July 5, 2005
Seeking First to Reinvent the Sports Arena, and Then Brooklyn
The NY Times
by Nicolai Ouroussoff
This "appraisal" of Gehry's latest Atlantic Yards design will make area residents uncomfortable by its pompous tone -- you know, the tone of architects use when they talk about people as if they weren't really there. In his non-critical piece, Ouroussoff concludes:
Mr. Gehry's intuitive approach to planning - his ability to pick up subtle cues from the existing context - virtually guarantees that the development will be better than what New Yorkers are used to.
Ouroussoff's description of the Nets arena could also describe the sentiments of residents surronding the project:
[A] slight arch in the rows of seats on either side of the court adds to the impression that the entire room is being squeezed and is buckling under invisible pressure.
Brooklynites sitting in traffic on Flatbush Ave. will be able to contemplate a signature Gehry expression:
A cascading glass roof would envelop a vast public room at the tower's base, so that as you arrived by car along Flatbush Avenue, your eye would travel up a delirious pileup of forms, which become a visual counterpoint to the horizontal thrust of the avenue.
And, if life in NYC isn't already fraught with tension (which is why many residents seek the comfort of Brooklyn's familiar neighborhoods), Gehry's free-jazz-meets-Kenny-G architechture is seeking to reinvent how we live, work, and play:
The idea is to create a skyline that is fraught with visual tension, where the spaces between the towers are as charged as the forms themselves. That tension, Mr. Gehry hopes, will carry down to the ground, imbuing the gardens with a distinct urban character. In this way, he is also seeking to break down and reassemble conventional social orthodoxies. [Note: We are not sure it is prudent to "reassemble conventional social orthodoxies" during a Republican administration.]
NoLandGrab: If you didn't have the right glasses to major in architecture, where students pontificate about tall buildings that "echo" and "talk" to one another, read the rest of the article for a real taste of what you missed.
Oh, and The Grey Lady DID include a disclosure of their business partnership with Forest City Ratner this time (not that we're counting).
Article after the jump...
Frank Gehry's new design for a 21-acre corridor of high-rise towers anchored by the 19,000-seat Nets arena in Brooklyn may be the most important urban development plan proposed in New York City in decades. If it is approved, it will radically alter the Brooklyn skyline, reaffirming the borough's emergence as a legitimate cultural rival to Manhattan.
More significant, however, Mr. Gehry's towering composition of clashing, undulating forms is an intriguing attempt to overturn a half-century's worth of failed urban planning ideas. What is unfolding is an urban model of remarkable richness and texture, one that could begin to inject energy into the bloodless formulas that are slowly draining our cities of their vitality. It is a stark contrast to the proposed development of the West Side of Manhattan, where the abandoned Jets stadium was only the most visible aspect of what seemed doomed to become another urban wasteland.
From the dehumanizing Modernist superblocks of the 1960's to the cloying artificiality of postmodern visions like Battery Park City, architects have labored to come up with a formula for large-scale housing development that is not cold, sterile and lifeless. Mostly, they have failed.
Mr. Gehry, for his part, has never worked on such a colossal scale. And the construction of an arena, in particular, is more apt to create a black hole in a city's fabric than to ignite a major urban revival.
Mr. Gehry begins by reinventing the arena. To minimize the deadening effect of the obligatory rings of corporate seats, Mr. Gehry partly hides them under a cantilevered portion of the arena's upper tier. And a slight arch in the rows of seats on either side of the court adds to the impression that the entire room is being squeezed and is buckling under invisible pressure.
Such touches reaffirm that Mr. Gehry, at 76, is an architect with a remarkably subtle hand. Yet what makes the design an original achievement is the cleverness with which he anchors the arena in the surrounding neighborhood. Located on a triangular lot at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, the arena's form is buried inside a cluster of soaring commercial and residential towers. At certain points the towers part to reveal the arena's bulging facade behind them. Pedestrians would be able to peer directly into the main concourse level, creating a surprising fishbowl effect.
The tallest of the towers, roughly 60 stories, would echo the more somber Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, now the borough's highest building. A cascading glass roof would envelop a vast public room at the tower's base, so that as you arrived by car along Flatbush Avenue, your eye would travel up a delirious pileup of forms, which become a visual counterpoint to the horizontal thrust of the avenue.
The striking collision of urban forms is a well-worn Gehry theme, and it ripples through the entire complex. Extending east from the arena, the bulk of the residential buildings are organized in two uneven rows that frame a long internal courtyard. The buildings are broken down into smaller components, like building blocks stacked on top of one another. The blocks are then carefully arranged in response to various site conditions, pulling apart in places to frame passageways through the site; elsewhere, they are used to frame a series of more private gardens.
Mr. Gehry is still fiddling with these forms. His earliest sketches have a palpable tension, as if he were ripping open the city to release its hidden energy. The towers in a more recent model seem clunkier and more brooding. This past weekend, a group of three undulating glass towers suddenly appeared. Anchored by lower brick buildings on both sides, they resemble great big billowing clouds.
Anyone who has followed Mr. Gehry's thought process understands this back-and-forth. It is his struggle to gain an intuitive feel for the site, to find the ideal compositional balance between the forms. The idea is to create a skyline that is fraught with visual tension, where the spaces between the towers are as charged as the forms themselves. That tension, Mr. Gehry hopes, will carry down to the ground, imbuing the gardens with a distinct urban character. In this way, he is also seeking to break down and reassemble conventional social orthodoxies.
There are those - especially acolytes of the urbanist Jane Jacobs - who will complain about the development's humongous size. But cities attain their beauty from their mix of scales; one could see the development's thrusting forms as a representation of Brooklyn's cultural flowering.
What is more, Mr. Gehry has gone to great lengths to fuse his design with its surroundings. The tallest of the towers, for example, are mostly set along Atlantic Avenue, where they face a mix of retail malls and low-income housing. Along Dean Street, the buildings' low, stocky forms are more in keeping with the rows of brownstones that extend south into Park Slope.
A more important issue, by contrast, is the site's current lack of permeability. Because the development would be built on top of the Atlantic Avenue railyards, the gardens are several feet above ground level, an arrangement that threatens to isolate them from the street grid. In the current version of the plan, shallow steps would lead up to the gardens from the sidewalk. Olin Partnership, the landscape architect, has suggested that the same effect could be accomplished with a more gradual slope - a significant improvement - but the key will be to create a balance in which the gardens feel like a smooth extension of the public realm.
Even so, Mr. Gehry's intuitive approach to planning - his ability to pick up subtle cues from the existing context - virtually guarantees that the development will be better than what New Yorkers are used to. The last project here that was touted as a breakthrough in urban planning was Battery Park City. As it turns out, it was as isolated from urban reality as its Modernist predecessors. Conceived by a cadre of government bureaucrats and planners, it produced a suburban vision of deadening uniformity.
By comparison, Forest City Ratner Companies, a relatively conventional developer known for building Brooklyn's unremarkable MetroTech complex, has seemingly undergone an architectural conversion, entrusting a 7.8-million-square-foot project to a single architectural talent who is known for creating unorthodox designs. It seems like a gutsy decision. But Bruce C. Ratner, the company's chief executive and the development partner of The New York Times in building the newspaper's new headquarters in Manhattan, has apparently realized that the tired old models are no longer a guarantee of cultural or financial success. He seems willing, within limits, to allow Mr. Gehry the freedom to play with new ideas.
This is no small miracle. Even in this early stage of development, the design proves that Mr. Gehry can handle the challenge better than most. His approach is a blow against the formulaic ways of thinking that are evidence of the city's sagging level of cultural ambition. It suggests another development model: locate real talent, encourage it to break the rules, get out of the way.
Posted by lumi at July 5, 2005 6:57 AM