Oh, Brooklyn…

March 21, 2008

Back in 2005, I wrote a Metropolis column called, “Oh, Brooklyn, My Brooklyn” in which I outlined the difficulties of being a advocate of innovative architecture when there were developers like Bruce Ratner and projects like Atlantic Yards. In that piece I concluded:

First thing in the morning I am not an architecture critic—I am a Brooklynite. And I wake up with the local’s mantra running through my head: “May the bubble burst before they get a chance to build.”

And, wouldn’t you know it? It has. This is not exactly news. The intrepid little Brooklyn Paper has been reporting for weeks that the wheels are falling off Ratner’s wagon. (Check out this story!) But now that Charles Bagli has said it in The Paper of Record, it must be true.

Once again, I say what I’ve been saying all along, that the biggest problem with the scheme is not the scale (too big!) or the urban plan (superblocks!), but the way the deal was conceived and done. New York City neighborhoods are not supposed to emerge from backroom deals between guys like Marty and Bruce. The city (in conjunction with the state, which owns the railyards) should have, with community involvement, drawn up a master plan for the area and chosen a group of developers by issuing an official Request for Proposals. Once the railyards were decked over (and, yeah, they would have had to come up with a funding mechanism), the individual developers could have come in and built their pieces of the neighborhood over time as the market and their resources allowed. (Even Dan Doctoroff finally acknowledged that the process was flawed as he departed his job as Deputy Mayor in December.)

Instead, we’re stuck with the ruins of one developer’s unrealistically immense vision. All because Marty and Bruce took a shortcut.

Meanwhile, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff is mourning the demise of Gehry’s “gesamtkunstwerk.” Now that Gehry can’t build all his buildings at once, now that Miss Brooklyn, the office tower without a tenant, will take a back seat to the basketball arena, Ouroussoff is suggesting that Gehry pack up his napkin sketches, his cardboard boxes and his computer modeling software and go home. Well, Ouroussoff isn’t exactly the first to argue that it would be better for Gehry’s reputation if he extracts himself from a bad situation. Author Jonathan Lethem made a more convincing case for an exit strategy back in ‘06.

But the thing that really gets me is the naive hero-worship embedded in Ouroussoff worldview (or should I say weltanshauung?):

If large-scale development is unavoidable, why not enlist serious talents like Mr. Gehry to come up with an alternative to the bottom-line proposals that have been the accepted norm for decades? Finally a big developer had turned to a legitimate architectural hero for help, rather than the usual corporate hacks.

Finally? Has he not noticed that architectural heroes have become the new corporate hacks? That’s what happened here post-9-11. That’s what developers learned during the whole “public” process in which a plan for Ground Zero was chosen. Flashy architectural renderings made people happy. Starchitecture was the new way to package big development schemes, to sell bad plans to good people. Gehry was not Ratner’s architect. He was Ratner’s marketing tool.* Gehry should have recognized that long ago. And Ouroussoff should have, too.

That said, come to the Strand on Thursday night, March 27, from 7-8:30, where Ben Katchor, Phillip Lopate and I will be discussing Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York. Will Atlantic Yards come up? I don’t know. It just might.

(And read my latest Metropolis column in which modern architecture comes to Santa Fe.)

Also, for more thorough analysis of the Bagli and Ouroussoff articles, check out Develop Don’t Destroy, and Norman Oder’s Atlantic Yards Report.

*If you don’t believe me, just read Bagli:

In another indication of the problems facing the project, Forest City recently sent a letter signed by the project’s celebrity architect, Frank Gehry, to chief executives of many of the city’s biggest corporations, inviting them to become a tenant in the “centerpiece of the project,” Miss Brooklyn. It was originally scheduled to be completed in July 2009.