Saturday, July 04, 2009

In New York magazine, some (partly) misplaced regret for the lost Gehry design

Longtime critics of Atlantic Yards know that the removal of architect Frank Gehry is part of a pattern of not-so-trustworthy behavior by developer Forest City Ratner (whose reps swore for months that Gehry was still the architect), but New York magazine architecture critic Justin Davidson, like some other architecture aficionados, treats it as the ultimate betrayal.

In a recent article headlined The Unbuilding of Frank Gehry: Has New York lost its great chance with an architectural legend? Gehry speaks., Davidson offers the following observations about Atlantic Yards:
Atlantic Yards evolved from an exciting ideal to a battleground for the soul of Brooklyn to a sinkhole of betrayal and mediocrity.

By far the worst disappointment is Atlantic Yards. For years, opponents of the project, appalled by its scale and hostile to the developer Bruce Ratner, warned that Gehry was providing a fig leaf of avant-gardism to cover a real-estate magnate’s obscene greed. A project so debased couldn’t generate good architecture, they insisted. In 2007, the author Jonathan Lethem wrote an open letter pleading with Gehry to walk away. “These buildings,” he wrote, “have emerged pre-botched by compromise, swollen with expediency and profit-seeking.”

But for Gehry, Atlantic Yards represented an irresistible chance to do for an urban district what he had done for the museum and the concert hall: establish a new archetype.

I think Davidson grants Gehry a little too much credit here. The architect was spending most of his time on the arena, his first, and came up with the (much-praised by some) solution--given the enormous site constraints--of nestling the arena within four towers.

Gehry did not exactly walk around Prospect Heights--or talk to locals--to try to suss out a new urban archetype.

Trusting Ratner

Davidson continues:
In his desire to believe, he made the mistake of trusting Bruce Ratner, or at any rate got himself so enmeshed that the developer’s company, Forest City Ratner, once represented 35 percent of Gehry’s business. When I visited the architect at his Los Angeles studio in April, he described Ratner as “a decent guy. He goes to concerts, buys art, can quote from Joyce. He wants an architectural legacy.” Gehry insisted to me that he has a nose for cynics, and that Ratner wasn’t one. “We turn work down if it’s not real, or if people have a warped image of what I do. This stuff works only when there’s a true partnership between client and architect. If they’re trying to build a monster on the landscape and they’re just using me to get more approvals, I usually opt out.”

A few weeks after that conversation, Ratner scrapped six years’ worth of design work. Pleading financial straits, he fired Gehry from the whole project and replaced his arena design with a graceless Cow Palace knockoff by the journeyman stadium-builder Ellerbe Becket. To judge by early renderings, the new offering isn’t simply inferior; it’s insultingly bad. Yet Gehry has served Ratner well. His involvement helped strong-arm the city and the state into delivering tax breaks, permits, and the power to evict holdouts. It helped beat back opposition, secure $400 million in naming rights from Barclays, and win over the architectural press. Ratner didn’t just toss Gehry into the drink; he betrayed the city, blighted a neighborhood he promised to transform, validated his opponents, and blew a colossal opportunity to bring great architecture to a city that badly needs it.

Opportunity blown in 2007

Oh, come now. Wasn't the whole thing blown in September 2007 with the State Funding Agreement, which allowed Ratner six years (after the delivery of property by eminent domain) to build the arena without penalty, 12 years for Phase 1, and no timetable for Phase 2?

That agreement, which came to light in March 2008, meant that building four towers around the arena within a tight time frame was unlikely, and thus Gehry's design was unlikely. It also meant that blight--in the form of surface parking lots and/or cleared land--was likely to persist for decades.

The conclusion

Davidson concludes:
The completion of Beekman Tower keeps Gehry yoked to Ratner for now, and the normally unguarded architect has retreated into silence, broken only by a single boilerplate press release. ("We remain extremely proud of our work," etc.) Even if he were never to work again, he has transformed enough pockets of the world to make him a Paul Bunyan among architects. He just hasn’t had a chance to change New York, which loved him too timidly and too late.

Well, Gehry, who was barred by his client from attending any community meetings to answer questions, didn't love New York that much himself.

Some critique

A seemingly informed observer posted an interesting critique on the magazine's web site:
The issue with the Atlantic Yards site is another matter. Neither the developer nor the architect are qualified to deal with the demands of this site/program. Let's get real here- Gehry's design for the site is a hot mess. There's a kernel of a good idea- To bury the arena into the urban fabric- but he has no business designing residential buildings. His strength lies in the monumental gesture, not the dense, complex fabric of urban residential. As for Ratner- he's a total hack builder. He fancies himself on a steep learning curve, but look at his built work: The atrocious Atlantic Center Mall, and the not much better Atlantic Terminal Mall. Why is this man given the privilege of building another thing in Brooklyn when his track record is so abysmal?

Gehry lays off staff

From a 6/29/09 Architectural Record article headlined Gehry Trims Staff As Projects Hit Snags:
Gehry Partners, like many firms, has been pounded by the recession. The Los Angeles-based architecture practice recently lost one of its largest commissions, an arena in Brooklyn, and had another project—the Grand Avenue complex in L.A.— sidelined due to financing problems.

The setbacks have led the company to lay off half its staff: Today, it has 112 employees, down from 250 a year and a half ago. “Every economic cycle brings with it a unique set of challenges and opportunities,” explains Frank Gehry, FAIA. “We’ve worked hard over the years to build a firm that is nimble enough to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, and that is able to produce and embrace consistent innovation. These qualities are serving us well right now.”


Not looking back

A reader commented on the magazine's web site:
Apart from the relative architectural merit of Frank Gehry's buildings, I would think that any architect who had to resort to cutting half of his staff in a horrible recession would feel some pangs of conscience and remorse. So over a hundred people, many perhaps with children and dependants, are forced to seek work in a barren work climate. Gehry spins this as a testament to how his firm is "nimble." In his shoes, I would be ashamed to make that comment.

It's reminiscent of Gehry's behavior captured in the film Sketches of Frank Gehry.

As I wrote, Gehry in the film shows an impressive capacity to turn on a dime, with little apparent regret about the collateral damage. After he designed the Santa Monica Place, mall for the Rouse Company, he invited the company president to his unorthodox home.

Why’d he work on the mall, so different from his house, Gehry was asked. “Because I had to make a living,” the architect recalled saying. “He said ‘Stop it’… I said ‘You’re right.”

So Gehry and the Rouse official decided to part ways. “It was like jumping off a cliff, an amazing feeling," Gehry reflects. "And I was so happy from then on.” On camera, Gehry expresses no qualms about the 45 staffers in his office laid off without notice, but maybe he wasn't asked.

In the film, Milton Wexler, Gehry’s longtime therapist, recounts how Gehry was in limbo with his wife, and advised him to make up his mind, to either commit to work it out or to leave immediately. Gehry instantly moved to a hotel. “I had two daughters and a wife,” he says with a mildly incredulous laugh, but without remorse.

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