Alexandra Lange | Essays

Tearing Down

Last word for now on the critical discussion of the last two weeks. I have been attending the Architectural League’s On Criticism reading group for the last couple of months. Sessions one and two were on Herbert Muschamp and Ada Louise Huxtable, much enlivened by the presence of Suzanne Stephens, and number three is on Paul Goldberger. Monacelli Press has just published a collection of his New Yorker work, Building Up and Tearing Down (lots more of the former than the latter), which will be our text.

In light of the sad groundbreaking for the Barclays Center—as we must now call it—I re-read Goldberger’s 2006 piece Gehry-Rigged, which shoehorns reviews of both the IAC Building and Atlantic Yards into one short text. And I found that Goldberger, mocked by Michael Sorkin for failing to take a position, took one on Atlantic Yards. His analysis of the flaws of the plan is just, and he, in an echo of Lewis Mumford’s review of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, manages to praise the architect while damning the work.

[Some problem with Tumblr and the indent, all text in italics is Goldberger.]

… Gehry’s design is a large part of the problem. He told me that he accepted the job in part because he has never taken on this kind of urban challenge, but his talents hardly seem suited to it. Gehry’s great success has come from architectural jewels that sparkle against the background of the rest of a city—the Bilbao Guggenheim; the Walt Disney Concert Hall, in Los Angeles. In Brooklyn, the task is to create a coherent cityscape that relates comfortably to its surroundings. Gehry tried to do this by grouping some understated towers around a few very elaborate ones… Rather than giving a sense of foreground and background, the juxtaposition of plain and fancy just looks like a few Gehrys bought for full price next to several bought at discount.

Gehry has told me that he sees the project as a kind of homage to the old Manhattan sky line, but the romance of that vista is a happy accident of diverse buildings in a tight web of streets. Atlantic Yards, by contrast, involves eliminating streets, and has the look more of a single structure spanning multiple blocks than of a townscape that has grown organically. Gehry perhaps conceived of the whole thing as one huge object that could play off against the city—a gigantic version of one of his jewels. The problem with trying to do Bilbao on this scale is that it ceases to be an eccentric counterpoint to the context. It is the context…

Although the site cries out for development, neither Ratner nor Gehry has a convincing idea of how this should be done. Ratner seems to have been less interested in using Gehry’s architectural talent to best advantage than in trying to leverage his celebrity to make an unpopular development more palatable. Gehry, for his part, clearly loved the idea of taking on the biggest project in New York. But even the most famous architect in the world has limits.

At the end of the Huxtable session at the League, the non-journalists in attendance began to ask the journalists whether architecture critics had any power. No one wanted to say, I don’t know, or, Not likely. But I believe Atlantic Yards was a case where, if the New York critical community, those with loud voices via institutional support, had come together and critically dissected the plan from the get-go, they could have had an effect. I can’t blame anyone for not doing so, since I know I failed to anticipate the cynicism of Ratner’s approach and the slow falling away of all the positives.

So why didn’t Goldberger have any visible effect? Is it because he is at the New Yorker, which lends itself to distance? Is it because this was the second half of a review that praises Gehry? Or is it because his style is so smooth, so creamy, that even his damning sounds like faint praise? Read the paragraphs above and tell me: can he not kill a building because he lacks the ragged voice of passion?

Posted in: Architecture, Theory + Criticism

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