Thursday, September 10, 2009
Atlantic Yards: New Yards Design Draws From the Old
To say that the 22-acre Atlantic Yards development project in Brooklyn is in disarray is not a major revelation. That it may still be possible to save — and may even be worth saving — comes as news.
When Bruce Ratner, the project’s developer, fired Frank Gehry last year — after getting city approval on the basis of Mr. Gehry’s design — and replaced him with Ellerbe Becket, a firm known for churning out generic stadiums, it seemed like a cynical double cross. Ellerbe Becket’s bland proposal for a basketball arena replaced a much more ambitious scheme from Mr. Gehry, which cleverly integrated the arena into a surrounding group of residential and commercial towers. That design seemed destined to create a black hole at one of Brooklyn’s most lively intersections. Many were appalled.
Chastened, Mr. Ratner quickly hired Shop Architects, a young New York firm, to spiff up the arena, and the results, unveiled on Wednesday, are somewhat more promising. Some of Mr. Gehry’s original ideas, like opening views from the sidewalk into the arena, have been restored. Mr. Ratner has reduced the size of the structure, moving team offices to another site. And Shop has wrapped it in an appealing rust-colored steel skin, which will make it less harsh on the eye.
But it still falls short of the high architectural standards set by the design the city was originally promised. And too many questions remain unanswered about the overall plan — in particular, when and whether Mr. Ratner’s company, Forest City Ratner, will ever build the surrounding buildings, and, assuming it does, who will design them. Without them the cohesion of the original plan falls apart.
The brilliance of Mr. Gehry’s approach was not about the aesthetics of any particular building; it lay in the careful arrangement of diverse urban elements on a tight urban site. As in his design work on some of his early houses, Mr. Gehry began this project by breaking down the development program into a series of discrete forms — arena, residential and commercial towers, public zones — and then carefully reassembling them, a bit like a child playing with building blocks. The towers set around the arena became a way to hide its bulk. And the collisions among forms made for a number of startling urban moments: views between buildings that opened directly into the arena, a public park draped over the arena’s roof.
The final design did not satisfy many local activists, who felt it was out of scale with the surrounding neighborhoods, but it was a work of genuine urban complexity, drawing strength from the tensions created by the vibrant mix of elements.
The design by Shop and Ellerbe Becket tries to recapture some of that energy and relate the building to the neighborhoods around it. That rust-colored skin, woven out of weathered-steel panels, has the look of worn snakeskin; it is perforated with small openings that will make it glow at night, and it has a toughness that should fit well into its gritty setting.
The architects have set back the upper portion of the facade to break down the structure’s scale, and laid out a series of retail shops extending along Flatbush Avenue, the area’s main commercial strip. They have also replicated Mr. Gehry’s big glass windows along Flatbush, which will allow drivers to peer right through the lobby to the scoreboard suspended above the court.
Still, the larger project remains worrisome. In Mr. Gehry’s original design, all of the structures were conceived as part of a single cohesive scheme. (All five of the buildings’ foundations, for example, would have to have been built at the same time.) To defer additional costs, Mr. Ratner has divided up the design. The arena will be built first, and then, he says, the foundations for the residential and commercial buildings will be dug, once he is ready to start the next stage of construction.
This risks producing an oddly clunky composition. Although Mr. Ratner says he still plans to build the towers, possibly hiring an architect for the first one by the end of the year, the current design was clearly conceived to be able to stand alone, and it is hard to see how it would be integrated into a larger, convincing urban whole. Despite Mr. Ratner’s reassurances, it is also possible that one or two of the towers will never be built, which would take us back to square one.
And then, of course, there is the arena itself. Mr. Gehry took great care to disguise the ubiquitous corporate suites to create a more intimate space, tucking them into the ends of the arena and draping balconies over them. He also designed a ceiling that seemed to press down into the room, focusing the energy onto the court.
The new stadium has fewer suites (they are harder to sell in a poor economy), but they have become more prominent. And the room feels more conventional.
It is probably the best Mr. Ratner can do, given time and money constraints. But his problems, sadly, are now our problems too. And they may force us to live for decades with what is ultimately a compromised design.
Posted by Chris Mansel at 7:06 AM