Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A grim arena assessment by critic Lange in the New Yorker: "What the Barclays Center does is create a whole new context"

Brooklynite and critic Alexandra Lange, she of the epic Nicolai Ouroussoff takedown, pens a grim view of the (outside of) the Brooklyn arena, in a New Yorker Culture Desk blog post headlined What Comes Second: The Lesson of the Barclays Center:
As you walk east along Atlantic Avenue, the new Barclays Center appears first as a dark shape on the horizon... The wrapper was designed by SHoP Architects, and the tough mesh speaks of the industrial past and the digital present, an image reinforced by the pulsing screens lining the cut-out entrance canopy. The Barclays logo speaks only of corporate branding, without a lilt. Given the bank’s recent scandals, it may be helpful that the signage can be switched out.
It's notable that Lange commented on the corporate branding and the cloud over Barclays; I suspect that most sports fans and sports scribes will pay it no mind. But critics shouldn't.

She's somewhat generous to the pre-weathered steel: as online comments suggest, some people love it, some people hate it. I

The arena as alien

She continues:
The arena itself cannot be switched out. After nine contentious years, it is here. My first reaction, standing opposite on the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues is: it is big. Much bigger than I expected. The only arena that I am familiar with as a pedestrian is Madison Square Garden, a circular box in a forest of surrounding towers... But here there’s nothing to obscure, soften, or relate to the arena, which occupies more than a city block.
It is an alien presence, but it is, at least, better than the charmless "airline hangar" once proposed for the site. Compared to the Prudential Center in Newark, a standalone shed with big glass walls, the Barclays Center might be more modest. The difference is that the Brooklyn arena backs into a neighborhood.

The importance of context

Lange writes:
My second reaction was dismay. I do not think the arena’s architecture should relate better to the context. The immediate context is the developer Forest City Ratner’s two cheaply clad, faux-historicist malls across Atlantic Avenue. The larger context is the lowrise brownstone neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights. To relate to the first would be depressing; to relate to the second, impossible....
What the Barclays Center does is create a whole new context. A bolder, gutsier, lunar context that suggests not that the arena is too big, but that the neighborhood is too small. What would make the arena fit is towers—towers like the sixteen buildings approved, over a twenty-five-year period, for the eastern stretch of the site. Do I want those towers to be built now, just to make the arena work?
Her assessment of Ratner's malls is spot-on; indeed, they make the arena look good in comparison. But let's think about the towers. How about that 32-story tower at the corner of Dean Street and Flatbush Avenue, which could--says Forest City Ratner, which has moved the goalposts before--start before the end of the year?

I'm not sure it would make the arena work, but it sure would make the arena work differently. Similarly, if the rest of the towers were all built quickly, they would make the neighborhood work differently.

The arena as Trojan horse

Lange writes:
The arena was always a Trojan horse: its stars (Jay-Z), its original starchitect (Frank Gehry), and its semi-public function (bringing pro basketball to Brooklyn) have been used to make the development of the Vanderbilt rail yard seem like a reward rather than an imposition... If what comes first is a designer U.F.O., what comes second rises to meet the strangeness. What is built on the rest of the rail yards is highly unlikely to come back down to the height of a brownstone cornice. How different the future of this corner might have been if the development had started instead with housing or even with the planned public park.
Credit her for recognizing that the arena is much more than a building; it's part of a much larger, very contentious project.

The conclusion

She writes (after an excursion to discuss Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governors Island):
At the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush, the arena is a powerful suggestion, a building block. One that now seems so big, but may eventually be dwarfed. Its size and scalelessness, its aggressive form and color, its otherworldliness, condition the rest of the development site for more of the same. It is lazy to take the position that there’s nothing more to do here than play ball. There will be no unbuilding, but there can be lessons learned from the Barclays Center about urban planning. It is not only zoning and liquor licenses, or community-benefits agreements and affordable-housing set-asides, or parking and traffic that need to determine new developments. It’s the order of buildings. What comes first irrevocably changes what follows.
Note that the original plan was to nestle the arena in four towers. That's a scale issue of another magnitude. The lesson about urban planning is not merely about the order of buildings. (It's not about zoning, that's for sure, since the state overrode zoning.) It's the process, too.

A lack of alternatives

Lange writes:
The M.T.A. rail yard was once public, too, and the lack of compelling visual alternatives—public or private—to the Gehry renderings was always a problem for the opposition.
Well, yes, and no. It was never a fair fight. The Gehry renderings were about far more than a railyard. There were renderings of a project limited to the railyard: the UNITY plan, and the related Extell plan.

My posted comments:
I don't disagree with Ms. Lange's assessment of the context, but I do think a full assessment is premature: it's not just a piece of urban sculpture, it's supposed to be a working venue. So I hope reviews ultimately address the experience of the arena-goer as well as the impact of a 18,000-plus crowd on the neighborhood.

Just to clarify: the 16 towers would include up to four towers around the arena itself--hence the (fanciful, hovercraft perspective) rendering used by the New Yorker. Here's an actual photo of the street-level perspective, compared with a misleading rendering.

Also note that the Atlantic Yards site is 22 acres, the Vanderbilt Yard (aka railyards) is 8.5 acres. So the rest of the project will not be "built on the rest of the rail yards;" in fact, it's likely that the first towers built outside the arena block will be built on the southeast block of the site, now a surface parking lot.

Building over the railyard would be more expensive because it would require a deck. Responding the the first commenter, the surface parking lot has 541 spots for the arena. Arena promoters say they aim to have 1,800-plus in local lots available to for online pre-event purchase, but it's hardly clear that goal will be reached. It certainly hasn't been reached yet.

I'm sure it sounds persnickety, but there's no "planned public park." Rather, there's publicly accessible, privately managed open space, in between the planned towers.

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