City of Glass Shards

In our last Unrequired Reading, I noted that Frank “curved metal surfaces” Gehry had been bounced as the architect of the Atlantic Yards (AY) arena project for the Nets, in favor of a design that will shave $150-$200 million from construction costs. At the time, I laughed over the depiction of the new arena design as an “airplane hangar.”

Now NYTimes’ architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff — whom I’ve goofed on many a time — offers up a cri de coeur against city politics and real estate development, treating Mr. Gehry’s dismissal by developer Forest City Ratner as a “blow to the art of architecture” and a “shameful betrayal of public trust.”

Architecture, we are being told, is something decorative and expendable, a luxury we can afford only in good times, or if we happen to be very rich. What’s most important is to build, no matter how thoughtless or dehumanizing the results.

Mr. Ouroussoff (the spelling of his name changes from byline to byline, seemingly, so if you look him up, you might try to search a variant spelling with one “s”) twice characterizes the original design for the surrounding AY buildings as evoking tumbling or falling shards of glass, as though that’s a positive thing, while the replacement design for the Nets’ arena by Ellerbe Becket goes within one sentence from “just sits there, adding nothing” to “deadly.” You really need to read it.

What I find sad/funny about this is that Mr. Ouroussoff seems only now to realize that real estate developers (including Forest City Ratner) generally don’t give a crap about architecture. They care about getting land cheap and making lots of money. And speaking of lots. . .

(Don’t get me started on how Mr. Ourousoff’s newspaper managed to demolish numerous businesses in the process of putting up its brand new building, which was developed by . . . Forest City Ratner!)

At one point, Mr. Ourousoff remarks that the abandonment of Mr. Gehry’s design is “the betrayal of a particular community,” but manages throughout the article to skirt the issue of the betrayal (and destruction) of the existing community. After all, it’s a busy intersection and, well . . .

Some people argued that it was overscaled — traffic would be a nightmare — and that it would destroy the character of the neighborhood. But to those of us who defended it, Mr. Gehry’s design was an ingenious solution to a seemingly intractable problem, one that would provide a focal point for an area (and arguably a borough) that could use some cohesion.

To me, it looks like Mr. Gehry was answering a question that no one was really asking. Except Forest City Ratner.

Bonus! I’m reminded of something I read about Donald Trump in the last year or so. An interviewer asked him why he doesn’t commission big-name architects to design really fantastic buildings. He replied (I’m paraphrasing), “Why bother? Between the zoning laws and the activist groups, it all gets stripped down to a big tower anyway.” So he cuts out the middleman and goes right for the big, uninteresting tower.

Double-Bonus! The best website I read about the ongoing disaster of AY is Atlantic Yards Report. And if you’re looking for more examples of what’s lost through NYC’s gentrification, visit Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York.

Triple-Bonus! offers an entertaining distillation of the article!

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