News that Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner had hired boutique New York firm SHoP to design the project’s arena (with Ellerbe Becket, whose “airplane hangar” design was widely derided, still on board to help with specifics) broke yesterday in the New York Observer. I like the work of SHoP, one of those contemporary youngish firms not mentioned in Nicolai Ouroussoff’s odd dismissal of the local architecture scene in the Times last week (a piece subsequently denounced on Design Observer). They’ve built a couple of interesting textured condominiums in New York and their academic building for FIT looks at least as bold as Thom Mayne’s new Cooper Union on a quirky, skinny site (helpful Curbed slideshow here). They are from New York and having had their Google project put on hold, their South Street Seaport redesign bankrupted, they are probably ready to focus on Flatbush and Atlantic Avenue.
But this is no reason to celebrate. How dumb does Bruce Ratner think we are? The original Frank Gehry arena looked better than the Ellerbe Becket arena and the SHoP arena will too, I have no doubt, but what the protracted development process should have taught us, as afforable housing was pushed into the distant future, office towers disappeared and everything but that arena faded into a crinkled titanium mist, is that no arena is the best choice of all. Gehry was brought in by Ratner to sell this massive, underplanned and overbuilt project to people like me, Brooklynites with a design sensibility and an eye on the borough’s cultural renaissance. I bought it, sort of, when I wrote “New Improved Brooklyn” way back in 2004. Ouroussoff’s first review of the project made it sound as if we should be grateful. But as the years have gone by, Gehry began to seem more and more like window-dressing, an upper-middle-class pitchman and then he was gone. With him left most of the community benefits trumpeted at the first rounds of public hearings.
Without Gehry, I could suddently see what had perhaps been Ratner’s game all along: the arena and Brooklyn’s tallest building. I regret that I did not see it sooner (blame the utopianist in me). Gehry said he took the project because he had always wanted to plan a neighborhood and then did a terrible job, creating a walled wedge protecting a “public” park between Prospect Heights and Fort Greene. He isn’t a planner and based on their designs for the Seaport, I am not so sure SHoP is either. Putting an arena, however attractive, at that intersection, will create a huge traffic jam and offer little benefit to Brooklyn. We need a city authority, like the one for Battery Park, to take over the whole site and plan it right, bringing in the contemporary architects for specific projects and not handing it over to one designer or developer. Atlantic Yards is not a design problem, it is an urban problem and now a political problem. I look forward to seeing what SHoP does for the next round of public review, but we should all be way past being seduced by what the Barclays arena looks like.