NYT critic Ouroussoff wakes up, calls new arena design a "stunning bait-and-switch" and a "shameful betrayal of the public trust"
In June 2006, he wrote a more pensive if hardly tough assessment of the project,
In March 2008, he wrote something of an elegy, urging Gehry to leave the project, predicting blight (accurately, it terms out), and even seeming to emerge as a project opponent.
Today, however, he pulls out the big rhetorical guns, calling Forest City Ratner's decision to trade Gehry's arena for a more pedestrian design by Ellerbe Becket a "stunning bait-and-switch" and a "shameful betrayal of the public trust."
However, he takes Forest City Ratner at its word that the decision was strictly budgetary, without considering, as I wrote yesterday, that the Ellerbe Becket arena cost would also be enormously high, or that that Gehry's four-tower design around the arena was likely impossible, given the unavailability of tax-exempt bonds. He gets some of the project details wrong and scants the reasons Atlantic Yards has provoked such spirited criticism and opposition. He fails to point out there's no rendering for Phase 2.
Still, it's a notable, if very belated, recognition that developer Forest City Ratner has not exactly earned the trust of the public. Ouroussoff even finds some previously-undisclosed renderings of the arena block (first and third images) that are far less flattering than the one rendering that surfaced last week (fourth image), though we don't know which image is most current.
Budget vs. beauty
In the essay, headlined Battle Between Budget and Beauty, Which Budget Won, Ouroussoff writes:
The recent news that the developer Forest City Ratner had scrapped Frank Gehry’s design for a Nets arena in central Brooklyn is not just a blow to the art of architecture. It is a shameful betrayal of the public trust, one that should enrage all those who care about this city.
He even calls it "central Brooklyn," rather than "Downtown Brooklyn" or "near Downtown."
A new design by the firm Ellerbe Becket has no such ambitions. A colossal, spiritless box, it would fit more comfortably in a cornfield than at one of the busiest intersections of a vibrant metropolis. Its low-budget, no-frills design embodies the crass, bottom-line mentality that puts personal profit above the public good. If it is ever built, it will create a black hole in the heart of a vital neighborhood.
But what’s most offensive about the design is the message it sends to New Yorkers. Architecture, we are being told, is something decorative and expendable, a luxury we can afford only in good times, or if we happen to be very rich.
He began by surrounding the arena with four residential towers — essentially burying it in the middle of the triangular block at the southeast corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues. A glass-enclosed public space, several stories high, projected out from one of the towers toward the intersection, like the prow of a ship. An oval lawn, surrounded by a running track, covered the arena’s roof. Open only to the towers’ tenants, it nonetheless added to the feel that the building had been swallowed up by the city.
Ouroussoff, like Muschamp, praises Gehry's design for allowing the public to see into the arena:
Perhaps the most ingenious aspect of the design was the way it met the street. Along Atlantic and Flatbush, where the bowl of the arena bulged out between the residential towers, Mr. Gehry clad it in panels of curved glass, so that people passing by could peer directly into the concourse...
There were valid objections to the design. Some people argued that it was overscaled — traffic would be a nightmare — and that it would destroy the character of the neighborhood. But to those of us who defended it, Mr. Gehry’s design was an ingenious solution to a seemingly intractable problem, one that would provide a focal point for an area (and arguably a borough) that could use some cohesion. Like all great architecture, it challenged our assumptions of what a building of its type can do.
The rest of the story is a depressing illustration of how New York development gets done. While Forest City Ratner fought for more and more concessions from the city — demanding tax breaks, reducing the number of affordable housing units — Mr. Gehry was forced to trim back his design. First the rooftop park was dropped because it was too expensive. The prowlike public space was redesigned, then redesigned again, until it began to look like a conventional atrium.
Worst of all, the main tower at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush was stripped of much of its vitality... Then the towers, too, began to disappear, one by one, until the arena bowl was left naked and exposed to the street.
Also, Forest City didn't formally reduce the number of affordable housing units. What it did, in September 2007, was sign funding agreements with the city and state that would allow it to build a much smaller project over a much longer time--a dramatic change in the project that the Times has hardly covered.
A massive vaulted shed that rests on a masonry base, the arena is as glamorous as a storage warehouse. A rectangular window overlooks Atlantic, but without the other buildings it lacks the sense of mystery and surprise that was such an essential part of the Gehry design. A trapezoidal brick and glass box at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush is obviously intended as an echo of Gehry’s public space. But Gehry’s room, several stories tall, soared over the intersection. Ellerbe Becket’s, lower to the ground, just sits there, adding nothing.
Questions of process
It suggests another development model: locate real talent, encourage it to break the rules, get out of the way.
Today, he misreads some of the history:
Typically, a developer comes to the city with big plans. Promises are made. Serious architects are brought in. The needs of the community, like ample parkland and affordable housing, are taken into account. Editorial boards and critics, like me, praise the design for its ambition.
There was never any parkland, just promised publicly accessible open space, all of it destined for Phase 2, which, according to the State Funding Agreement, has no timetable. And, whatever the promise of affordable housing, the likelihood of it being realized as promised has long been low.
Ouroussoff suggests that government officials, "afraid of an embarrassing public failure," are willing to cut deals with a developer pleading poverty. (He doesn't say so, but elected officials like ribbon-cutting events.)
Is the solution really some kind of mentality shift or is it an effort to revise rules that give developers like Forest City Ratner significant slack?