Too Much of a Good Thing

Frank Gehry isn’t going to design Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards development, and that’s OK.

Frank Gehry

Earlier this summer, Bruce Ratner, the developer of the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, N.Y., announced that he was letting go his architect, Frank Gehry. The main reason, according to the New York Times, was that in the new shrinking economy, Gehry’s work was simply too expensive. It’s a shame that Gehry will not be designing a new Brooklyn home for the Nets, for it would have been instructive to see an imaginative architect tackle the thorny problem of a basketball arena. Arenas, unlike baseball stadiums, are basically big boxes, and they have a track record of being ham-fistedly designed. Wachovia Center, where the Philadelphia 76ers play, for example, is a block-sized collection of contemporary architectural clichés, combined without any logic or wit. Its only saving grace is that it is not in an urban neighborhood but surrounded by parking lots—a suburban setting for a suburban design.

The architect of Wachovia is Ellerbe Becket, the firm that has replaced Gehry on the Brooklyn arena project. Ellerbe Becket, whose sports facilities division is based in Kansas City, specializes in arenas, stadiums, and really big hospitals. Its first design for Ratner looked as if it belonged on the campus of a small Midwestern college. This was supplanted by a second version, done in collaboration with ShoP Architects, a young New York City firm that covered the 18,000-seat arena in a stylish perforated rust-colored steel skin. The new design has much more panache than the old, although it is so breathlessly up-to-date that one wonders how it will look in a decade or two.

It is a shame that Gehry wasn’t given a chance to build his transparent, landscape-topped arena, but it is hard not to cheer the fact that the rest of his plan for the Atlantic Yards has also been abandoned. The 22-acre site was to contain 16 mostly residential towers, some more than 500 feet high, all designed by Gehry. Some architecture critics have praised the project as a “single cohesive scheme,” but cohesion is precisely the problem. As Jane Jacobs taught, one of the preconditions for urban vitality is heterogeneity—in the uses, ages, and yes, designs of buildings. Surely we’ve learned by now that having large chunks of the city designed by one architect, no matter how talented, is not a good idea.

The other problem is Gehry’s approach to architecture. His penchant for colliding forms and startling juxtapositions often—not always—makes for intriguing buildings, especially when they are in cities. Bilbao, Toronto, and New York City’s Lower West Side are richer, more interesting places for having examples of his work. But part of Gehry’s success is due to the dialogue that occurs between his idiosyncratic creations and their more conventional neighbors. In that regard he resembles the 19th-century Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí, best known for his monumental church, La Sagrada Família, also produced more mundane buildings such as the Casa Milà apartment house, designed for a Barcelona developer. Casa Milà is a quirky addition to the street, but five blocks of Casa Milàs would be ridiculous. So, too, with the Atlantic Yards. One Gehry building can be a small miracle, but 17 Gehry buildings side by side is simply too much.

It is likely that if Bruce Ratner manages to complete his project it will be designed by more than one architect. The buildings will probably be more conventional in appearance and the overall design considerably less cohesive. Ideally, the realities of the market will pare down the number of apartments from the projected 6,400 to a more manageable figure. There will probably be a few trendy buildings to catch the eye (perhaps even one designed by Gehry—why not?), and many mainstream designs to pay the bills. This pragmatic mix is not necessarily a bad thing—it’s the way that real cities have always been built.