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Warnings about "the architect as artist" and Gehry's victimization of Brooklyn

It's a little late for a review of sociologist Nathan Glazer's 2007 collection of essays, From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture’s Encounter with the American City, which I wrote about last year (here and here), and it's a little late for a blog post pointing to a review published in the spring. Still, Fort Greene-based critic Charles Taylor's essay in Dissent, headlined A Wrench in the Machine for Living: Frank Gehry Comes to Brooklyn, is notable in that it connects Glazer's critique directly to Atlantic Yards, just as Glazer has done so in public presentations, albeit not in the text.

Taylor, a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger and contributor to several national publications, takes off from the "prosecution’s case," as presented by Glazer: “Modernist architecture began with social aims as strong as its aesthetic orientation, or stronger, but social objectives and interests have fallen away almost entirely, and aesthetic interests and judgment, ever more sophisticated and theory-based, have become predominant.”

To Taylor, that portends a dangerous era in which "the architect as artist," who can produce work that affects the lives of numerous people is "presumed to have the privilege of imposing [his] vision on the public regardless of consequences or the public’s wishes."

The Ouroussoff defense

Taylor suggests such vision is enabled by starchitect-defending critics like Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times, who wrote 12/16/07, in an essay headlined Let the ‘Starchitects’ Work All the Angles :
Architects have no control over a development’s scale or density. Nor do they control the underlying social and economic realities that shape it.

Taylor calls that "horse puckey," arguing that, when an architect like Gehry "signs on to an immense public development, as Frank Gehry has to Forest City Ratner’s gargantuan Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, he not only gives concrete expression to how the scale and density might be realized, thus having the most direct impact on “underlying social and economic realities,” his imprimatur gives the project the weight of cultural edification."

It's not quite a public development, but rather a public-private one. But Taylor's point is sound. As Brooklyn Views blogger Jonathan Cohn (an architect) wrote 5/21/06 in a piece headlined It's The Scale, Stupid, while the architect does not decide the size of the project, "there is a danger in being hoisted by the developer's petard when taking on a project that is seriously flawed in its conception."

And I pointed out that Ourousoff fails to acknowledge that starchitects, by virtue of their fame, may in fact have some power, and that the public's capacity for discernment is aided or hindered by the effort by the starchitect's clients to survive what he calls "an often tricky public review process."

The AY critique

Taylor suggests that both Jane Jacobs, "with her distrust of urban planners," and Glazer, "with his disdain for the ego of star architects, would each find something to despise" about Atlantic Yards. Indeed, Glazer has objected to the density and, as I've argued, Jacobs would have multiple grounds for criticism.

Writes Taylor:
Whether or not Atlantic Yards is ever built, the journalist who undertakes to tell its story will have an epic tale of corruption, cronyism, and obeisance to private interest. (Isabel Hill’s documentary Brooklyn Matters tells the story so far.) Because Ratner went directly to the state, local hearings on the project have been limited to one meeting. No local officials or residents have had the opportunity to vote on the project. Months after Ratner announced plans, a report miraculously found urban blight existing in the exact footprint of the project, thereby giving the state the right to seize property by eminent domain. And Ratner has stirred up racial tension in the predominantly African American neighborhood by founding BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development), a “community” group that argued that those opposed to Atlantic Yards were white newcomers who didn’t care about affordable housing or jobs, though most of the “affordable” housing planned is well above the median income of Brooklyn, and many jobs are likely to consist of maintenance, security, and concession jobs for the nights there are events at the arena.

Ratner didn't so much found BUILD but allow a fledgling group to find a reason to continue.

No context?

Taylor continues:
Introducing his design for Atlantic Yards, Gehry spoke about trying to understand “the body language of Brooklyn.” But the only language Gehry has ever been interested in is the language of Frank Gehry. To say he is defiantly noncontextual is to imply that context enters into his thought at all.

I'm not sure that's true--Gehry has talked about using brick on the lower floors of towers fronting Dean Street, in an effort to make out-of-scale buildings harmonize with their neighbors. Whether that would work is another question.


Taylor writes:
Gehry might have taken The Life and Death of Great American Cities as an anti-text. With its interior “public space,” its super-blocks, its potential for creating what Jacobs called “border vacuums” and the attendant crime that always accompanies such areas, in the way it cuts itself off from the neighborhoods around it and cuts them off from each other, Atlantic Yards represents the sort of thinking Jacobs discredited nearly fifty years ago.

What's interesting is that the state considers it a better superblock. I'm not sure crime would be the problem around these mostly luxury apartment buildings, but rather that the much-ballyhooed open space would be used mainly by residents. (Consider Stuyvesant Town or MetroTech.)

Death coming?

Taylor's conclusion:
Atlantic Yards is the largest project Frank Gehry, now seventy-eight, has ever undertaken. And if it proves to be his last large project, it will be a fitting capstone to a career utterly blind to the public function of architecture. For how better to assert your dedication to personal expression over context than to have your distinct visual style serve as the emblem for the death of two Brooklyn neighborhoods?

Jacobs’s legacy, on the other hand, is assured. Her influence continues to be present both where she is heeded and where she is ignored. I even know of one Manhattan bar where you can order a “Jane Jacobs” (Prosecco, elderflower liqueur, orange bitters, Hendrick’s gin). I know of no establishment where you can order a “Frank Gehry.” Certainly not in Brooklyn.

I don't think AY would kill Fort Greene and Prospect Heights. But it might have some very uncomfortable ramifications.

As for a "Frank Gehry" cocktail, maybe it would be served at the Forest City Ratner arena opening night party.


  1. Not only are superblocks toxic to urban health and, as Taylor says, discredited, once they are created they constitute an ongoing harm that there is very little opportunity to reverse. It is almost a point of no return.

    There are only two instances I can think of where there was an opportunity, with redevelopment, to undo superblocking, and only one of them is significantly comparable to Atlantic Yards. The instance where there is some comparability is the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site. Interestingly, when the opportunity presented itself, the decision was do what was necessary to reverse the superblocking that had been part of the original World Trade Center site plan, groundbreaking for which had been in 1966. That included negotiations with Silverstien to reclaim land from where the new 7 World Trade Center would have been built so that Greenwich Street could be restored. (Jonathan Cohn in the “It’s the Scale, Stupid” piece cited- a superb piece- notes that Atlantic Yards “(now 8.66 million sf) would be like locating the former World Trade Center towers (only 7.6 million sf combined) plus Madison Square Garden, somewhere near the W.4th Street Transit Hub because of all the trains there.”)

    (Jane Jacobs Jacobs may have discredited superblocking “nearly fifty years ago” as Taylor says but that was not quite long enough ago to stop the 1966 ribbon cutting for the Trade Center.)

    For more about the recent and past design decisions with respect to the World Trade Center including details on the planed street reopenings see “Two, and Fro” which was just recently posted on Noticing New York at The same Noticing New York piece also deals with similar themes. It also deals with the issue of how we, the public, are at the mercy of “starchitects” when they come out to play and zeros in on Gehry and Ratner in connection with other recent design as examples of the problems of dangerous obviousness.

    Michael D. D. White
    Noticing New York


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