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December 11, 2006

Rememory: The NY Times, "Courtside Seats to an Urban Garden"

Who remembers the glowing NY Times review (posted after the jump) of the unveiling of Atlantic Yards by then-NY Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp?

Bruce Ratner's favorite pull quote: "A Garden of Eden grows in Brooklyn."

Unmentioned in the article were the historical density (wa-a-a-ay more than Battery Park City), still-unresolved traffic issues, and the threat of using eminent domain to acquire the 14 acres of non-railyard property.

The myth of the "the generosity of outdoor space" has been busted since the early days, as the idea of the rooftop track and ice rink was deemed impossible.

For those of you who've been following the Atlantic Yards issue for a while, you'll get a kick out of this look back to 2003.

Courtside Seats to an Urban Garden
By Herbert Muschamp

A Garden of Eden grows in Brooklyn. This one will have its own basketball team. Also, an arena surrounded by office towers; apartment buildings and shops; excellent public transportation; and, above all, a terrific skyline, with six acres of new parkland at its feet. Almost everything the well-equipped urban paradise must have, in fact.

Designed for the Brooklyn developers Forest City Ratner Companies by Frank Gehry with the landscape architect Laurie Olin, Brooklyn Atlantic Yards is the most important piece of urban design New York has seen since the Battery Park City master plan was produced in 1979. The plan is contingent on financing, and on Forest City's acquisition of the Nets, the National Basketball Association team, to occupy the new arena.

So what isn't contingent in Eden? Or in New York? I would say that the city's future needs urbanism of this caliber at least as much as this example of it requires the support of New York. Those who have been wondering whether it will ever be possible to create another Rockefeller Center can stop waiting for the answer. Here it is.

The six-block site is adjacent to Atlantic Terminal, where the Long Island Rail Road and nine subway lines converge. It is now an open railyard. When decked over, the site will form an east-west corridor three city blocks long. The western end, terminating in a V at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, points toward Lower Manhattan.

And, I might add, toward the future. Individual buildings can be useful barometers for measuring a changing cultural climate. But a large-scale urban development offers a different opportunity. Critical mass enables planners to rethink how communities want to live.

Mr. Gehry has always said that his intention is to recapture traditional comforts and values, adjusting familiar forms and materials into unfamiliar relationships.

It has been almost a quarter-century since Battery Park City was planned. In 1979, New York was still reeling from the fiscal crisis. The city's architects sought to recapture a sense of stability that they associated with the past.

That outlook has by no means vanished. It is kept alive by local community boards for whom retro design signifies a means of preventing development from disrupting their lives. Yet this stagnant approach disturbs the continuity that results when succeeding generations accept responsibility for interpreting their relationship to changing time.

Brooklyn Atlantic Yards reflects a city that has regained its faith in the future and no longer regrets its place in the present. Part of Mr. Gehry's genius is to synthesize and reimagine familiar elements of the existing cityscape. He has a sculptor's eye for the shapes of the skyline. He draws freely on the traditions of perimeter block building and of the garden city model.

Because of triumphal landmarks like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Mr. Gehry's name has become virtually synonymous with the Wow Factor. The Brooklyn project will not disappoint wow-seekers. Most of the exclamation marks are packed at the western edge of the site. The design's most exceptional feature is the configuration of office towers surrounding the arena. This is dramatic urban theater, and a reminder that Wows were at the heart of Baroque urbanism.

Instead of sitting isolated in a parking lot, the stadium will be tucked into the urban fabric, just as buildings surround a Baroque square. The arena becomes a stage, with the towers around extending the bleachers to the sky. Here, the stage will be activated by a running track around the perimeter of the arena's roof. In winter, the track becomes a skating rink. Other areas of the roof will be set aside for passive recreation. Restaurants for the surrounding towers are planned at the arena's roof level.

There is also an ''urban room,'' a soaring Piranesian space, which provides access to the stadium and a grand lobby for the tallest of the office towers.

Mr. Gehry looked at many prototypes, in cities around the world, before sitting down to design. The goal here is warmth and intimacy: an ambition not easily reached in a room with a seating capacity of up to 20,000 souls.

The massing models of the residential buildings will remind some observers of pre-Bilbao Gehry, when his vocabulary owed more to cubes than to curves.

I hope we haven't seen the last of those big cube buildings. As I think the models show, they have a toughness that looks right for New York at this uncertain moment in time. And they work wonderfully well with the garden setting Mr. Olin has devised for them.

The richness and generosity of the outdoor spaces he envisions are the urban equivalent of the fanciest flower arrangement a city could give to itself.

We're worth it.

Posted by lumi at December 11, 2006 8:32 AM