Friday, September 26, 2008

Weighing Scale

This will provide links to two valuable resources to consider how the scale of the Atlantic Yards megadevelopment doesn’t fit in with the scale of surrounding Brooklyn.

The two resources are the Municipal Art Society’s “Atlantic Yards or Atlantic Lots” slide show and the Environmental Simulation Center’s Atlantic Yards plug-in for the Google Earth program.

MAS Renderings

I was reminded how valuable one of these resources was when I attended the Municipal Art Society’s Inside View: MAS Work in Progress on Monday night. The evening was intended to afford a “behind-the-scenes look at MAS projects and programs.”

The full-screen projection at the front of the room did a lot to remind me how effective MAS’s slide show of visuals “Atlantic Yards or Atlantic Lots” at MAS’s specially set up website is at showing the proposed project in the context of the scale of the healthy Brooklyn neighborhoods which it will devastate. As is also the purpose of that site, the slide show also depicts the vast scale of depredation that will be brought about (in the form of parking lots?) if condemnations and demolition of existing Brooklyn are allowed to proceed given that no near-term rebuilding is likely. (The New York Post, among others, reported on the presentation and the concern that there will be little or no rebuilding for years. - See: the Future's 'Blight' Nightmare Vision of B'klyn Arena, By Rich Calder, May 5, 2008- While the Post story incorporates some of the graphics, you have not seen them to full effect unless you go to the MAS site.)

Understanding scale in context is more important than imagining what the style of design an urban project might be. In fact, in terms of end result, a good urban living environment probably depends more on good massing of the density in the built environment than on prettifying building skins.

The MAS renderings do not try to recreate the distracting Gehry/Ratner abstractions and thereby do a superior job of suggesting what the contextual density and extreme mass of this project would be. For instance, in the MAS renderings, surrounding Brooklyn is crisply visible: Each doorway, window frame, existing tree and passing car window provides scale while the stand-ins for the mass of the proposed Atlantic Yards megaproject also has scale-setting windows and floors clearly indicated. The rendering is matter-of-fact-neutral right down to a very restrained daytime depiction of the 15-story animated sign that will be illuminated at night. It dispenses with the slathered-on dazzle of the developer-sponsored sales pitch. (These pitches make me think of the faux-sparkle stars sometime pasted on top of winning “smiles.”)

Gehry/Ratner Renderings

The MAS site links to the Gehry/Ratner renderings which are worthless for getting a sense of scale; they are quite the opposite of the helpful MAS renderings:

1.) They scrupulously obliterate (into a black void) the surrounding neighborhood (foreshadowing a more literal obliteration to come?),

2.) These days they only depict a fraction of the project,

3.) No one knows what the project is right now and Gehry has been fooling around with substitute frivolutions

4.) Gehry’s sculptural-paperweight school of architecture is devoid of scale-establishing elements partly because it does not dialogue in terms of the human use or purpose.

One wonders why the New York Times is so enamored of showing Gehry/Ratner renderings when communicating “factually” about Atlantic Yards.

A Bleary Gehry Neighborhood?

(In reference to Gehry’s scaleless and contextless sculptural-paperweight school of architecture, Noticing New York is looking forward to seeing or presenting renderings of a whole neighborhood consisting of nothing but streetfuls of Gehry-created buildings: Atlantic Yards (maybe both versions, the original Ms. Brooklyn next to the discarded pizza boxes replacing her), the Disney Center, the Bard College performance hall, MIT’s leaky drunken robots, the West Side’s dirty iceberg, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks hockey rink, Bilbao, etc. All lined up it would surely look like a Macy’s gift-wrapping counter headache. - Something to work on.)

Scale is Tough to Appreciate

Scale is tough. Human beings are truly hard put to imagine scale. Renderings are an essential but unreliable tool, especially when manipulated. There is nothing like experiencing reality. When friends move into a new apartment I tell them to hold off buying furniture until after they move in. I suggest that for a while they live using boxes to represent furniture to get a sense of how everything will fit. Proportion is everything. Afterwards you can measure and choose style. An acquaintance of mine followed another course. While renovating a new apartment he was going to move into he bought a complete set of furniture. When it arrived, it didn’t fit. Although it measured as if it was going to fit, as a matter of really living with it and moving around the apartment it didn’t fit at all.

I have often suggested that a number of our politicians have signed on the to the Atlantic Yards megadevelopment without actually appreciating what it truly is (see: Tuesday, August 19, 2008, Dear Mr. Bloomberg, . . . . . the Harm and the Foul) If Bloomberg ever gets the Atlantic Yards he signed onto he is likely to find himself in a position similar to to my acquaintance with the oversized couches- not exactly the same situation though; oversized couches can be tossed.

Anything that provides a sense of scale in advance is a valuable tool.

Environmental Simulation Center Modeling

Another valuable tool for studying the scale of Atlantic Yards is the Environmental Simulation Center's plug-in Atlantic Yards modeling for Google Earth. Not everyone knows this is an available tool for studying Atlantic Yards and it is probably worth reminding even those who do. I haven’t seen people writing about it recently. (See the ESC’s introduction to the excellent modeling it did.)

If you are unfamiliar with the basic Google Earth program you have to try it out. It is an absolute joy and a terrific amount of fun. It is like being able to fly anywhere in the world. The program, which does not take much in the way of computer resources, can be loaded free onto just about any computer of recent vintage. I load it as part of the basic set-up for any computer I am working with. You'll need to load it in order to use the Environmental Simulation Center’s plug-in Atlantic Yards modeling as I am suggesting here. (Once Google Earth is installed and the plug-in is downloaded, just click on the plug-in to launch Google Earth and the simulated modeling. Once you have installed Google Earth I think you will find using it fairly self-explanatory and it provides tips to help you along.)

There are many images on the web of the Atlantic Yards density that are derived from the Environmental Simulation Center’s simulating program. What you have seen before may involve some repetition of some standard-issue, most frequently available images. It cannot compete with actually using the Google Earth program to swoosh and navigate around the project and neighborhood, including familiar reference points like the neighboring Williamsburg Savings Bank building or nearby brownstones. You can generate you own images from an infinite number of perspectives.

Like the MAS renderings, the Environmental Simulation Center modeling is good in that they concentrate in context on the actual mass and density that needs to be considered, while stripping away distracting glitz. The Environmental Simulation Center modeling is not perfect; it was generated a while ago and doesn’t reflect some of the slight size changes for the project that have been recently discussed. On the other hand it is not certain that this is relevant since it is far from clear that any of our government officials are in the habit of making Forest City Ratner commit to anything, and since nobody really knows what is going on with this project which is obviously in a state of flux. The Environmental Simulation Center modeling also allows you to examine for comparison the much more sensible density and massing alternatives that were offered by the Extel proposal, the Pacific Plan (Slide 36) and the first version of the community’s UNITY Plan.

In looking at the simulation I find it useful to click on Google’s built-in simulation of the buildings in the area though its data is not yet complete or fully up–to-date: there is no simulation data for buildings east of a certain point near the project and the last Ratner mall near Felix Street is not shown as built. I keep coming back to the Williamsburg Savings Bank building as a comparative size reference.

Renderings Can Lie

Renderings can lie. If you know what you are doing, a telephoto lens aspect can make buildings in the foreground appear comparatively smaller. Conversely, coming closer and using a wide-angle lens aspect will cause buildings in the foreground to grow. Then, of course, there is how pictures get cropped. So a person interested in slanting a depiction decides which buildings are going to be in the foreground and which in background, depending on what they want to show and then they have at it. Gehry did do his own set of renderings of Atlantic Yards in the “context” of the surrounding neighborhoods. This may no longer be available directly through Ratner but the fact that they were highly manipulated was covered by No Land Grab. The strange tilt to the Williamsburg Savings Bank building is a definite “tell” for the monkey business that was being practiced. The fun of the Google Earth ESC simulations is that you can go in and look at the project from any and all perspectives. Although you can zoom closer or farther away, Google Earth always usees one fixed camera-lens-equivalent.

Future Perfect's Simulation

There have been other simulations of what experiencing the Atlantic Yards might be like, such as the interactive “Future Perfect” (by Ed Purver and Chris Croft) which used video projections on a wall in a room in which you would walk around. That was a useful exercise but I particularly recommend the tools MAS and ESC provide.

A Digression: Precepts of Eminent Domain Abuse and MAS

Digressing briefly to mention something important. At the Monday night MAS evening event it was mentioned that MAS has not yet sorted out a set of principles it can offer to distinguish defensible eminent domain from eminent domain abuse. I think the task is well within reach. MAS has provided multiple excellent forums in which people have taken the opportunity to discuss questions in this regard. I think one only needs to start with the most basic precepts on the subject and build from there.

MAS has also provided many excellent forums wherein Atlantic Yards has been discussed, including its abuse of eminent domain and its economic damage to the city. Contributing to awareness and discussion, the first page of the recently revamped MAS website prominently incorporated a link to its Atlantic Yards features until just recently (just after the link for Moynihan Station, the new Pennsylvania Station). It was updated this week just after I started writing this post. For what you previously were able to reach more directly, go to the page for Atlantic Lots coverage or the page for accumulated MAS coverage of Atlantic Yards. MAS is also a part of the Brooklyn Speaks coalition which has a direct and prominent link to

Perspective on a Green Borough

One last thing, and one more aid for understanding Atlantic Yards totally inappropriate scale; the new MAS annual report has, as its last page, an aerial photograph of Brooklyn. That photo brings to life what people often remark is so striking about Brooklyn when they fly over it. Brooklyn is not only the Borough of Churches with a forest of steeples: Brooklyn is a borough of startling green that looks almost like a park. (The photo is also used by MAS on their “contact us” page.) In the middle of the MAS photo is the Vanderbilt rail yards site where Ratner proposes his devastation. It is sobering perspective worth focusing in on.

(Click on any picture in this post to see it enlarged.)

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