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NYT critic Ouroussoff gives two cheers to the new arena design: "probably the best that Mr. Ratner can do"

Last Friday I suggested that the new arena design, involving SHoP Architects, might win back New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, who in June called the latest design, trading Frank Gehry for sports facility veterans Ellerbe Becket, a "shameful betrayal of the public trust."

Indeed, Ouroussoff is no longer disgusted but rather partly impressed, a bit dismayed, and only partly willing to address the larger, lingering issues. In other words, by expressing measured approval for the design, he ignores the absence of a design for the rest of the project and the likelihood of indefinite interim surface parking and blight.

So, Forest City Ratner has to consider his review a win, since--despite the instant appellations of "clamshell," "bottle opener," and "panini maker"--the general reaction is not uniform derision.

From new to old?

In a review published Thursday, headlined New Yards Design Draws From the Old, Ouroussoff begins:
To say that the 22-acre Atlantic Yards development project in Brooklyn is in disarray is not a major revelation. That it may still be possible to save — and may even be worth saving — comes as news.

He's conflating the design of one building, the arena, with the absent designs for 16 towers.

He continues:
When Bruce Ratner, the project’s developer, fired Frank Gehry last year — after getting city approval on the basis of Mr. Gehry’s design — and replaced him with Ellerbe Becket, a firm known for churning out generic stadiums, it seemed like a cynical double cross. Ellerbe Becket’s bland proposal for a basketball arena replaced a much more ambitious scheme from Mr. Gehry, which cleverly integrated the arena into a surrounding group of residential and commercial towers. That design seemed destined to create a black hole at one of Brooklyn’s most lively intersections. Many were appalled.

Chastened, Mr. Ratner quickly hired Shop Architects, a young New York firm, to spiff up the arena, and the results, unveiled on Wednesday, are somewhat more promising. Some of Mr. Gehry’s original ideas, like opening views from the sidewalk into the arena, have been restored. Mr. Ratner has reduced the size of the structure, moving team offices to another site. And Shop has wrapped it in an appealing rust-colored steel skin, which will make it less harsh on the eye.

At least Ouroussoff recognizes that SHoP was chosen for a rescue mission. But he doesn't point out that the design guidelines have always supposed to include glazing for the public to see inside. And the size of the arena has been reduced less by moving team offices than by eliminating the option for hockey.

Falling short

Ourousoff expresses some skepticism:
But it still falls short of the high architectural standards set by the design the city was originally promised. And too many questions remain unanswered about the overall plan — in particular, when and whether Mr. Ratner’s company, Forest City Ratner, will ever build the surrounding buildings, and, assuming it does, who will design them. Without them the cohesion of the original plan falls apart.

This issue is fundamental. The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), as does Forest City Ratner, says the project would take ten years. But then-ESDC CEO Marisa Lago said in April that the project would take "decades."

Ouroussoff continues:
The brilliance of Mr. Gehry’s approach was not about the aesthetics of any particular building; it lay in the careful arrangement of diverse urban elements on a tight urban site. As in his design work on some of his early houses, Mr. Gehry began this project by breaking down the development program into a series of discrete forms — arena, residential and commercial towers, public zones — and then carefully reassembling them, a bit like a child playing with building blocks. The towers set around the arena became a way to hide its bulk. And the collisions among forms made for a number of startling urban moments: views between buildings that opened directly into the arena, a public park draped over the arena’s roof.

The idea for a public park was dropped in the fall of 2005, during the first half of Gehry's stint; it wasn't lost when he left the project this year.

Questions of scale

Ouroussoff writes:
The final design did not satisfy many local activists, who felt it was out of scale with the surrounding neighborhoods, but it was a work of genuine urban complexity, drawing strength from the tensions created by the vibrant mix of elements.

The design by Shop and Ellerbe Becket tries to recapture some of that energy and relate the building to the neighborhoods around it. That rust-colored skin, woven out of weathered-steel panels, has the look of worn snakeskin; it is perforated with small openings that will make it glow at night, and it has a toughness that should fit well into its gritty setting.

The architects have set back the upper portion of the facade to break down the structure’s scale, and laid out a series of retail shops extending along Flatbush Avenue, the area’s main commercial strip. They have also replicated Mr. Gehry’s big glass windows along Flatbush, which will allow drivers to peer right through the lobby to the scoreboard suspended above the court.

(Emphasis added)

We can't tell if it relates to the neighborhoods unless we see the arena, and the surrounding towers, in some kind of neighborhood scale. The renderings released mostly offer views as if from a helicopter. Wasn't it Ouroussoff who last year criticized deceptive renderings?

As for the "toughness that should fit well into its gritty session," that sounds a lot like former Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, who wrote in December 2003 that "big cube buildings"--rough massing models--had "a toughness that looks right for New York at this uncertain moment in time

The larger issue

Ouroussoff continues:
Still, the larger project remains worrisome. In Mr. Gehry’s original design, all of the structures were conceived as part of a single cohesive scheme. (All five of the buildings’ foundations, for example, would have to have been built at the same time.) To defer additional costs, Mr. Ratner has divided up the design. The arena will be built first, and then, he says, the foundations for the residential and commercial buildings will be dug, once he is ready to start the next stage of construction.

This risks producing an oddly clunky composition. Although Mr. Ratner says he still plans to build the towers, possibly hiring an architect for the first one by the end of the year, the current design was clearly conceived to be able to stand alone, and it is hard to see how it would be integrated into a larger, convincing urban whole. Despite Mr. Ratner’s reassurances, it is also possible that one or two of the towers will never be built, which would take us back to square one.

Actually, it's possible that only one or two towers in total get built. But it's important that Ouroussoff recognizes that the Gehry design was dropped not just because of cost but because building four more arena block buildings was impossible.

And it's disappointing that Ouroussoff is unwilling to consider larger urban planning issues, such as interim surface parking on Block 1129 (bounded by Dean and Pacific streets and Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues) or the possibility, given the absence of a Building 1 with an Urban Room, of not closing Fifth Avenue for the interim or even for good.

Arena designs

Ouroussoff concludes:
And then, of course, there is the arena itself. Mr. Gehry took great care to disguise the ubiquitous corporate suites to create a more intimate space, tucking them into the ends of the arena and draping balconies over them. He also designed a ceiling that seemed to press down into the room, focusing the energy onto the court.

The new stadium has fewer suites (they are harder to sell in a poor economy), but they have become more prominent. And the room feels more conventional.

It is probably the best Mr. Ratner can do, given time and money constraints. But his problems, sadly, are now our problems too. And they may force us to live for decades with what is ultimately a compromised design.

It's the best Mr. Ratner can do? Doesn't Ouroussoff realize that the project involves significant direct and indirect subsidies and that public agencies can, should there be political will, make judgments about the viability of the project as a whole, not the new skin on the arena?