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Critic Rybczynski: Gehry is challenged to adapt style to large project

The article's two years old, but it only surfaced recently in full text, so it's worth considering architecture critic Witold Rybczynski's cautions about using starchitects like Frank Gehry--especially since, as Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn reminded us yesterday, the latest version of Forest City Ratner's plans show only buildings in Phase 1. (I reported in May how the latest renderings were significantly less ambitious than their predecessors.)

The article, headlined Architectural Branding, was first published in Fall 2006 issue of the Wharton Real Estate Review, excerpted in Slate, and republished in the Summer 2008 issue of Appraisal Institute's Appraisal Journal, Summer 2008.

Superior product?

Witold Rybczynski, a professor of urbanism and real estate at the University of Pennsylvania, observes:
To the extent that a celebrated architect delivers a superior product-a truly better and more efficient building-he will add value to the project, but it is a risk to place a high monetary value on a recognized architectural brand.

The Gehry effect

Regarding Gehry, he writes:
Frank Gehry has perhaps the strongest architectural franchise in the world today. Although he has built a number of small commercial projects in Prague, Berlin, and Boston, he is chiefly known for his cultural monuments, notably the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The Gehry brand is unmistakable: whimsical, sculptural, quirky buildings that don't look like buildings (and, incidentally, are difficult and expensive to build). It will be a challenge to successfully adapt Gehry's approach to a large commercial development, such as the ones that he is planning for Brooklyn and downtown Los Angeles.

Atlantic Yards would be less a commercial development than a residential one, but it would be a megaproject.

[Similarly, Kevin Roche in Archinect, interviewed November 2006:
I guess probably Frank Gehry is a good example of a person dealing with very large-scale projects such as the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn. It is a very, very tough problem. How do you deal with the underlying drive to provide as much possible rental space—which is the reason the project is being built—and at the same time do that in a way that is sympathetic to the community, the urban design, and the humanist aspects of it. It will be interesting to see how that develops; it will be interesting to see how it will be experienced. Certainly he has shown his genius at providing these forms that become interesting.]

Branding = success?

Rybczynski concludes that branding does not necessarily mean success:
The lesson is that architectural branding has to be very carefully positioned with respect to the demand. The market for a boutique hotel or a small residential project may appreciate-and even be willing to pay extra for-a name-brand architect. The broader market, even the luxury sector, may be more value-oriented. Luxury automobiles have shown that high-end consumers are responsive to good design. To the extent that a name architect delivers a superior product, a truly better and more efficient building, he will add value to the project The name may bring the customers in the door, but traditional values-location, price, quality-will close the deal.

With AY, other benefits and costs

I think Rybczynski may be looking rather narrowly at the impact of branding. Gehry also was helpful to developer Forest City Ratner in influencing public opinion about Atlantic Yards, thus tamping down potential opposition and getting some supporters on board, as New York magazine's Kurt Andersen wrote.

Of course, Gehry's own "picketing Henry Ford" comments didn't help him much, which might be why Gehry's been quiet for a while.