Sunday, December 19, 2010

The "sheen of cultural legitimacy" Gehry provided, confounding one critic from afar

In the Los Angeles Times, Notes on a Year: Christopher Hawthorne on architecture begins:
If you were looking for symbolic bookends to the year in architecture, you could do worse than to start with the January opening of Dubai's Burj Khalifa skyscraper and finish with the recent run of "In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards," a musical-theater production about controversial plans to build a mammoth Frank Gehry-designed development in Brooklyn.
Critic Hawthorne didn't actually see the show, but read the script:
After the credit crunch hit the project was significantly downsized and Gehry was fired by Ratner; the only portion going forward is an arena designed by a young New York firm called SHoP. The Civilians' treatment of the story does the work of cultural historians with unexpected flair and an effectively light touch, as when one resident says of the SHoP design, which to put it kindly was produced rather hurriedly, "Some people think it looks like the George Foreman Grill." Now that you mention it, that's not too far off.
While it's certainly au courant that such a comment might be mentioned, Hawthorne should know that a spew of suggestions were prompted by SHoP's facade. And, crucially, the much-ballyhooed SHoP design is a just a facade, on top of the much-derided Ellerbe Becket arena.

Cultural legitimacy

Hawthorne concludes:
There is no question that the development was overscaled, but Gehry's enthusiasm for it gave the project momentum and at least a sheen of cultural legitimacy. Indeed, the contrast between its elephantine mass and some nimble architectural moments — particularly in Gehry's innovative initial design for the arena — made it difficult for me to easily pigeonhole. For many locals, on the other hand, it represented a takeover of their streets by outside interests, a new brand of urban renewal hiding beneath celebrity architecture's endlessly diverting cloak.
Yes, Gehry did provide some cultural legitimacy. It was Gehry who drew praise from the Times editorial page, which told us that the buildings "would add a sense of excitement." It was Gehry who convinced New York magazine essayist Kurt Andersen that "Our long architectural snooze is over... Brooklyn should embrace him."

But the "nimble architectural moments"--perhaps the concept of the Urban Room connected to the arena?--should have been connected to street-level analyses of the project, not to mention the role of the Empire State Development Corporation and eminent domain.

Architectural critics--notably Herbert Muschamp and Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times--never even met the first, easier challenge.

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