Sunday, July 12, 2009

In Architectural Record (February 2007), editor called for "employing other voices"; now what?

This is well over two years late, but I don't think anyone noticed a thoughtful but flawed February 2007 column by Architectural Record editor Robert Ivy, headlined City of Trees and published shortly after the Atlantic Yards project was officially approved but, obviously, well before significant changes were made.

It's worth another look and Atlantic Yards, I think, deserves Ivy's attention again.

Ivy points to the need for development at the crucial intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues, cited the need for housing in the city, and pointed out the importance of professional sports in what could be the fourth-largest city in the country. (I don't buy his restatement of the cliche that Brooklyn is "still grieving the loss of the Dodgers in 1957," however.)

Issues of concern

However, he acknowledges concern:
Soon residents of surrounding property and their sympathizers began to protest the disruption to the urban fabric that the 22-acre master plan proposed. They decried the loss of low-scale housing in the Prospect Heights neighborhood (a gentrifying area), the use of eminent domain by a civic authority to block viable streets, and the variation in scale presented in the proposed project.


It's even more than urban design, scale, and even eminent domain, given factors like superblocks and indefinite interim surface parking. The big issue is process--why else would the Municipal Art Society's Kent Barwick have mused that AY might be "this generation's Penn Station"?

Gehry's role

Ivy writes:
The developer’s bona fide desire to bring prestige and credibility to his project resulted in hiring the world’s most prominent architect. Who could argue with his choice for qualified design? Ratner, who burnished his reputation by hiring Renzo Piano together with FXFowle for the New York Times headquarters, employed Frank Gehry, whose name carries instant recognition with educated audiences. The professional team included Laurie Olin, renowned landscape architect responsible for the ground plane in such New York icons as Bryant Park and Battery Park City.

Actually, you could argue with Gehry's public performance, couldn't you? And now Gehry's gone.

Scale and vision

Ivy goes on to offer some measured criticism:
Leaving aside the formidable issues raised by the locals, the questions facing the Atlantic Yards development become classic architectural ones: scale and vision. Gehry’s plan for Atlantic Yards, while admirably blending mixed-use principles and awareness of varying scales, nevertheless imposes a single consciousness on the urban fabric, and the viewpoint is his own.

Ivy questions whether one architect should be in charge of AY, pointing out it's as large as Rockefeller Center and Stuyvesant Town, thus becoming "a kind of experiment that others will have to live in."

He advises "including other respected architects to design individual components of the site," a pattern that Gehry and Olin both endorsed, but the developer--so far--has publicly eschewed, despite emerging evidence that others will design less-expensive buildings.

Gehry said that he would typically bring in other architects to help, but the client wouldn't let him. Now, however, value engineering and other architects have been imposed on the arena design, and multiple architects are likely for the rest of the project.

But Gehry, we must remember, was deployed in part to win over certain elements of the chattering class.

A realistic compromise?

Ivy concludes:
New York needs density, and more housing, but not at the expense of alienating urban advocates who decry closed streets, inadequate affordable-housing options, or imperiled existing residences. Their voices must be taken into consideration. Ultimately, Atlantic Yards will comprise its own city within the city. As Gehry himself has proposed, his large commission can be improved by employing other voices to build on the plans he has laid out to date, adding other sensibilities to the architect’s own, layering the new community now in formation with multiple points of view, and enriching the borough and the whole city as a result.
(Emphasis added)

This is essentially a "mend it, don't end it" solution, reasonably close to the issues raised by BrooklynSpeaks.

Squaring the circle?

But it doesn't square the circle: if existing residences are to be saved and streets not to be closed, Forest City Ratner's master plan must be significantly altered--and probably couldn't work. It implies a lower density; if so, the developer couldn't fulfill the affordable housing pledge it made.

Moreover, it doesn't deal with the dubious claims of blight. Nor does it deal with the developer's pattern of misleading the public.

It's understandable that Ivy, like other architecture critics, would focus on issues of urban design. But a project this big raises other questions, as well.

Now that it's been two years and counting, he should revisit the issue.

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