Skip to main content

Warnings about "the architect as artist" and Gehry's victimization of Brooklyn

It's a little late for a review of sociologist Nathan Glazer's 2007 collection of essays, From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture’s Encounter with the American City, which I wrote about last year (here and here), and it's a little late for a blog post pointing to a review published in the spring. Still, Fort Greene-based critic Charles Taylor's essay in Dissent, headlined A Wrench in the Machine for Living: Frank Gehry Comes to Brooklyn, is notable in that it connects Glazer's critique directly to Atlantic Yards, just as Glazer has done so in public presentations, albeit not in the text.

Taylor, a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger and contributor to several national publications, takes off from the "prosecution’s case," as presented by Glazer: “Modernist architecture began with social aims as strong as its aesthetic orientation, or stronger, but social objectives and interests have fallen away almost entirely, and aesthetic interests and judgment, ever more sophisticated and theory-based, have become predominant.”

To Taylor, that portends a dangerous era in which "the architect as artist," who can produce work that affects the lives of numerous people is "presumed to have the privilege of imposing [his] vision on the public regardless of consequences or the public’s wishes."

The Ouroussoff defense

Taylor suggests such vision is enabled by starchitect-defending critics like Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times, who wrote 12/16/07, in an essay headlined Let the ‘Starchitects’ Work All the Angles :
Architects have no control over a development’s scale or density. Nor do they control the underlying social and economic realities that shape it.

Taylor calls that "horse puckey," arguing that, when an architect like Gehry "signs on to an immense public development, as Frank Gehry has to Forest City Ratner’s gargantuan Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, he not only gives concrete expression to how the scale and density might be realized, thus having the most direct impact on “underlying social and economic realities,” his imprimatur gives the project the weight of cultural edification."

It's not quite a public development, but rather a public-private one. But Taylor's point is sound. As Brooklyn Views blogger Jonathan Cohn (an architect) wrote 5/21/06 in a piece headlined It's The Scale, Stupid, while the architect does not decide the size of the project, "there is a danger in being hoisted by the developer's petard when taking on a project that is seriously flawed in its conception."

And I pointed out that Ourousoff fails to acknowledge that starchitects, by virtue of their fame, may in fact have some power, and that the public's capacity for discernment is aided or hindered by the effort by the starchitect's clients to survive what he calls "an often tricky public review process."

The AY critique

Taylor suggests that both Jane Jacobs, "with her distrust of urban planners," and Glazer, "with his disdain for the ego of star architects, would each find something to despise" about Atlantic Yards. Indeed, Glazer has objected to the density and, as I've argued, Jacobs would have multiple grounds for criticism.

Writes Taylor:
Whether or not Atlantic Yards is ever built, the journalist who undertakes to tell its story will have an epic tale of corruption, cronyism, and obeisance to private interest. (Isabel Hill’s documentary Brooklyn Matters tells the story so far.) Because Ratner went directly to the state, local hearings on the project have been limited to one meeting. No local officials or residents have had the opportunity to vote on the project. Months after Ratner announced plans, a report miraculously found urban blight existing in the exact footprint of the project, thereby giving the state the right to seize property by eminent domain. And Ratner has stirred up racial tension in the predominantly African American neighborhood by founding BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development), a “community” group that argued that those opposed to Atlantic Yards were white newcomers who didn’t care about affordable housing or jobs, though most of the “affordable” housing planned is well above the median income of Brooklyn, and many jobs are likely to consist of maintenance, security, and concession jobs for the nights there are events at the arena.

Ratner didn't so much found BUILD but allow a fledgling group to find a reason to continue.

No context?

Taylor continues:
Introducing his design for Atlantic Yards, Gehry spoke about trying to understand “the body language of Brooklyn.” But the only language Gehry has ever been interested in is the language of Frank Gehry. To say he is defiantly noncontextual is to imply that context enters into his thought at all.

I'm not sure that's true--Gehry has talked about using brick on the lower floors of towers fronting Dean Street, in an effort to make out-of-scale buildings harmonize with their neighbors. Whether that would work is another question.


Taylor writes:
Gehry might have taken The Life and Death of Great American Cities as an anti-text. With its interior “public space,” its super-blocks, its potential for creating what Jacobs called “border vacuums” and the attendant crime that always accompanies such areas, in the way it cuts itself off from the neighborhoods around it and cuts them off from each other, Atlantic Yards represents the sort of thinking Jacobs discredited nearly fifty years ago.

What's interesting is that the state considers it a better superblock. I'm not sure crime would be the problem around these mostly luxury apartment buildings, but rather that the much-ballyhooed open space would be used mainly by residents. (Consider Stuyvesant Town or MetroTech.)

Death coming?

Taylor's conclusion:
Atlantic Yards is the largest project Frank Gehry, now seventy-eight, has ever undertaken. And if it proves to be his last large project, it will be a fitting capstone to a career utterly blind to the public function of architecture. For how better to assert your dedication to personal expression over context than to have your distinct visual style serve as the emblem for the death of two Brooklyn neighborhoods?

Jacobs’s legacy, on the other hand, is assured. Her influence continues to be present both where she is heeded and where she is ignored. I even know of one Manhattan bar where you can order a “Jane Jacobs” (Prosecco, elderflower liqueur, orange bitters, Hendrick’s gin). I know of no establishment where you can order a “Frank Gehry.” Certainly not in Brooklyn.

I don't think AY would kill Fort Greene and Prospect Heights. But it might have some very uncomfortable ramifications.

As for a "Frank Gehry" cocktail, maybe it would be served at the Forest City Ratner arena opening night party.


  1. Not only are superblocks toxic to urban health and, as Taylor says, discredited, once they are created they constitute an ongoing harm that there is very little opportunity to reverse. It is almost a point of no return.

    There are only two instances I can think of where there was an opportunity, with redevelopment, to undo superblocking, and only one of them is significantly comparable to Atlantic Yards. The instance where there is some comparability is the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site. Interestingly, when the opportunity presented itself, the decision was do what was necessary to reverse the superblocking that had been part of the original World Trade Center site plan, groundbreaking for which had been in 1966. That included negotiations with Silverstien to reclaim land from where the new 7 World Trade Center would have been built so that Greenwich Street could be restored. (Jonathan Cohn in the “It’s the Scale, Stupid” piece cited- a superb piece- notes that Atlantic Yards “(now 8.66 million sf) would be like locating the former World Trade Center towers (only 7.6 million sf combined) plus Madison Square Garden, somewhere near the W.4th Street Transit Hub because of all the trains there.”)

    (Jane Jacobs Jacobs may have discredited superblocking “nearly fifty years ago” as Taylor says but that was not quite long enough ago to stop the 1966 ribbon cutting for the Trade Center.)

    For more about the recent and past design decisions with respect to the World Trade Center including details on the planed street reopenings see “Two, and Fro” which was just recently posted on Noticing New York at The same Noticing New York piece also deals with similar themes. It also deals with the issue of how we, the public, are at the mercy of “starchitects” when they come out to play and zeros in on Gehry and Ratner in connection with other recent design as examples of the problems of dangerous obviousness.

    Michael D. D. White
    Noticing New York


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Barclays Center/Levy Restaurants hit with suit charging discrimination on disability, race; supervisors said to use vicious slurs, pursue retaliation

The Daily News has an article today, Barclays Center hit with $5M suit claiming discrimination against disabled, while the New York Post headlined its article Barclays Center sued over taunting disabled employees.

While that's part of the lawsuit, more prominent are claims of racial discrimination and retaliation, with black employees claiming repeated abuse by white supervisors, preferential treatment toward Hispanic colleagues, and retaliation in response to complaints.

Two individual supervisors, for example, are charged with  referring to black employees as “black motherfucker,” “dumb black bitch,” “black monkey,” “piece of shit” and “nigger.”

Two have referred to an employee blind in one eye as “cyclops,” and “the one-eyed guy,” and an employee with a nose disorder as “the nose guy.”

There's been no official response yet though arena spokesman Barry Baum told the Daily News they, but take “allegations of this kind very seriously” and have "a zero tolerance policy for…

Behind the "empty railyards": 40 years of ATURA, Baruch's plan, and the city's diffidence

To supporters of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project, it's a long-awaited plan for long-overlooked land. "The Atlantic Yards area has been available for any developer in America for over 100 years,” declared Borough President Marty Markowitz at a 5/26/05 City Council hearing.

Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, mused on 11/15/05 to WNYC's Brian Lehrer, “Isn’t it interesting that these railyards have sat for decades and decades and decades, and no one has done a thing about them.” Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco, in a 12/19/04 New York Times article ("In a War of Words, One Has the Power to Wound") described the railyards as "an empty scar dividing the community."

But why exactly has the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard never been developed? Do public officials have some responsibility?

At a hearing yesterday of the Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee, Kate Suisma…

No, security guards can't ban photos. Questions remain about visibility of ID/sticker system.

The bi-monthly Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Community Update meeting June 14, held at 55 Hanson Place, addressed multiple issues, including delays in the project, a new detente with project neighbors,concerns about traffic congestion, upcoming sewer work and demolitions, and an explanation of how high winds caused debris to fly off the under-construction 38 Sixth Avenue building. I'll have more coverage.
Security issues came up several times at the meeting.
Wayne Bailey, a resident who regularly takes photos and videos (that I often use) of construction/operations issues that impact residents, asked representatives of Tishman Construction if the security guard at the sites they're building works for them.
After Tishman Senior VP Eric Reid said yes, Bailey asked why a guard told him not to shoot video of the site, even though he was on a public street.

"I will address it with principals for that security firm," Reid said.
Forest City Ratner executive Ashley Cotton, the …

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park graphic: what's built/what might be coming + FAQ (post-dated pinned post)

This graphic, posted in February 2018, is post-dated to stay at the top of the blog. It will be updated as announced configurations change and buildings launch. Note the unbuilt B1 and the proposed--but not yet approved--shift in bulk to the unbuilt Site 5.

The August 2014 tentative configurations proposed by developer Greenland Forest City Partners will change. The project is already well behind that tentative timetable.

How many people are expected?

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park has a projected 6,430 apartments housing 2.1 persons per unit (as per Chapter 4 of the 2006 Final Environmental Impact Statement), which would mean 13,503 new residents, with 1,890 among them in low-income affordable rentals, and 2,835 in moderate- and middle-income affordable rentals.

That leaves 8,778 people in market-rate rentals and condos, though let's call it 8,358 after subtracting 420 who may live in 200 promised below-market condos. So that's 5,145 in below-market units, though many of them won…

The passing of David Sheets, Dean Street renter, former Freddy's bartender, eminent domain plaintiff, and singular personality

David Sheets, longtime Dean Street renter, Freddy's bartender, eminent domain plaintiff, and singular personality, died 1/17/18 in HCA Greenview Hospital in Bowling Green, KY. He was 56.

There are obituary notices in the Bowling Green Daily News and the Wichita Eagle, which state:
He was born in Wichita, KS where he attended public Schools and Wichita State University. He lived for many years in Brooklyn, NY, and was employed as a legal assistant. David's hobby was cartography and had an avid interest in Mass Transit Systems of the world. David was predeceased by his father, Kenneth E. Sheets. He is survived by his mother, Wilma Smith, step-brother, Billy Ray Smith and his wife, Jane all of Bowling Green; step-sister, Ellen Smith Alexander and her husband, Jerry of Bella Vista, AR; several cousins and step-nieces and step-nephews also survive. Memorial Services will be on Monday, January 22, 2018 at 1:00 pm with visitation from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm Monday at Johnson-Vaughn-Phe…

Some skepticism on Belmont hockey deal: lease value seems far below Aqueduct racino; unclear (but large?) cost for LIRR service

As I wrote for The Bridge 12/20/1, The Islanders Say Bye to Brooklyn, But Where Next?, the press conference announcing a new arena at Belmont Park for the New York Islanders was "long on pomp... but short on specifics."

Notably, a lease valued at $40 million "upfront to lease up to 43 acres over 49 years... seems like a good deal on rent for the state-controlled property." Also, the Long Island Rail Road will expand service to Belmont.

That indicates public support for an arena widely described as "privately financed," but how much? We don't know yet, but some more details--or at least questions--have emerged.

An Aqueduct comparable?

Well, we don't know what the other bid was, and there aren't exactly parcels that large offering direct comparables.

But consider: Genting New York LLC in September 2010 was granted a franchise to operate a video lottery terminal under a 30 year lease on 67 acres at Aqueduct Park (as noted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo).


Barclays Center event June 11 to protest plans to expand Israeli draft; questions about logistics

At right is a photo of a poster spotted in Hasidic Williamsburg right. Clearly there's an event scheduled at the Barclays Center aimed at the Haredi Jewish community (strict Orthodox Jews who reject secular culture), but the lack of English text makes it cryptic.

The website explains, Protest Against Israeli Draft of Bnei Yeshiva Rescheduled for Barclays Center:
A large asifa to protest the drafting of bnei yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel into the Israeli army that had been set to take place this month will instead be held on Sunday, 17 Sivan/June 11, at the Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn, NY. So attendees at a big gathering will protest an apparent change of policy that will make it much more difficult for traditional Orthodox Jewish students--both Hasidic (who follow a rebbe) and non-Hasidic (who don't)--to get deferments from the draft. Comments on the Yeshiva World website explain some of the debate.

The logistical questions

What's unclear is how large the ev…