Which explains why it’s working for Bruce Ratner. When the chairman of Forest City Ratner asked SHoP to rescue his Barclays Center arena at Atlantic Yards in 2009, his credibility was, to put it mildly, shaky. Ratner had obtained huge subsidies and then tried to wheedle more; he demolished homes, then delayed much of the project when the economy tanked; he dropped Frank Gehry as architect and turned the arena over to the workaday firm Ellerbe Becket. He caught a lot of flak for that, and hiring SHoP to then gussy up Ellerbe’s characterless shoe box with a fancy façade looked like superficial damage control. (“SHoP has hocked its reputation for the sake of a PR stratagem,” I wrote at the time.) “We thought long and hard about accepting,” Pasquarelli says. “But we believed we could make the best civic neighbor possible.”
Whereas Gehry’s explosive design for the arena and accompanying high-rises was full of jaunty squiggles and boxes knocked askew, all meant to wow and rattle Brooklyn, SHoP has tried to weave the Nets’ hulking new home (which will open next fall and has suddenly become a visible part of the cityscape) into the urban fabric. The structure is wrapped in a basket weave of weathered steel, giving it a rusty cool. A canopy whose inner rim will display scrolling video and digital signs reaches over the plaza. Is it a huge basketball hoop? For Christopher Sharples, it echoes the embracing colonnades of St. Peter’s in Rome. “That oculus, 35 feet overhead and the size of a basketball court, is like the arms of Bernini: It comes out and greets you.”
“In a very Brooklyn way,” Pasquarelli interjects, and crosses his arms away from his body, hip-hop style.
For the Nets arena, SHoP’s archi-geeks spat out specifications for 12,000 panels and 940 composite megapanels—every one slightly different. “Our first reaction was to say we couldn’t do that,” says Jeff Fisher, the project executive for Hunt Construction Group. In traditional construction, the process of “value engineering” whittles out frills—straightening curved walls, substituting standard cabinets for custom. SHoP claims it can cut costs far more by controlling the process from brainstorming session to final rivet. “It’s all about using technology and entrepreneurship to further the art,” says Pasquarelli. “Otherwise, these buildings would be dumbed down into really mediocre stuff.”
Atlantic Yards offers the ultimate test of that philosophy: the chance to construct a whole apartment building—and eventually, more—in a nearby factory, pack it up in chunks with wiring, toilets, and flooring pre-installed, and truck it to the site, where two or three pieces per apartment will fit together. The goal is to make simple elements cohere into a complex result. The design has a Lego-like feel: Hunks of various hues and sizes interlock in a rhythmic assemblage, so that a huge structure feels like a collection of smaller ones.
That’s the hope, anyway. Factory-made housing has a venerable but erratic pedigree. In 1906, Thomas Edison proposed one-piece concrete houses that could be poured in a few hours. More recently, architects have experimented with flat-pack single-family homes and live-in shipping containers. But an unforgiving market and the abiding stigma of “prefab” have usually scuttled those dreams. The great advantage of Atlantic Yards is that it’s huge enough to create its own demand. “With fifteen buildings, we can feed a factory,” notes MaryAnne Gilmartin, the Forest City Ratner executive in charge of the project. Proposing a forest of modular high-rises might seem at first like a bargain hunter’s strategy to get something—anything—built at a troubled site. Unions are already upset at the prospect of shifting traditional construction jobs to lower-paying factory work. In the end, though, the move could help alleviate the city’s perpetual shortage of reasonably priced housing—and bring back some manufacturing as well.
SHoP’s founders argue that the synthesis of digital technology, prefabrication, and design is a perfect New York endeavor. “We’re all under pressure here,” Pasquarelli says. “We’re banging heads every day. Only on this island do finance and art crash into each other so constantly.”