Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Blasting From the Past: Ouroussoff on a Stand-alone Arena (Two Cheers Forward, And One Absolutely Cheerless Look Backward)

(For more information about the above image click here.)

This is a quickie we couldn’t resist since we suspect that it is something that has gone unnoticed.* Sometimes the most important truth involves remembering the past, something we intend to do by the end of this post by taking you back to an old quote of New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff from March of 2008.

(* Somehow we have little doubt that it will eventually be addressed by Atlantic Yards Reports’ ever-vigilant and thorough Norman Oder.)

Atlantic Yards Report recently wrote about Mr. Ouroussoff’s review of the proposed new Atlantic Yards arena design that was doctored by SHoP Architects, characterizing his review, as expressed by AYR’s headline as basically “two cheers.” (See: Wednesday, September 09, 2009, NYT critic Ouroussoff gives two cheers to the new arena design: "probably the best that Mr. Ratner can do".)

As AYR points out, Ouroussoff had previously lambasted the pre-doctored Ellerbe Becket design for the arena back in June. That being said, the SHoP doctoring of the “shameful betrayal of the public trust” (Ouroussoff’s words) that apparently earned Ouroussoff’s “two cheers” relates to elements of the arena design that will be temporary and which will largely disappear if the arena is not ultimately just a stand-alone arena with other buildings ultimately not built around it as is being speculatively considered. (For more on the potential absurdity of building perhaps only temporarily the elements that earn Ouroussoff’s two cheers, together with a link to the Brooklyn Paper article that explains more about the removal of these elements, see our satire on the subject: Monday, September 21, 2009, A Stitch in Time: Post ESDC Meeting Ratner Releases Another (FIFTH!) New Set of Arena Plans.)
As you can track in AYR’s report, the new arena design elements that Ouroussoff manages to speak positively about (and that will mostly disappear if other buildings are built) are, as AYR points out, a wreath around the Ellerbe Becket design consisting of:
. . 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.
. . . big glass windows along Flatbush, which will allow drivers to peer right through the lobby to the scoreboard suspended above the court.
(The image above shows the two apertures between speculatively future buildings where fragments of the skin of rust-colored wreath-lattice and the big windows could theoretically remain.)

Admittedly, Mr. Ouroussoff acknowledges “Still, the larger project remains worrisome” largely because of the confusions about may or may not be built beside the arena in the future. Quoting further:
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.
He also concludes the article negatively assessing that Forest City Ratner problems will “force us to live for decades with what is ultimately a compromised design.” (See: Ouroussoff’s full article at New Yards Design Draws From the Old, By Nicolai Ouroussoff, September 9, 2009.)

Other architectural critics have weighed in, suggesting that the arena can be positively appreciated “solely as an intellectual exercise” as the “best of the [four!] arena designs” to date, but that considering it in context, as it must be, it is a project built at the wrong site (and is, i.e., therefore blighting) and involves tearing down “big sound” “wonderful Brooklyn industrial buildings” “including Ward Bakery, which was one of the best industrial buildings ever built in Brooklyn” (and is, i.e., therefore blighting). Again, these critics were talking about the Ellerbe Becket arena design standing alone with the temporary doctoring proposed by SHoP. To see a summary of this discussion between architectural critic and historian Francis Morrone and former New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger on the Brian Lehrer show see: Architecture critics slam Markowitz for claiming arena "celebrates Brooklyn's industrial heritage" (Thursday, September 10, 2009). Mr. Golderberg, who now writes for the New Yorker, began his career at the Times, where in 1984 his architecture criticism was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

Now for the Ouroussoff quote we promised at the beginning of this post.- - As noted, Ouroussoff’s “two cheers” for the doctoring elements of the SHoP design consisted of praise for elements that will only be in place for so long as the arena exists as a stand-alone structure. But in March of 2008 Ouroussoff had some exceedingly derogatory things to say about how a stand-alone arena would be “a piece of urban blight.”

March 21, 2008 was an interesting day in the Times for Atlantic Yards. It was also the day where in a front page story with a headline about how a “slow economy”was “likely to stall Atlantic Yards,” Times reporter Charles Bagli revealed that the arena costs had escalated (an unmentioned 50%) to $950 million. (Frustratingly, this made my calculation of the total public cost of the arena that I’d just used in my Huffington Post piece of a few days before antique- March 17, 2008- More Money for the Very Rich: An Unsporting Pursuit?. I had to revise the total public cost up to $1.3 billion paid off over time.)

Here is what Mr. Ouroussoff wrote in his March 21, 2008 article (emphasis supplied)
So if the decision to proceed with an 18,000-seat basketball arena but to defer or eliminate the four surrounding towers is defensible from a business perspective, it also feels like a betrayal of the public trust.

Mr. Gehry conceived of this bold ensemble of buildings as a self-contained composition — an urban Gesamtkunstwerk — not as a collection of independent structures. Postpone the towers and expose the stadium, and it becomes a piece of urban blight — a black hole at a crucial crossroads of the city’s physical history. If this is what we’re ultimately left with, it will only confirm our darkest suspicions about the cynical calculations underlying New York real estate deals.
(See: March 21, 2008, Times critic Ouroussoff says Gehry should pull out of the truncated “eyesore” AY may become.)

We totally agree!
(The above rendering by the Municipal Art Society, with a generic stand-in for the stand-alone arena shows the teardown of the neighborhood the Ratner project plan involves. Since some of the replacement buildings shown above next to the arena probably won't come in the near future, if ever, you will have to subtract them in your imagination to envision the arena standing alone in the parking lot. -Original Aerial Photograph by Jonathan Barkey.)

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