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Landscape architect Olin leaves AY project (updated), predicts "other architects and other hands"

It's time to update the FAQ on the Forest City Ratner web site which says, "The award-winning landscape architect Laurie Olin, who also designed the public spaces for Battery Park City, is designing the publicly accessible open space at Atlantic Yards."

No longer, apparently.

The web site for the Olin Studio suggests that Olin's work on Atlantic Yards has concluded.

(Updated 11:50 a.m.: Olin's office sent me a statement (I first inquired last week): "OLIN completed a master plan for Atlantic Yards that we believe was a serious response to the many issues raised regarding this portion of the City of New York, and the great need for large amounts of affordable housing with adjacent well-designed, environmentally-responsive public landscape. We enjoyed a supportive and appreciative relationship with the owner/developer, the architects and the City of New York public officials. The current economic turmoil points to the truth that plans of such scope almost inevitably are realized over several economic cycles and must both be able to endure as well as be flexible to change.")

(Updated: While I originally wrote that it wasn't clear why Olin had left, and suggested a number of possible reasons, including a potential penalty for having gone off-message regarding the project's timetable and the role of other architects, the statement above indicates that the issue is financial. But it's clear, as I originally wrote, that the eight acres of promised open space are so far in the future--in an unscheduled Phase 2--that there's no need to keep him on board for now. )

So the news certainly diminishes one of the selling points for the project: Olin's role. And it means that Forest City Ratner should stop promoting Olin's role, as on its web site (right).

Gehry's role, and timetable issues

Olin's departure, along with comments he made last year and in a new book, raises questions about whether architect Frank Gehry really would design the whole project, as the developer insists, or, or whether Gehry would depart as well.

Also, in the book Olin again predicts--as evidence has borne out--that the project would take much longer than initially anticipated, though he remains optimistic that it would turn out well.

(Click on graphics to enlarge.)

Olin's old web site

At right is a screen shot from the Olin Partnership's web page from earlier this year, which suggests an ongoing role for the landscape architect. (All emphases are added).

It states:
In collaboration with Forest City Ratner and Gehry Partners, Olin Partnership will design the open space to become a destination for the surrounding neighborhoods, reconnecting them across the gap left by the existing railyard. The newly designed open space will contain elements such as lawns, gardens, recreational courts, playgrounds, cafes, and a green roof for the basketball arena.

As seen in the screenshot, Olin erroneously claims that the footprint would be 24 acres, rather than 22 (though 24 was used in a few very early documents), and that the project "is located in central Brooklyn, New York over an existing rail yard."

The project couldn't be built in its entirety over the 8.5-acre rail yard. But he's correct that it's not Downtown Brooklyn, which is a Forest City Ratner claim.

Olin's new web site

Now take a look at Olin's new web site, which debuted about three weeks ago. It indicates that Olin's role in the project lasted from 2003 through 2008.

It uses the past tense and describes Olin's role as master planner and conceptual designer:
In collaboration with Forest City Ratner and Gehry Partners, OLIN was integrally involved in master planning the site to help minimize the impact of the proposed towers in this mostly mid-rise neighborhood, and to create essential pedestrian connections across the gap formed by the existing open rail yard. By reconnecting the streets and neighborhoods, the new landscape replaces the rail yard with a public open space that reclaims and renews a part of the city for public use and enjoyment. OLIN also developed the concept design for seven acres of street-level parks and plazas weaving through the site, as well as a four-acre green roof on the arena.

An ongoing project

Contrast the web site's treatment of Atlantic Yards (2003-2008) with the segment devoted to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia (2003-in Progress).

A curious valedictory

Also, the landscape architect's new book, Olin: Placemaking, offers a couple of curious clues about Atlantic Yards.

For one thing, Olin again goes off-message and predicts that multiple architects, not just Gehry, would design the project, and that it would take longer than anticipated.

For another, the absence of any AY designs, except an oddly obscured rendering of the arena block, suggests that Olin's work may have been revised and/or has been muzzled by his client. After all, Olin renderings, albeit more than two years old, still appear on the Atlantic Yards web site.

Changing cities

Cities, Olin says reasonably enough in an undated discussion with the poet Michael Palmer, "are dynamic, constantly changing, constantly evolving, being added to and torn down and adjusted."

Only at the end of that 12-page interview, which opens the book, does Olin touch on Atlantic Yards, a project otherwise neither mentioned nor explained in Olin: Placemaking. "We all get partial versions of what we set out to do," he declares, noting that, with the Washington Monument, "the architect didn't get what he wanted. he wanted a colonnade, with inscriptions and statues, and it wasn't realized. All that happened was the shaft, and it's perfect."

"I discovered recently that in 1939 Claude Levi-Strauss wrote that the city is not an architectural problem--he called it a cultural landscape. it came to me that there is a kind of ecological analog in cities. They are like forests; they are these chunks of habitat. And things get done in pieces and chunks. San Fancisco got built in bit and fragments; there was a plan but only a piece of the plan got done. We had a plan for Mission Bay, but only a piece of it has been executed."

(At right, an Olin rendering of Atlantic Yards.)

Little pieces

Palmer interpolated a clarification: "The Beaux-Arts plan never got realized, but you see little pieces of it, you mean."

"Yes," replied Olin. "And the city's richer for those pieces. It can produce chaos. It can produce bad things as well as good. Usually it's better that enough of something gets done and then it's abandoned. Economic cycles prevent all these grand plans from ever happening. That's why I'm not worried about some of the criticism of our Atlantic Yards project. I know that, by the time it finally gets done, conditions will be different, with other architects and other hands involved, and it will be richer for that."

(Emphasis added. Photo from University of Pennsylvania Gazette.)

If he's not worried about some of the criticism, does that mean he's worried about the rest of the criticism?)

"We all get partial versions of what we set out to do. And that accumulation of partiality I find wonderful."

"Other architects and other hands"?

In his reference to "other architects and other hands," Olin has again gone off message.

Remember, in February 2007, Olin told the New York Observer, "Various architects who have specialized in doing residential towers will probably be brought in to be the architect of record anyway, even if design architects like Frank Gehry or other personalities give image and shape to them."

He also said the project would take 20 years rather than the announced ten--a prediction that has gained credibility in the last year-and-a-half, despite efforts by the Empire State Development Corporation to discredit it in the ongoing lawsuit over the project's environmental review.

Olin's statement last year drew a sharp response in the Observer from Forest City Ratner's now-departed Atlantic Yards point man:
“Laurie has his views,” countered Jim Stuckey, executive vice president of Forest City Ratner. “We don’t believe it is going to take 20 years. We expect that it will take 10.” He added, “Frank Gehry will be the architect on every one of them.”

A very odd rendering

In a book that contains more than 300 pages and hundreds of images of Olin projects, the last image (right) in the pages of Olin: Placemaking is the most puzzling. Unlike those in the rest of the book, this rendering is not identified.

Brooklynites will identify it as a view of the Atlantic Yards arena block--notice the scattered typography using the letters of "Brooklyn"--and then emerge perplexed.

For one thing, none of the green space pictured--the roofs of towers?--is publicly accessible. For another, the streets nearby, including the streets outside of the project footprint, seem nicely repopulated with trees, even as some 86 trees have recently been removed.

What's missing

Olin's most ballyhooed role in Atlantic Yards, to design--not just "concept design"--the eight acres of open space promised for Phase 2, is not portrayed in this book. There's no timetable for Phase 2, slated to include eleven towers. There are no penalties, so far, for not beginning Phase 2. There are no current renderings of Phase 2.

And there are no new renderings of the open space, though the developer is recycling (and distorting) renderings in Forest City Ratner promotional brochures (right).

Indeed, a July 2007 feature article in the University of Pennsylvania Gazette, a publication from the landscape architect's own university, explained that a "non-disclosure agreement between [Forest City Ratner] and the Olin Partnership prevents the display of site plans and drawings in this story."

Other projects

By contrast, several of Olin's other recent projects appear in the book as renderings:
  • The University of British Columbia--University Boulevard Competition, from 2005
  • Syracuse Connective Corridor Competition, from 2006
  • United States Embassy, Berlin, in progress
  • University of California Berkeley--Southeast Campus Master Plan, in progress
  • The Presidio of San Francisco--Main parade Ground, in progress
Remember, Atlantic Yards open space designs were supposed to appear this year in the magazine Landscape Architecture, but haven't.

Showing scale

Interestingly, Olin devotes a dozen pages in the new book to the Comcast Center in Philadelphia (right), and has no qualms about showing us what the 56-story building looks like in full,

Such a view eschewed by Forest City Ratner in its Atlantic Yards promotional brochures.

The politics of landscape

A recent profile of Olin, a 10/6/08 Houston Chronicle article headlined Hermann Park: a landscape jewel, suggests Olin is politically savvy. However, regarding Atlantic Yards, he's taking way too much credit:
"Landscape architecture is one of the most political things you can do," Olin tells his University of Pennsylvania students. Year after year, the statement shocks them. They plan to design gardens, campuses and parks. What's political about that?

And who could oppose the sorts of landscape designs that Olin is known for? The first stage of his master plan for Houston's Hermann Park — a larger, prettier lake, a neater reflecting pond, more trees and bathrooms and smarter parking — has been met with rapture. Bryant Park, once a headquarters for Manhattan muggers and drug dealers, is now one of New York's jewels, thanks to Olin. Assigned to make the Washington Monument less vulnerable to terrorists, he also made the approach to the obelisk better-looking and more momentous.

But design makes up only a part of landscape architecture, Olin tells his students. It's not just the trees, plants and land forms that are complex, changing, and require long-term cultivation. It's also the fundraising, the constituents and the bureaucracies. A good landscape architect has to be both a designer and a political animal.

White-haired and charming, Olin excels at both sides of his business. In courting Brooklynites suspicious of the Atlantic Yards development [right], it's usually Olin who takes the lead, not his frequent collaborator, Frank Gehry. Gehry is perhaps the most famous architect in the world, but at public forums on the project, he mainly sits quiet. Olin does the talking.

(Emphasis added)

Taking the lead?

The article doesn't exactly explain why Brooklynites might be suspicious, nor does it note that Olin apparently has left the project. As far as I know, Gehry and Olin have appeared publicly at exactly one event, a 2005 session geared to architects.

Meanwhile, one big community concern is the potential for indefinite interim surface parking. Olin himself prepared an alternative plan that combined temporary open space with such parking. I discovered that plan through a Freedom of Information Law request. It has not been implemented.

The AY Monologues

Olin did appear with Gehry in a May 2006 New York Times video I dubbed The AY Monologues." Rather than acknowledging a host of legitimate concerns, the landscape architect suggested that Brooklynites were frightened of change.

"I can’t think of a major project that either of us have ever worked on, that at the beginning there isn’t opposition of some sort, because change is threatening to people," he said. "Because we’re optimists who believe that we might be able to, through our work, make the world better. But that means you believe in change. And if you believe in change there are people who are frightened of it or resistant. So there’s always going to be some opposition to our work. And the more ambitious the scale, the more daring the project, the more upset some people will always be."

Maybe he now realizes that "some of the criticism" has some grounding.


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