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June 22, 2009

The Unbuilding of Frank Gehry

Has New York lost its great chance with an architectural legend? Gehry speaks.

New York Magazine
by Justin Davidson

NY Mag's architecture critic laments the woulda/coulda/shoulda of Frank Gehry and Atlantic Yards, laying the blame at the feet of one Bruce C. Ratner.

By far the worst disappointment is Atlantic Yards. For years, opponents of the project, appalled by its scale and hostile to the developer Bruce Ratner, warned that Gehry was providing a fig leaf of avant-gardism to cover a real-estate magnate’s obscene greed. A project so debased couldn’t generate good architecture, they insisted. In 2007, the author Jonathan Lethem wrote an open letter pleading with Gehry to walk away. “These buildings,” he wrote, “have emerged pre-botched by compromise, swollen with expediency and profit-seeking.”

But for Gehry, Atlantic Yards represented an irresistible chance to do for an urban district what he had done for the museum and the concert hall: establish a new archetype. In his desire to believe, he made the mistake of trusting Bruce Ratner, or at any rate got himself so enmeshed that the developer’s company, Forest City Ratner, once represented 35 percent of Gehry’s business. When I visited the architect at his Los Angeles studio in April, he described Ratner as “a decent guy. He goes to concerts, buys art, can quote from Joyce. He wants an architectural legacy.” Gehry insisted to me that he has a nose for cynics, and that Ratner wasn’t one. “We turn work down if it’s not real, or if people have a warped image of what I do. This stuff works only when there’s a true partnership between client and architect. If they’re trying to build a monster on the landscape and they’re just using me to get more approvals, I usually opt out.”

A few weeks after that conversation, Ratner scrapped six years’ worth of design work. Pleading financial straits, he fired Gehry from the whole project and replaced his arena design with a graceless Cow Palace knockoff by the journeyman stadium-builder Ellerbe Becket. To judge by early renderings, the new offering isn’t simply inferior; it’s insultingly bad. Yet Gehry has served Ratner well. His involvement helped strong-arm the city and the state into delivering tax breaks, permits, and the power to evict holdouts. It helped beat back opposition, secure $400 million in naming rights from Barclays, and win over the architectural press. Ratner didn’t just toss Gehry into the drink; he betrayed the city, blighted a neighborhood he promised to transform, validated his opponents, and blew a colossal opportunity to bring great architecture to a city that badly needs it.

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Posted by eric at June 22, 2009 12:27 PM