been the subject of protests], because he himself has taken to the streets to protest, before the start of the Iraq war, and especially during his Columbia Law School days in the ‘60s.

Actually, it's not so ironic. More ironic is brother Michael Ratner's committed activism while supporting machine politicians who might help Forest City Ratner.

Also ironic is coupling a scene of the signing of the Community Benefits Agreement, a private deal outside the purview of government (though Mayor Mike Bloomberg was a witness), with Mishkin's narration:
Ratner says his agreement with the city requires him to build low- and moderate-income housing and he believes the Atlantic Yards project will create jobs.


The question is not whether Bruce Ratner thinks a project getting significant subsidies will create jobs, but whether the special benefits are worth it.

Saving Brooklyn

Ratner gets to make the point that Brooklyn has changed significantly:
"I could remember initially when we built the MetroTech, there were bullet halls in the glass in the office buildings where the workers were and it was a very difficult sell to get companies to decide to move to Brooklyn as opposed to moving out of the state,” says Ratner.


It's an explanation for why MetroTech was designed the way it was, and a lot of people give Ratner more slack for MetroTech than a project like Atlantic Yards. What's left out of the NY1 profile, regarding MetroTech, the Atlantic Terminal and Atlantic Center malls, and Atlantic Yards, is how Forest City Ratner leverages public subsidies, tax breaks, and other benefits to build its projects.

The piece concludes:
“Nobody even knows I was consumer affairs commissioner, so you know what? I'm not building the stuff for legacy,” says Ratner. “I'm building it because I think that doing the residential we're doing, bringing the arena, bringing the team is important, and when it's built I think that'll be realized.”

Ratner can say all he wants about whether the project is "important," but the words of his cousin Chuck Ratner also deserve notice: "It's a great piece of real estate."

Ratner's conversion, in New York magazine

A look back shows how Ratner's embrace of starchitecture was saluted by critics, albeit sometimes with skepticism. (All emphases added.)

Kurt Andersen's 11/20/05 New York magazine Imperial City column, was headlined Delirious New York: Our long architectural snooze is over, thanks to neomodernist mania and the arrival—finally—of Gehry. Brooklyn should embrace him. It sure sounded like Ratner was with the program:
Until now, most of Ratner’s buildings have ranged from the uninspired to the bad, like his shopping center across from the Atlantic Yards. Even he admits the Atlantic Center mall is “not up to snuff. Philip Johnson did a first design, but I made a decision not to use him. I have to blame myself. I’ve been talking for ten years about trying to use ‘design architects’ instead of ‘developer architects.’ ”

Why does he think New York was so bereft of exciting large-scale architecture for so long? “It’s something I ponder a lot,” he says. “So mediocre.” ...

Given Ratner’s track record, I asked Gehry if at first he mistrusted Ratner’s professed new dedication to quality and innovation. “Yeah. Yes, I did.” And how did he get over his skepticism? “I’m still getting over it,” he says, although so far, “the budget busts have not been architectural ones. He’s always voted with me on the side of the architectural. He runs into roadblocks sometimes in his company, but it has not been cataclysmic.”

Ratner isn’t spending 15 percent extra on these new buildings simply because he wants to underwrite cool design. He understands that in Brooklyn, just as his quotas of apartments for poor people and construction jobs for women and minorities were ways of winning over key constituencies, hiring Gehry was politics by other means, sure to please the city’s BAM-loving chattering class. “The spirit of what you say,” Ratner agrees when I posit this theory, “is accurate.”


In the Times, a "conversion"

In Nicolai Ouroussoff's 7/5/05 New York Times essay, headlined Seeking First to Reinvent the Sports Arena, and Then Brooklyn, the critic suggested that the developer had undergone a "conversion":
By comparison, Forest City Ratner Companies, a relatively conventional developer known for building Brooklyn's unremarkable MetroTech complex, has seemingly undergone an architectural conversion, entrusting a 7.8-million-square-foot project to a single architectural talent who is known for creating unorthodox designs.

It seems like a gutsy decision. But Bruce C. Ratner, the company's chief executive and the development partner of The New York Times in building the newspaper's new headquarters in Manhattan, has apparently realized that the tired old models are no longer a guarantee of cultural or financial success. He seems willing, within limits, to allow Mr. Gehry the freedom to play with new ideas.


In Ouroussoff's 6/4/06 Times essay, Skyline for Sale, the critic assessed the embrace of top-name architects by bottom-line developers and came away somewhat skeptical, though he again used the term "conversion":
If Bruce Ratner's recent embrace of high-end architecture has some New Yorkers rolling their eyes, he can't be all that surprised. Not so long ago this developer's most visible cultural contribution to the city was a few kitschy theaters on 42nd Street. In Brooklyn he is known mainly as the creator of Metrotech, a complex of overblown yet banal office towers that seem to crush the life out of the city around it.

And even Mr. Ratner admits that, as a Brooklyn-based commercial builder, he once ranked at the bottom of the city's architectural food chain.

But in recent years he has sought vigorously to polish that image. His conversion began six years ago, when he joined The New York Times Company in selecting Renzo Piano — an architect known for the refinement of his buildings — to design a new Times headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. And it gained traction when Mr. Ratner handed Frank Gehry — whose celebrity has reached the point where he now has a signature jewelry line at Tiffany — the commissions for Atlantic Yards...


Now, our expectations are lowered.

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