Battle Between Budget and Beauty, Which Budget Won
The firm Ellerbe Becket’s design for a Nets arena in Brooklyn, viewed from Atlantic Avenue. A version by Frank Gehry has been abandoned.
The firm Ellerbe Becket’s design for a Nets arena, looking east.
By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF
June 8, 2009
The recent news that the developer Forest City Ratner had scrapped Frank Gehry’s design for a Nets arena in central Brooklyn is not just a blow to the art of architecture. It is a shameful betrayal of the public trust, one that should enrage all those who care about this city.
Whatever you may have felt about Mr. Gehry’s design — too big, too flamboyant — there is little doubt that it was thoughtful architecture. His arena complex, in which the stadium was embedded in a matrix of towers resembling falling shards of glass, was a striking addition to the Brooklyn skyline; it was also a fervent effort to engage the life of the city below.
A new design by the firm Ellerbe Becket has no such ambitions. A colossal, spiritless box, it would fit more comfortably in a cornfield than at one of the busiest intersections of a vibrant metropolis.
Its low-budget, no-frills design embodies the crass, bottom-line mentality that puts personal profit above the public good. If it is ever built, it will create a black hole in the heart of a vital neighborhood.
But what’s most offensive about the design is the message it sends to New Yorkers. 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. It is the kind of logic that kills cities — and that has been poisoning this one for decades.
I suppose we should have seen this coming. The scale and location of the project posed serious challenges — challenges that could not be solved by the conventional development formulas. Arenas are notorious black holes in urban neighborhoods, sitting empty most of the year and draining the life around them. And in this case, the arena would dominate a major intersection and anchor a dense 22-acre residential development several blocks to the east.
Mr. Gehry began by asking a simple question: Is it possible to integrate an arena of this size into the city? Many architects would attempt to disguise the structure behind banners and billboards. Mr. Gehry’s solution was more inventive: to envelop the arena in the fabric of the city itself.
He began by surrounding the arena with four residential towers — essentially burying it in the middle of the triangular block at the southeast corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues. A glass-enclosed public space, several stories high, projected out from one of the towers toward the intersection, like the prow of a ship. An oval lawn, surrounded by a running track, covered the arena’s roof. Open only to the towers’ tenants, it nonetheless added to the feel that the building had been swallowed up by the city.
Perhaps the most ingenious aspect of the design was the way it met the street. Along Atlantic and Flatbush, where the bowl of the arena bulged out between the residential towers, Mr. Gehry clad it in panels of curved glass, so that people passing by could peer directly into the concourse. From certain perspectives, views opened up straight through the arena itself.
There were valid objections to the design. 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. Like all great architecture, it challenged our assumptions of what a building of its type can do.
The rest of the story is a depressing illustration of how New York development gets done. While Forest City Ratner fought for more and more concessions from the city — demanding tax breaks, reducing the number of affordable housing units — Mr. Gehry was forced to trim back his design. First the rooftop park was dropped because it was too expensive. The prowlike public space was redesigned, then redesigned again, until it began to look like a conventional atrium.
Worst of all, the main tower at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush was stripped of much of its vitality. Once a dynamic composition of tumbling glass shards, it became a more static form of irregularly stacked boxes, one that failed to capture the energy of the traffic streaming by on both sides. Then the towers, too, began to disappear, one by one, until the arena bowl was left naked and exposed to the street.
Still, this was not enough. In a stunning bait-and-switch, Forest City Ratner (which was the development partner for The New York Times Company’s headquarters in Midtown) has now decided that it can’t afford an architect of Mr. Gehry’s stature. Neglecting to tell the public, the firm went out months ago and hired Ellerbe Becket, corporate architects known for producing generic, unimaginative buildings. And although it has refused to release details of the design, the renderings, obtained by The New York Times, tell you all you need to know.
A massive vaulted shed that rests on a masonry base, the arena is as glamorous as a storage warehouse. A rectangular window overlooks Atlantic, but without the other buildings it lacks the sense of mystery and surprise that was such an essential part of the Gehry design. A trapezoidal brick and glass box at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush is obviously intended as an echo of Gehry’s public space. But Gehry’s room, several stories tall, soared over the intersection. Ellerbe Becket’s, lower to the ground, just sits there, adding nothing.
Building this monstrosity at such a critical urban intersection would be deadly. Clearly, the city would be better off with nothing. But what’s at issue here is more than the betrayal of a particular community, as tragic as that could be. It is the way the city makes decisions about large-sale development.
Typically, a developer comes to the city with big plans. Promises are made. Serious architects are brought in. The needs of the community, like ample parkland and affordable housing, are taken into account. Editorial boards and critics, like me, praise the design for its ambition.
Eventually, the project takes on a momentum of its own. The city and state, afraid of an embarrassing public failure, feel pressured to get the project done at any cost, and begin to make concessions. Given the time such developments take to build, sometimes a decade or more, we then hit the inevitable economic downturn. The developer pleads poverty. Desperate to avoid more economic bad news, government officials cut a deal.
It’s a familiar ending, made more nauseating because we have seen it so many times before. And it can’t be solved by simply crunching numbers. It demands a profound shift in mentality. What we have now is a system in which decent architecture and the economic needs of developers are in fundamental opposition. Until that changes, there will be more Atlantic Yards in our future.