February 2, 2009
Oh. Dear. Lord.
Don’t worry. I’m not getting religion. But “Oh, dear lord” was the exact phrase that went through my head when I saw the rendering above. I was relieved to discover that it was just the New York Post’s idea of how a budget version of the Nets arena at Atlantic Yards might look. Note that it is an example of a style I think of as “dumb contextualism.” Cladding an arena in brownstone because it’s Brooklyn is like cladding an office building in adobe because it’s Santa Fe. It reminds me of what Wal Mart likes to call the “Store of the Community” program where, in order to overcome community opposition, the chain has taken to dressing new stores up in regional drag.
The interesting thing is that the Post rendering made me actually focus for the first time on the architecture of Atlantic Yards. I’ve always been so critical of the overall plan — the fact that it further divides the adjacent neighborhoods, Fort Greene and Prospect Heights, and that it is a old-school tower-in-the-park Corbu-ish approach rather than a variegated, urban gridded approach — that I’ve never bothered to critique the Gehry renderings. For one thing, they always looked too provisional to take seriously. So I’ve never really gave much consideration to the signature gesture, flanking the arena with office towers, until I was confronted with the hideous Post rendering.
Here’s the thing about Gehry: his best work, the work for which he is rightly famous — the Vitra Museum, the Bilbao Guggenheim, the Disney Concert Hall, the Fisher Center at Bard , the IAC headquarters — is not exactly urbanistic. Each of these buildings is a freestanding, three dimensional object that can be viewed from all sides. Even the concert hall in downtown LA and the office building on the western fringe of Manhattan have enough breathing room that you can see them from all angles. Gehry’s greatest buildings are works of sculpture that stand well apart from their surroundings.
By contrast, the Atlantic Yards design has Gehry wedging his arena between jittery towers. I assume that this was done so that developer Bruce Ratner could suck the maximum square footage out of the available acreage. (Well, the available acreage, and the acreage he grabbed via eminent domain.) But it really ruins the one potentially good thing that could come out of this misbegotten project.
I’ve said this before: putting a basketball arena atop a major transit hub is not the worst idea in the world. Or it wouldn’t be, if the MTA were capable of sufficiently upgrading the subway and Long Island Railroad complex below, and if the city were capable of mitigating the traffic nightmare at street level. And a free-standing Gehry designed arena, one that was not wedged between office towers, could be genuinely lovely. A Gehry arena that was free standing, that could be seen from all sides, with no accompanying high rises…that would be Gehry at his best.
(And, hey, while we’re at it let’s take advantage of the downturn to come up with a realistic plan, as opposed to a real estate scheme. It could be an urban neighborhood with many architects and many developers, built out over time, with structures at a variety of scales, in a variety of styles, intended for a variety of income levels. With parks and public space, and maybe even a school or two. You know, a nice 21st century Brooklyn neighborhood.)