It’s difficult, given my constant stream of low-paying work, for me to keep abreast on the goings-on with the Atlantic Yards project, Bruce Ratner’s misbegotten and quasi-comatose SimCity attempt to turn much of downtown Brooklyn into Tampa, only with Junior’s nearby and an arena for the Nets in the middle of it. Even relative to the opaque and misinformation-intensive standards set by every other pro sports franchise, the Nets are pretty much impossible to read — there’s a lot of brand-sensitive sunshine from the team’s pseudo-wunderkind PR maestro Brent Yormark, much talk about plans going forward, but no actual happening happening.
Relative to all that perfectly packaged nothing, it didn’t seem like an especially big deal when Ratner’s prestige architect/smokescreen Frank Gehry recently left the Atlantic Yards project. Kind of a big deal, but not as big a deal, say, as New York being broke as a fucking joke and Ratner finding himself short roughly $100 million and without a contractor.
But, yes, kind of a big deal. Despite the kind of baseline unlikelihood of Gehry’s original crashed-UFO arena design ever getting built — even Gehry didn’t think it would happen by the end, and whether you’ve been to Brooklyn or not, can you imagine actually seeing this anywhere? — that arena was always Ratner’s biggest selling point, even as the design was revised back repeatedly towards something cheaper and more conventional. “Sure, granted, we’re razing your neighborhood and building a bunch of high rises for rich people,” the pitch went, “but have you seen this crazy arena? It’s going to be sweet even on the 324 days a year when there isn’t a NBA basketball game happening there.” To say that this supposed selling point is moot after the arena’s new design — from architects Ellerbe Beckett — was leaked to the New York Times is to hugely understate just how much architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff fucking hates the new design. “It is a shameful betrayal of the public trust,” Ouroussoff cheers, “one that should enrage all those who care about this city.”
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.
…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.
Right or wrong — and judging by the Conseco Fieldhouse-lite looks of the thing, he seems right to me — it’s a nice reminder that no one piles up adjectives quite like an architecture critic.