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On Charlie Rose, Gehry claims that old AY designs were never legit

On Thursday, talk show host Charlie Rose interviewed Pritzker Prize Winners Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Renzo Piano. Notably, Gehry outlandishly claimed that "nobody" had seen the project until his new designs were released last month.

It makes you wonder why, exactly, Gehry had appeared in Brooklyn (and in a New York Times video) in May 2006 to tout new designs. And it was an implicit dis of New York Times architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, who had cheered for the project, lamented the impact of its stall, and called for Gehry to pull out. Rose, known as a sympathetic, even sycophantic host, didn't challenge Gehry or bring up the issue of, say, indefinite interim surface parking.

Hadid, an Iraqi-born Briton who was the 2004 winner, came off as thoughtful and candid, welcoming constraints in creating architecture.

Rules are good

At about 25:20 of the video, the conversation turned to constraints.

CR: Would you like for people to say to you: “Do what you most want to do. Don’t be reasonable. Be unreasonable.”?

ZH: I think some rules, in everything, are good.

CR: What are rules?

ZH: Nobody will tell you to do what you want. They say that maybe the first time they meet you. The second time they start chopping away... slicing it. You learn how to preserve the most important idea… Chop it by half, it doesn’t work. In Germany, it’s called 'the salami effect,' that no matter how much you chop, the salami’s the same. But it’s not the same in architecture, you can’t do it.

CR: So you go create your dream and then they say chop it in half?

ZH: Not necessarily, but you need to need to have some parameters, which you apply to a project, which might be the parameters of the client or the city or the planning [department] or whatever. Within that, you have to kind of maneuver the idea. In architecture you come up with a better project, because of all these impositions, to factor in.

CR: It makes you be more creative.

ZH: It could make you more creative, but not always.

Note that Atlantic Yards is a zoning override, with the developer in the lead.

In Brooklyn

Rose then turned to Atlantic Yards, without actually naming the project and, oddly enough, showing a slide of the previous iteration (right; the more recent one is below).

CR: You’re experiencing this in Brooklyn right now, right now. How do you deal with that Frank? Here you have this thing that everybody praised and now, because of one [inaudible] after another, people are saying, they’re tearing the soul out of this project is what they’re saying.

Rose's invocation of "everybody" seemed to be limited to New York Times architecture critics Herbert Muschamp and Ouroussoff, who praised the project. His invocation of what "people are saying" also seemed limited to Ouroussoff's second thoughts, because most critics have much broader concerns than the effect of a stall on Gehry's vision.

FG: But you can’t pay attention, because they haven’t seen the project.

The studio audience laughed. It makes you wonder what Muschamp and Ouroussoff had been raving about, or why the New York Times put the July 2005 second round of renderings on the front page. Was Gehry acknowledging, as Ouroussoff wrote recently, that AY renderings distorted reality? (They still do.)

A smaller Building 1

CR: You mean, they the people who’re trying to say they’re doing damage to what Frank created, they haven’t seen it--or the people who demand that you cut it in half?

The former consist mainly of Ouroussoff. Note that the critic, who in March counted himself as among the AY opponents, more recently said that Gehry's AY plan "remains a pet target of grass-roots activists," a contradiction that Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn pronounced as "cute."

FG: Nobody has seen it, until a few weeks ago, for the first time. And we’ve been working on it four years. And it went through a fairly creative, but legal and business and city planning, as you know, process. I think, in the end, it was going in the right way. The thing--apparently he was referring to Building 1, not the project as a whole--was made smaller because we always knew it probably would.

Interesting. Remember that wonderful piece of spin in the front-page 9/5/06 New York Times article, which over-hyped a rumored 8% cut in the project scale? It attributed resistance to cuts in Miss Brooklyn to the artistic temperament:
But according to executives briefed by the developer, Mr. Gehry has objected to any changes in his design for Miss Brooklyn.

Economic effect

FG: So we didn’t design it, really design it, we were playing with blocks and forms, the idea of a skyline and things like that. I think now it’s starting to unfold. And unfortunately, there’s a hiccup in the economics that has nothing to do with our client. So everybody’s seizing on that, but it’s not real.

It's not real? It may not be definitive, given that projects like this are supposed to endure multiple economic cycles (though the Empire State Development Corporation didn't admit it when it "anticipated" a ten-year buildout). But Atlantic Yards faces other challenges, including pending legal cases, a shortage of tax-free bonds, and the steady losses endured by the New Jersey Nets.

Level of reality

Gehry, continuing, turned to Forest City Ratner's recently unveiled Beekman Tower in Lower Manhattan.

FG: But I think to this issue—I always take a project and assume a level of reality is going to prevail--the economics, building department, gravity, all the things--and try to minimize the impact… I take great pride in getting very close to the bone of the problem and expressing that, and making a move that makes it different. So the [Beekman] tower that was just published… my client told me that the design moves, the curtain wall move and the extra height to reproportion the building was a zero effect on the budget. He would’ve paid that much for that building, no matter who, if he did a very dumb building, it would’ve been the same. It’s kind of far-fetched, but I think he believes it, and I’m happy he does…

Gehry grinned, and the audience chuckled. Does Gehry think his client's effort to generate support for Atlantic Yards was "kind of far-fetched"?

Buildings we deserve

CR: If we’re not getting buildings that we deserve in the world today, what would be the main reason?

ZH: I have to start from the beginning. You have to have some sort of strategy about planning in that particular city, not just for the building…. They have to have vision. I have to say: Europe gained a lot by investing in civic projects, because they were the first buildings which actually showed examples of how you can move to the next stage.

Note that Hadid apparently defines "civic project" as something government-sponsored, as opposed to the more narrow definition in New York law, "intended for the purpose of providing facilities for educational, cultural, recreational, community, municipal, public service or other civic purposes.” Atlantic Yards opponents have argued unsuccessfully that a sports arena is not a civic project. (The Atlantic Yards arena would technically be publicly owned but leased for $1.)

Corporate vs. civic work

Hadid made another distinction.

ZH: And I think the dynamic of corporate work is very different from civic work. So to differentiate between the work which is done in America and maybe in Britain than in Europe. Therefore I am grateful for [comptitions that lead to commissions].

The importance of leadership

At about 35:30, Renzo Piano talked about the constraints of rules, and how architects enjoy breaking rules, and suggested that many people may think that freedom is a trap. Gehry then spoke modestly about how his landmark Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain was only one element of a comprehensive redevelopment strategy. (That point was also made in the 2006 documentary film "Sketches of Frank Gehry.")

CR: Freedom is a trap?

FG: No, no. It’s not real… what you do need, I think, is a governmental consensus, somebody with a vision. What happened in Bilbao is the minister of culture, minister of finance, the mayor, the president of the country, they all conspired to create a changed Bilbao. And we were just one piece of it. The same thing happened in Chicago. [Mayor] Richie Daley made this park.

CR: Millennium Park.

FG: Millennium Park. Renzo’s part of it. That creates a context. I think that’s what missing, we don’t have that kind of leadership in government…

CR: Mitterand had it in France.

FG: It’s very rare, I mean... I got a nice letter from Barbara Bush last year.

Read through a Brooklyn lens, it was another lament that an abdication by the public sector has left room for developers to take the lead.

In the NYT Magazine

In yesterday's New York Times Magazine, a special architecture issue, Ouroussoff wrote about visiting China and the Persian Gulf to find ever-expanding cities that seem quite different from the cities of the United States. The article is headlined The New, New City:

“The old contextual model is not very relevant anymore,” Jesse Reiser, an American architect working in Dubai, told me recently. “What context are we talking about in a city that’s a few decades old? The problem is that we are only beginning to figure out where to go from here.”

Architects comment about the difficulty of building in older cities--an issue that has come up in regard to AY:
“In America, I could never do work like I do here,” Steven Holl, a New York architect with several large projects in China, recently told me, referring to his latest complex in Beijing. “We’ve become too backward-looking. In China, they want to make everything look new. This is their moment in time. They want to make the 21st century their century. For some reason, our society wants to make everything old. I think we somehow lost our nerve.”

Issues of scale

One significant difference is that these new cities are expanding by using empty land, or land that has been cleared wholesale. It's left some lingering questions:

Cities like these, built on a colossal scale, seem to absorb any urban model, no matter how unique, virtually unnoticed. A project that could have a significant impact on the character of, say, New York — like the development plans for ground zero — can seem a mere blip in Beijing, which has embarked on dozens of similarly sized endeavors in the last decade alone. “The irony is that we still don’t know if postmodernism was the end of Modernism or just an interruption,” Koolhaas told me recently. “Was it a brief hiatus, and now we are returning to something that has been going on for a long time, or is it something radically different? We are in a condition we don’t understand yet.”

The challenge of place

In the closing paragraphs, Ouroussoff returns to issues Gehry raised during the Charlie Rose interview:

As Holl told me recently in his New York office, working on a large scale doesn’t mean that the particulars of place no longer matter. “I don’t think of any of my buildings as a model for something, the way the Modernists did,” Holl said. “If it works, it works in its specific context. You can’t just move it somewhere else.”

But is site specificity enough? “The amount of building becomes obscene without a blueprint,” Koolhaas said. “Each time you ask yourself, Do you have the right to do this much work on this scale if you don’t have an opinion about what the world should be like? We really feel that. But is there time for a manifesto? I don’t know.”

In other words, some civic planning would help.


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