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Atlantic Yards down the memory hole: Gehry, asked about issues of scale, grudgingly admits, "Yeah, I guess"

An exchange between architecture critic Paul Goldberger and architect Frank Gehry, during an interview April 12 at Yale University, suggests that the architect only slightly acknowledges the controversy over Atlantic Yards, the one that in May 2006 led him to crack that protestors "should have been picketing Henry Ford."

The discussion begins at about the 1:00 mark. Here's the key exchange.

FG: I think Atlantic Yards had a problem--it was just right at the moment the recession started, everybody panicked, everybody was cutting back.

PG: But there were issues about the scale, too--very, very big, and there was a lot of opposition, not to the specifics of your design, but to the overall scale of the project.

FG: Yeah, I guess. (Pause) But they're gonna build--they're building parts of it. We established the guidelines, so, for better and for worse, it's going to be an irregular skyline.

Goldberger is writing Gehry's biography, so he has lots of opportunity to examine  the thin-skinned Gehry's rather fraught relationship with Atlantic Yards and, as detailed below, Gehry's own acknowledgment that scale was a challenge.

Watch live streaming video from yale at

From a 10/31/05 interview

FG: But it does bring up the issue, which I’m struggling with now in Brooklyn, a lot. We’re about to build, probably, an arena for the Nets, and a lot of housing. And everything we’re building is out of scale with the existing area. And the struggle is: It’s a neighborhood that’s not very well-defined, but there is a constituency of people that live there who fantasize this Brooklyn as brownstones and Court Street and Carroll Gardens and all that, which isn’t on this site. 

[AYR: One of six or so blocks was. See photo at left of Dean Street west of Sixth Avenue. There was also an opportunity to transform industrial buildings, in the same way Forest City Enterprises had done elsewhere. See photo of Pacific Street below.] 

But in their mind, Brooklyn should continue to be like that. But this part of Brooklyn isn’t going to be like that. And so this developer’s is interested in doing something special. Their history is, they haven’t, but now they want to. I took them at their word, and they have been very fastidious in supporting the things that I think are important. [AYR: This, of course, was before Ratner and Gehry parted ways.]

The struggle is, you end up with sort of a pseudo-19th century scheme—how do you take that into the 21st century, what makes it different, how do you make a complex that doesn’t look like a project even though one architect’s doing it? Normally I would’ve brought in five other architects, but one of the requirements of this client is that I do it. 
[AYR: Didn't Gehry realize he had the clout to have his way? Ratner needed him more than Gehry needed Ratner.] And so, how do you make buildings that fit, how do you make a new skyline, how do you develop a scale at the ground level, how do you create the opportunities, how do you fit an arena that at night brings a lot of people in, and is bright and sparky and a party, and the during the day what does that mean.

Those are all the issues, and they’re similar to the issues of my house, just at a bigger scale. I have a sense of responsibility to deliver something that’s a good neighbor. So I’m caught in this thing. And it’s a wonderful, scary place to be, I tell you. I have sleepless nights about it. I some days look at the project and think I can’t do it, I can’t, I go back and forth. I’m very insecure about it. I’ve brought all kinds of people in to criticize it, beat me up, do whatever, because I want to get it right. But it is that kind of issue.

Interviewer Kelvin Sealey: You bring up a number of issues… one in particularly concerns unbuilding. Some portion of the land that your structures will go on currently have buildings, is that correct?

FG: Not very many. [AYR: Well, take a look at Tracy Collins's map, below.]

Atlantic Yards photo map

KS: Not very many. But to the extent of whatever is there, be they rail yards or a few brownstones or whatever is there, there’s a certain amount of unbuilding. I’m wondering if, when you think of your designs, you think about an unbuilding process?

FG: No, because that was a given to me, I had nothing to say or do about that about that process, it was given to me. I suppose some of the buildings--when we started, there were a few buildings that were going to be kept, and we worked around them, and that felt better to me, to be able to do that, but they disappeared.

AYR: That's fairly blithe, even cold-blooded of him.

Also recall that, at a 1/7/06 appearance in New York. Gehry asserted that there would be major changes: We've been playing with the scale. The pictures you saw in the New York Times [7/5/05], the way it looked--it's not that big. It’s big, but not that big. It’s coming way back, in a lot of areas, and I guess something will go public in the next few months.

AYR: It didn't--at least it didn't come "way back."