Goldberger likes Gehry's InterActive Corp. building in Chelsea, but he finds the mass and superblocks of Atlantic Yards inappropriate for the site, and he points out what critics charge and even some supporters acknowledge: the arena is the hook for the larger development.
It’s a shame that this quality hasn’t been more in evidence in Gehry’s other New York venture, the Atlantic Yards development, in Brooklyn. This cluster of skyscrapers extending twenty-two acres around a new basketball arena for the Nets is the biggest project he has ever undertaken, and it has been the subject of bitter controversy for months. (Last month, following recommendations from the City Planning Commission, the plans were scaled back by eight per cent, but the project remains enormous.)
Opponents complain that the sixteen residential towers will create a wall between the neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights. So far, they have cast the developer, Bruce Ratner, as the villain, suggesting that he is cynically using Gehry’s name to add prestige to an ill-conceived scheme. In an open letter to Gehry published in Slate, the novelist Jonathan Lethem wrote, “I’ve been struggling to understand how someone of your sensibilities can have drifted into such an unfortunate alliance, with such potentially disastrous results.”
Yet Gehry’s design is a large part of the problem. He told me that he accepted the job in part because he has never taken on this kind of urban challenge, but his talents hardly seem suited to it. Gehry’s great success has come from architectural jewels that sparkle against the background of the rest of a city—the Bilbao Guggenheim; the Walt Disney Concert Hall, in Los Angeles. In Brooklyn, the task is to create a coherent cityscape that relates comfortably to its surroundings. Gehry tried to do this by grouping some understated towers around a few very elaborate ones. (The six-hundred-and-twenty-foot-high main tower, foolishly named Miss Brooklyn, is full of self-conscious Gehryisms.) Rather than giving a sense of foreground and background, the juxtaposition of plain and fancy just looks like a few Gehrys bought for full price next to several bought at discount.
Gehry has told me that he sees the project as a kind of homage to the old Manhattan sky line, but the romance of that vista is a happy accident of diverse buildings in a tight web of streets. Atlantic Yards, by contrast, involves eliminating streets, and has the look more of a single structure spanning multiple blocks than of a townscape that has grown organically. Gehry perhaps conceived of the whole thing as one huge object that could play off against the city—a gigantic version of one of his jewels. The problem with trying to do Bilbao on this scale is that it ceases to be an eccentric counterpoint to the context. It is the context.
Buried within the construction is the building that was the catalyst for the entire project—an arena for the Nets, the basketball team purchased by Ratner and which he intends to move from New Jersey to Brooklyn. The arena is the best part of Gehry’s plan. Its glass-enclosed spaces bring vibrancy to the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, and it will contain lots of public areas, not just for spectators but for anyone passing through. Such exclamation points in a cityscape are something Gehry knows how to create better than anyone. That’s what Diller asked him to do, and it worked.
Ratner’s exclamation point, however, unlike Diller’s, can’t pay for itself, and Ratner is using it as a loss leader to justify an enormous real-estate venture. Although the site cries out for development, neither Ratner nor Gehry has a convincing idea of how this should be done. Ratner seems to have been less interested in using Gehry’s architectural talent to best advantage than in trying to leverage his celebrity to make an unpopular development more palatable. Gehry, for his part, clearly loved the idea of taking on the biggest project in New York. But even the most famous architect in the world has limits.
I'm not sure what Goldberger meant when he said that the arena would "contain lots of public areas." That's apparently a reference to the Urban Room, which would contain ticket windows, a team store, entrances to the hotel, office space, and transit hub, as well as restaurants, cafes, and gathering spaces.
Anne Schwartz in Gotham Gazette summarized the debate:
It is also not clear whether the 10,000-square-foot "Urban Room" in the arena will function as intended. "It is being marketed as the Grand Central for Brooklyn, but it's configured like it's going to be a lobby to the arena," said Goldman. "Will it function as a public space given that?"
"We do hope people use the Urban Room to access activities at the arena," said DePlasco of Forest City Ratner. "But beyond that, we hope that it is a comfortable place to just sit, rest, and watch other people. There will be programming there as well, including music, art displays and other activities."