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December 19, 2010

Notes on a Year: Christopher Hawthorne on architecture

Los Angeles Times
By Christopher Hawthorne

This piece by the Los Angeles Times architecture critic is an example of how adding the name of starchitect Frank Ghery to the Atlantic Yards project helped to blind some to the eminent domain abuse and opaque political process used to impose the project on Brooklyn.

A livelier, more political sort of fallout is the subject of "In the Footprint," which closed Dec. 11 after a buzzed-about run in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood. (I didn't see the production, but its creators at a Brooklyn company called the Civilians — Steve Cosson, Jocelyn Clarke and Michael Friedman — sent me a copy of the script.) Like an Anna Deavere Smith script set to music, the show uses verbatim quotations from published interviews with public officials, neighborhood activists, developer Bruce Ratner and Gehry. Among its goals is to understand why many local residents were so deeply opposed to the proposed Atlantic Yards development, which in its hyper-ambitious original version would have added 16 towers and a staggering 8 million square feet of new construction, covering 22 acres, to a mostly midrise landscape near downtown Brooklyn. After the credit crunch hit the project was significantly downsized and Gehry was fired by Ratner; the only portion going forward is an arena designed by a young New York firm called SHoP. The Civilians' treatment of the story does the work of cultural historians with unexpected flair and an effectively light touch, as when one resident says of the SHoP design, which to put it kindly was produced rather hurriedly, "Some people think it looks like the George Foreman Grill." Now that you mention it, that's not too far off.

There is no question that the development was overscaled, but Gehry's enthusiasm for it gave the project momentum and at least a sheen of cultural legitimacy. Indeed, the contrast between its elephantine mass and some nimble architectural moments — particularly in Gehry's innovative initial design for the arena — made it difficult for me to easily pigeonhole. For many locals, on the other hand, it represented a takeover of their streets by outside interests, a new brand of urban renewal hiding beneath celebrity architecture's endlessly diverting cloak.

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NoLandGrab: It is certainly a new brand of urban renewal when it's applied to a neighborhood that already had $1 million condos when the project was first revealed to the public.

Related coverage...

Atlantic Yards Report, The "sheen of cultural legitimacy" Gehry provided, confounding one critic from afar

Yes, Gehry did provide some cultural legitimacy. It was Gehry who drew praise from the Times editorial page, which told us that the buildings "would add a sense of excitement." It was Gehry who convinced New York magazine essayist Kurt Andersen that "Our long architectural snooze is over... Brooklyn should embrace him."

But the "nimble architectural moments"--perhaps the concept of the Urban Room connected to the arena?--should have been connected to street-level analyses of the project, not to mention the role of the Empire State Development Corporation and eminent domain.

Architectural critics--notably Herbert Muschamp and Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times--never even met the first, easier challenge.

Posted by steve at December 19, 2010 8:00 AM