I love it when a thoughtful critic is in full-fledged fire-breathing mode, and one could almost feel the smoke coming off Nicolai Ouroussoff’s scathing commentary on the new design plans for the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. His outrage clearly wasn’t faked, but deeply felt, and reading his piece in yesterday’s New York Times was a rush.
As you may have already read on our site, Frank Gehry is now longer working on the Forest City Ratner project. Gehry had been playing along for some time now, accepting a series of revisions (i.e. downgrades) to his original, triumphant vision for the multi-use project, which would have incorporated a new stadium, thousands of housing units, and a soaring tower so memorable it generated even in its rendering phase a nickname that seemed bound to stick: Miss Brooklyn.
At this point, it isn’t really clear precisely what precipitated the split: if Gehry was (politely) pushed off the project because the tanking economy no longer justified the investment in even his degraded design. Or if Gehry had finally reached a point where he could accept no more compromises.
What is clear is that Ouroussoff—who loved how Gehry’s "ingenious" design made "a fervent effort to engage the life of the city"—is none too happy about what his departure means for the future of this critical site at a major intersection in a New York borough whose cultural and economic stock has been rising rapidly over the last decade. Among his blistering choice of words: "shameful betrayal" "offensive" "dehumanizing" "tragic" "depressing" and "nauseating".
Ouroussoff was so (rightly) enamored with Gehry’s initial plans that probably any alternative would have been castigated.
Gehry's original Atlantic Yards vision; image courtesy Forest City Ratner
But Ouroussoff somehow managed to lay his hands on the design vision of Gehry’s substitute by the firm of Ellerbe Becket, and his assessment is particularly brutal: It’s "as glamorous as a storage warehouse… Building this monstrosity at such a critical urban intersection would be deadly. Clearly, the city would be better off with nothing."
Ellerbe Becket’s design for the new stadium, as presented by the NY Times
Unfortunately, the Times only shares two images of Ellerbe Becket’s designs, so it’s hard to judge the accuracy of his assessment—although in one of the two renderings, the sdadium does resemble a high school fieldhouse.
Ouroussoff devotes a good portion of the conclusion of his piece to how this case involving the Atlantic Yards is emblematic of all that’s wrong with large-scale development: A developer hires top architects to develop a critic- and public-wooing plan, filled with amenities for the city’s residents. Then, after approval is granted, time goes on, and less attention is paid, the grand plan inevitably becomes watered down to the detriment of the public and in favor of developer profits.
I can’t disagree with that—but where I do have a quibble with Ouroussoff’s piece is his utter avoidance of one of the critical questions with the Atlantic Yards project: the use of eminent domain to condemn private property in a fully functioning, if not vibrant neighborhood—for a fully private project. (For the record, I am adamantly opposed to this practice and believe it’s clearly unconstitutional, despite the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in Kelo v. City of New London.)
For me, the sheer brilliance of Gehry’s plan made this eminent-domain play a lot more palatable. If, instead, all we’re going to get is a conventional stadium design—and as someone who works literally on top of Madison Square Garden, I experience firsthand everyday the blight that arises around poorly designed arenas—then I hope the people and public officials of New York will rise up to kill this deal outright.
And on a final note, perhaps I’m a Pollyannaish optimist, but I actually couldn’t disagree more with Ouroussoff’s penultimate sentence: "What we have now is a system in which decent architecture and the economic needs of developers are in fundamental opposition."
I’m convinced that over the last 10 years or so, we have been undergoing a secular shift in the perception of the value of design among both the general public and developers of all stripes. And I think we are seeing a slow and incremental—but nevertheless real—increase in the understanding that decent architecture and economic performance actually go hand-in-hand.
Indeed, I’d argue that Atlantic Yards is actually proof of this: Forest City Ratner did hire the world’s most famous—and innovative—architect to design what would have been a striking ensemble at a fairly high construction premium. I’m not enough of a believer in conspiracy schemes to think that the plan all along had been to pull a bait-and-switch on the people of New York. I think a developer, when times were flush, showed a willingness to make a tremendous investment in an exceptional design—which would not have been the case 15 or 20 years ago. And now we’re seeing a developer make a desperate move in what are unquestionably desperate times.