Friday, January 4, 2013

Escalation Of A Problem: Does Last Minute Architectural Fix Of “Barclays” Arena Put Ratner In A Familiar Fix?

Top figure: My brother Stephen.  Below him, George Willig
This post about the architecture of the so-called “Barclays” arena will mention my brother Stephen (seen in the picture above, the relevance of which will be shortly be explained) and George Willig (also in the picture) whose name should excite some neurons in the brains of trivia experts knowledgeable about the 1970s.

I wrote about my brother and George Willig and Philippe Petit in an earlier Noticing New York article.  I was also writing then about another Ratner-constructed building and was writing about the same thing I am going to write about here.

Background On Arena Architecture: The Steel Lattice Grid Added When Finalizing A Design

First, some background about the architecture of the Ratner/Prokhorov owned arena to which the name of the Barclays Bank has been affixed with that name of ill repute being affixed in turn to New York subway stations so as to amplify the advertising that is intended to improve the public’s associations with the “Barclays” name.

Without commenting upon the aesthetic value of what was actually achieved, it should be noted that the aesthetics of the arena are all achieved by something that was never meant to be in the first place, something that was added in and resorted to at the last minute, a latticework wreath of weathering steel panels, including a projecting “oculus,”to disguise the basic and standard design beneath.  See the following Atlantic Yards Report's article from which the indented quotes below are extracted: Friday, December 28, 2012, In the WSJ: "Barclays Center is winning over Brooklyn" (but does it "work for the people closest to it"?).

From the Wall Street Journal’s annual architectural roundup written by Julia Lovine:
The 675,000-square-foot sports arena sits at the edge of a residential neighborhood. And it is as hulking and out of scale as feared, but locals have found it interesting enough architecturally to reconsider its potential. The architects animated a very basic arena form, covering it with rusted steel panels—thousands of them, each one slightly different in size—turning something ponderous, dynamic.  In a bold gesture at street level, a swooping oculus projects out over the subway and commuter train stairs.
From the comment of Atlantic Yard Report’s Norman Oder on the above Wal Street Journal article:   
. .  that "bold gesture at street level" was never meant to be. The arena plaza, and oculus, are the product of failing to build the massive office tower designed for that space. The arena surely looks less imposing, and more neighborhood- friendly, that way. But the office tower was key to the financial projections that made Atlantic Yards plausible.

For the record, the oculus does not really lead to "commuter train stairs." Arena visitors are instructed to walk down Atlantic Avenue to get to the Long Island Rail Road--otherwise, they must pay a subway fare to walk underground.
Noticing New York has not yet commented upon the success of the arena’s aesthetics (and may never do so) except that Noticing New York has observed how the arena and its oculus (often now described by others as “muscular”) expresses a corporatizing dominance over the space that's been taken over.  But this isn’t criticism of a design failure as it likely constitutes a success in terms of what was actually intended:
 . . . the huge dark cooperately logoed “Barclays” Center and its “oculus” loom over you.  Like an oversized flat screen in a sports bar, the “oculus” perpetually reformulates moving images that show hypnotically distracting advertisements from all the corporations who have deemed it beneficial to associate themselves with Ratner’s scandalous doin’s in his ruin of Brooklyn.

The insistent flashing ads in the oculus, together with the arena’s general overbearingness in the space are, it’s worth remembering, financially juiced by the arena’s nonpayment of taxes.  We, the public, pay the expenses the arena doesn't.
(See: Sunday, October 7, 2012, Will The “Daily News” Plaza at the “Barclays” (LIBOR) Center Be A Public Space For Free Speech?: Police Issue A Directive To The Contrary.)

As Mr. Oder notes, whatever aesthetic success has been achieved with the oculus and the lattice steel wreath encompassing the oculus was all a hastily-added afterthought that was inconsistent with the original design and plan.  The oculus is where, in the still-not-officially-disavowed original site plan design, an office building is supposed to stand.  In fact, the original site plan design calling for a total of four buildings to surround the arena would leave very little of the lattice visible.  (See image below from: Monday, September 21, 2009, A Stitch in Time: Post ESDC Meeting Ratner Releases Another (FIFTH!) New Set of Arena Plans.)

Above, original site plan showing the two apertures where fragments of lattice could theoretically remain.
Models of the original Frank Gehry design show those four buildings actually abutting the arena, with the arena (acknowledged to be large itself) so nestled in to the surrounding larger shapes that it virtually disappears.  As currently planned, will such surrounding buildings, however many of them are ever built, be similarly so close and abutting the arena?  When SHoP architects (Gregg Pasquarelli and Chris Sharples) were on Brian Lehrer the beginning of October they answered my phoned-in query in this regard as it pertained to the first of these buildings now expected to be built experimenting with new modular technology.

From 2008 Gowanus Lounge coverage of project slow down and delay
From Atlantic Yards Report coverage in turn covering the Times
Their answer, perhaps fudged, was that none of the wreath would wind up being dismantled because the new buildings would wind up being just a “backdrop” to a changing composition, since, unlike the original Gehry design, the buildings won’t be part of an integrated single design.  I posted a follow-up comment on the show page saying that I believe that if the other buildings are ever built on the block they will abut and that means that you won’t see as much of the weathering steel wreath that was added to the original design and that much of the wreath may have to be taken down.  If the buildings don’t actually abut they are likely to wind up being so very close that it will amount to nearly the same thing.
Other things have similarly made it seem as if the arena lattice was hastily conceived, irrespective of whether it has been rightfully or wrongly praised by a fawning press that is rarely critical of Ratner.

It may have come as a surprise to many that the “12,000 panels of a material called weathering steel” . .  “bleeds bits of fiery color onto the surrounding area, especially in its early life.”  (For more, including photos of the “rusty dripping” see: Friday, November 30, 2012, After pre-rusting the Barclays Center facade, the metal drips, after all.)  In any event, the new sidewalks being stained, already full of unpromised cracks, are hardly pristine.

Posterior protuberance the weekend of Jay-Z's opening concert
Another surprise, when constructed, we discovered that a posterior protuberance emerged from the lattice’s streamlined form that was never shown to be intended when the reformulating plans associated with the addition of the lattice were put on display for public reaction.  (See: Sunday, October 7, 2012, The Posterior Protuberance Of the Ratner/Prokhorov Barclays (LIBOR) Center Not Indicated On Model Submitted To Sell Arena To Public.)

Most recently, we have been greeted with the New Year's fresh news of a New York Times scoop: Back in August it was discovered that there was a problem with the 23,351 bolts fastening the steel plates to the arena structure. The fabricator had sent bolts that were half as strong as those that had been ordered.  As a five-month replacement regimen was undertaken and ongoing, the news was apparently handled by Ratner and the professional firms working for his Forest City Ratner firm so that the information didn’t get around, not to the New York City Building Department nor passed along by the construction monitor reporting to arena’s bond holders about the status of their investment’s construction.
Image,  Chang W. Lee Photo, showing bolts from Times January 1 scoop article: Problem With Weak Bolts Has Complicated the Barclays Center’s Early Days
Problems may have stemmed from the fact that, as the Times article notes: “The fabricator for the 12,000 steel panels — no two alike — abruptly shut down midway through the job.”   Somehow, although the bolts are only half the strength that were ordered, it has been determined that only about 8% of them (1,768) are actually going to get replaced.  (See, particularly respecting the possibility of intentional obfuscation: Wednesday, January 02, 2013, Barclays Center opened with defective bolts, not disclosed fully to Department of Buildings; problem hints at why ESD, construction monitor have obscured the issue.)

As the Times defective-bolt-scoop article author Charles Bagli writes: “with innovation has also come headaches.”  Bagli ends his Times article sounding a note of perhaps intentionally ironic hope:
As for the blossoms of metal staining the sidewalks surrounding the arena? Eventually the panels will stop rusting and workers will use power washers to remove all traces of metal from the sidewalks.
I am not so certain this is true.  Although Bagli in his article at one point describes the material of which the 12,000 panels are made as “pre-weathered steel” and although the Merritt & Harris construction monitoring reports that didn’t mention the defective bolts documents refer to “weathered panels” I believe the exact term for the material used is “weathering steel” which is to say that there is no past tense involved; while the weathering process may slow as it progresses it will never be finished.  The Times reported in late August that to prevent the rusting from being worse upon initial installation the steel, before it arrived on site “spent about four months at an Indianapolis plant where they were put through more than a dozen wet-and-dry cycles a day” effectively amounting to about “six years of weathering”.

Other things that this Times article noted about the weathering steel: If water is allowed to pool anywhere holes can rust through the material like an old auto body and if mischievous passers-by throw magnets up onto the steel they stick (perhaps affecting the weathering patterns?)

Past As Prologue: Possible Ascension Of Another Problem With The Lattice Wreath

That being background (and mischief perhaps a good segue), we now get to the part of this post wherein I will talk about my brother Stephen, George Willig, Philippe Petit and connect them with another building built by Foerst City Ratner.  It involves another problem with the lattice work facade that may not have been considered when its design solution was hastily resorted to.

I have been thinking about writing this article since the summer, long before the arena was completed or brought online.  I held back because I didn’t want to get ahead of the story.  Also there are times when, in writing about a story, you can unintentionally become part of it.  You can provoke it into existence.  For some months now it seemed to me that what was obvious to me must be obvious to everyone else and that if I just waited I would be writing about the story after it fully unfolded. I would have avoided provoking it to happen or, alternatively, provoking an inscrutable preemptive response on Ratner's part.

A number of years ago, in August of 2008 I wrote about redevelopment at Ground Zero, the former site of the World Trade Center.  As part of that article I wrote about the relationship of human beings to buildings that dominate the environment, how the dominance of a building can create a corresponding human urge to conquer that dominating object, a sort of because-it’s-there exercise at attempting to cut a too big building back down to human size, restoring the balance of human relationship.  (See: Tuesday, August 5, 2008, TWO, AND FRO?)
Philippe Petit tight-rope walking between Trade Center Towers in video preview for "Man on Wire" documentary.
So it was with the World Trade Center towers which my article pointed out were not particularly beloved or good design but inevitably evoked response from day one. So we got the French aerialist Philippe Petit, who with meticulous clandestine preparation, tight-rope walked between the Twin Towers in 1974.  (In my article I recommended the 2008 documentary about his feat “Man on Wire.”) The towers also attracted George Willig, the Queens mountain climber and toy maker who climbed the South Tower in May of 1977.
George Willig climbing World Trade Center Tower
Postcard from 1964 Worlds Fair showing Unisphere
How does my brother Stephen, a cameraman, fit into this tradition of scaling large scale structures?  My brother, who has done some risky things as a cameraman (bracing himself on the rigs affixed to speeding cars to film car commercials, etc.) is also a climber.  Before George Willig ascended the World Trade Center building Willig scaled the Unisphere in Flushing Meadow Park, the symbol of the 1964 World’s Fair left in place afterwards by Robert Moses and cohorts.  Willig participated in a film documenting this exploit, so before Willig scaled the Unisphere my brother had to do some of his own climbing so as to be up above, looking down on an ascending Willig for suitably impressive shots.  Ergo, the image at the top of this article that shows my brother Stephen in climbing harness ascending the Unisphere ahead of Willig.

French "Spiderman" Alain Robert climbing Times/Ratner building June 5, 2008 to call attention to global warming from YouTube Video of climb
The point is that there is a tradition of climbing buildings and it is in this respect that we can concern ourselves with another building that Forest City Ratner built in relatively recent memory: The Renzo Piano-designed New York Times Building built employing eminent domain to vanquish those owners and occupants who had previously utilized its 41st Street and 8th Avenue location.  On July 9, 2008 the Municipal Art Society, at an annual meeting held in the New York Times building, presented that building with a “MASterwork” award for its design.  It was by weird coincidence the very same day that the third climber in five weeks had attempted to scale the Times Building.  Even as the award was being presented at the meeting within the building construction workers were busy working outside removing the ceramic rods and boxing up other features of the building’s distinctive architecture that provided such an open invitation to climbers.  Those open invitation features are no longer there.

We often observe about warfare how humans preoccupy themselves with "fighting the last war."  If there is architectural equivalent to this bromide it must not pertain to the Forest City Ratner firm because even if elements of Ratner’s Renzo Piano New York Times Building built in 2007 had to be dismantled because they were such an open invitation to urban climbers seeking to scale urban Everests and make statements, the “Barclays’ arena presents a conspicuous rerun of this problem.

It’s a veritable stairway to the stars, or at least the twinkling LED diodes of the oculus!

If the arrival of climbers is a testament to the public’s recognition of a building’s significant dominance in an environment perhaps the arena hasn’t succeeded in it goals because months have now gone by and climbers haven't shown up.  It leaves me a little surprised.  And now the time has come: Rather than wait any longer I thought I’d finally write this article now.

The same view when arena was under construction, June 1st
Maybe it's a stroke of good luck that nobody has yet tried to climb the arena: If the bolts holding the panel stairway are only half as strong as specified there could perhaps be a problem with holding human weight.  I’m sure the specifications must have been such that the panels were supposed to stand up to a storm like Sandy (whose winds weren’t nearly as bad as they could have been). . . They probably ought also to have been specified to be sufficient to hold human weight.  But if only 8% of the bolts are being replaced to cure a 50% strength insufficiency?

Another easy climbing access pointOn the day this photo was taken the Ratner organization was busy delivering press to the spot
And what about the lattice as a planned near-by “backdrop” to the new residential building now being undertaken?  The architects say it won't abut , still will a climber hanging from the lattice be able to reach out and touch the new building?  Who knows?  Quite possibly we will never find out: Despite all the interest the press has shown in the arena's exercise in muscular frou-frou, the urban climbers out there haven't been similarly intrigued.

Seriously though: After Ratner's high-profile experience with the three urban climbers who were drawn to the Renzo Piano New York Times Building, wasn't this on the Ratner firm's checklist of stupid learn-from-experience mistakes to avoid?  Or was Mr. Ratner in just that much of a desperate hurry to get his approvals and get started?

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