WHO knew a year ago that we were nearing the end of one of the most delirious eras in modern architectural history? What’s more, who would have predicted that this turnaround, brought about by the biggest economic crisis in a half-century, would be met in some corners with a guilty sense of relief?
Before the financial cataclysm, the profession seemed to be in the midst of a major renaissance. Architects like Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, and Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, once deemed too radical for the mainstream, were celebrated as major cultural figures. And not just by high-minded cultural institutions; they were courted by developers who once scorned those talents as pretentious airheads.
Firms like Forest City Ratner and the Related Companies, which once worked exclusively with corporations that were more adept at handling big budgets than at architectural innovation, seized on these innovators as part of a shrewd business strategy. The architect’s prestige would not only win over discerning consumers but also persuade planning boards to accede to large-scale urban projects like, say, Mr. Gehry’s Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn.
The term "delirious," of course, refers to Koolhaas's 1978 book Delirious New York. Note that the City Planning Commission could not officially approve Atlantic Yards, though it did give the project its blessing, while recommending a few tweaks.
The Empire State Development Corporation, less a planning board than an agency that promotes business, did cite Gehry's role in announcing its approval 12/8/06:
The almost $4 billion Atlantic Yards project designed by world-class architect Frank Gehry...
Still, Gehry's role was probably more important in winning over parts of the public, rather than any official agencies.
What went wrong?
Ouroussoff, however, laments that "somewhere along the way that fantasy took a wrong turn," citing "luxury residential high-rises, high-end boutiques and corporate offices," without public housing, schools, hospitals or public infrastructure.
He points specifically to Manhattan, where major architects each seemed to be "designing an exclusive residential building."
He doesn't mention Atlantic Yards, which, though mostly luxury housing, would contain a considerable amount of subsidized housing--albeit much not accessible to the average Brooklyn household.
Ouroussoff expresses mixed opinions about the downturn, writing that "A lot of wonderful architecture is being thrown out with the bad." Examples: Jean Nouvel’s tower for the Museum of Modern Art, Renzo Piano’s new Whitney Museum of American Art, and Norman Foster's "interior renovation of the Beaux-Arts New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue."
He's hopeful that President-elect Barack Obama's plan to invest heavily in infrastructure would engage "a lot of first-rate architectural talent" currently on the shelf. Should the feds fund Atlantic Yards, as Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz wishes? Ouroussoff's brief essay doesn't go there.