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Scoop about arena costs poses questions about government approval, assurances; why did Gehry not stay "on budget"?

The big Atlantic Yards story yesterday, the one in which an informed but anonymous source blamed the leap in projected arena costs on expensive high-security glass, appeared on page 29 of the New York Daily News, well after articles on the Super Bowl, a car crash, Will Ferrell's new one-man show, and the death of a 100-year-old Auschwitz survivor in a fire.

It deserves a lot more attention, because not only does it suggest that the planned Atlantic Yards arena may not be fiscally feasible even if cheaper materials were used, it raises questions about whether the state approvals of the project were based on inadequate information and, as NoLandGrab's Eric McClure pointed out, it suggests that government officials and developer Forest City Ratner were dissembling when they told community critics they had the security situation under control.

(I suggested last month that the apparent reduction in glass was related to security issues. Nets CEO Brett Yormark, according to the report by NetIncome, a superfan and retired journalist, last night told fans that Brooklyn “is closer than it has ever been,” citing the recent ability of the Mets and Yankees to gain financing, though he nudged back groundbreaking to “late spring or early summer.” Yormark's been shifting the goalposts for a while. Also, NetIncome noted that Yormark would not give a timetable for when the Barclays Center would open.)

Where's Frank?

As I pointed out two weeks ago, the diminished role for architect Frank Gehry, and the apparent revision of his glass-walled arena design, poses a problem for Atlantic Yards backers, given that, when Barclays Capital bought arena naming rights and others signed on as sponsors (or bought luxury suites), they did so knowing they'd get access to a Gehry building.

Now Gehry won't talk.

But Gehry did talk (video), to interviewer Charlie Rose as part of an architecture panel 8/5/05 in Chicago, joined by fellow architect Renzo Piano and legendary critic Ada Louise Huxtable. Some of his answers have a bit more resonance given the information that's surfaced in the past few weeks.

"Clients as friends"

At about 13:50, Rose asked a portentous question: How do you think you see the world of architecture differently in this century, the challenge of architecture in a new century?

Gehry raised his hands in protest.

FG: I don’t see it that way. I see clients as friends, people I like to work with, and that’s the ones I choose to work with, when I like them. And there’s a certain intention to do something special. And I try to solve their problems... the pragmatic, as Renzo said, comes first. There’s budget, there’s time constraints, there’s sites, there’s different cultures.

So Gehry tried to solve the pragmatic problem but apparently has been shunted aside. I wonder how he feels today about client Bruce Ratner, whom he once praised as a fellow "do-gooder, liberal."

Gehry continued: I try to follow the Golden Rule, do unto--y’know, be a good neighbor to whatever I do, to understand the milieu that I’m going in. But then I feel it’s important to not talk down to the audience, but do the best work I can. That’s what comes out. Some people like it, some people don’t. I’m learning. I think I’m getting better. I’m 76. I got a few more years. Maybe I’ll get it right, eventually. But I feel like that. I actually feel like that. I go into the office every day, in terror that I’m not going to be able to do it, insecure, all that stuff.

CR: Really?

FG: I do. I don’t go in saying this is a slam dunk, I know what I’m going to do. I don’t know what I’m going to do. If I knew what I was going to do, I wouldn’t do it.

CR: After [designing the acclaimed Guggenheim Museum in] Bilbao, did you have the sense that ‘I can never do this well again’?

FG: I don’t feel that way. I didn’t think it was that good when I finished it. Didn’t. No, but I think that’s the engine that makes me go. If I did any other, I wouldn’t be able to do it.

Coming in on budget

At about 27:20, Rose brought up the potential for backlash.

CR: Who are the naysayers? The naysayers are?

FG: I think people that say my building came in twice over budget, scare the hell out of somebody who might--

CR: The Corcoran in Washington, right? (A proposed Gehry wing at the Corcoran Gallery had just been canceled.)

FG: They’re not over budget.

ALH: They’re amazingly on budget--

FG: They’re on budget.

ALH: -- on time, because of the computer you can calculate accurately like you never could before.

FG: But some reporters like to pick up that and say that--

Well, then, how would Gehry explain why the budget for the arena leaped?

Idealism and realism

At about 30:15, Gehry spoke of idealism in the profession.

FG: We’re idealists. We grow up with these ideals that we’re going to make a better place to live. I mean, that’s very basic for our reason for even getting up in the morning.

CR: With beauty and functionality and everything? And quality?

FG: Functionality has to do with the business of architecture. If you want to work, you have to solve the client’s problems, or you’re not going to get another job. So you solve them. Well, we question them. If a person has a program has that seems wrongheaded, we can question them, but in the end, they’re putting up the money.

ALH: But you’re very subversive, you give them some beauty anyway.

FG: We do. What else are you going to do, that’s what we’re supposed to do.

It would be interesting to hear how he thought he solved the client's problems.

Social purpose

At about 20:20, Huxtable commented about progress in architecture.

ALH: What I don’t like is that the social purpose of architecture is being largely forgotten. It’s a social art. It’s a humanistic art. It creates environments. It affects how we live, how we work, the kind of people we are. And the modernists thought they change the world. Unfortunately, we all found out they couldn’t. So they just dropped it. So now the world is much more interested in the spectacular building than the urban development. And I think one of the marvelous here things about this area is that Chicago’s created a wonderful new urban area, with the Millennium Park and with the way the Art Institute is going to connect to that park, and what it’s doing with really desolate land. It is an example of how you can build for people and for a city.

Bilbao and beyond

At about 38:00, Gehry described how he had to defend his most celebrated work.

FG: When I give a talk now, I show all the early work... just to show the students that I didn’t fall out of a cloud one day. That’s how the press and the media represent it. Some kid at a lecture the other day in Rome said to me... ‘Mr. Gehry, in Bilbao you created a shock, don’t you have any respect for the community you put it in?’ And I said, ‘Have you been to Bilbao?’ And he said ‘No.’ And I said, ‘So shut up.’

The crowd laughed and clapped.

Later, at about 42:00, Rose brought up the relationship between a building and community.

FG: When people come to me, for the Bilbao effect, they’re very blatant, they come and say, We want you to do it again, I ask them to come and show me their infrastructure and their backup and what they got, and how they’re going to do it. Most of them don’t have it. They just have this notion that they can push a button and get it, and that ain’t gonna work. I tell them that Bilbao created a 30 kilometer subway, with Norman Foster. They hired [Santiago] Calatrava to do the arport. They set it up so that they were intent on changing the character of the city. My building was just a catalyst.

So, did Forest City Ratner have the infrastructure and backup? You can't blame all the current problems on the credit crisis; the cost of the arena leaped in 2007.

How to save a million or two

At about 48:40, Gehry explained that he's fully aware of cutting costs.

FG: One thing the computer is doing for us, it’s putting the architect in charge of the most information. I see it getting us back to a more responsible role, more like the master builder. Usually, you do a building, the client loves you, everyone’s happy, You put it out to bid, and guess what, it’s over budget, The builder says, if you straighten out this wall, I can save you a million bucks. if the guy doesn’t have that million, you have to go that way. And all of a sudden, the architect is marginalized... So I think the computer gives us a chance to recoup our role, to take more responsibility, so we’re not--.

With Atlantic Yards, Gehry does not appear to be the master builder.

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