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The Unbuilding of Frank Gehry

Has New York lost its great chance with an architectural legend? Gehry speaks.


Frank Gehry’s New York looks so vivid in miniature, a parallel city of masterpieces in plastic, cardboard, and painted foam. Let’s start our fantasy tour at the vantage point of Brooklyn Heights. That’s the Guggenheim’s downtown branch across the East River, on the Manhattan side, rearing out of the spume, whipping together water, sky, and steel. Sheets of swirling metal enfold galleries that seem to levitate over the piers, which form a public esplanade. In winter, you can tour the outdoor sculptures on ice skates. “Commerce surrounds her with her surf,” wrote Herman Melville of Manhattan, and the new building stirs the old excitement of a maritime New York, a city at the nation’s edge. Gehry’s money-bright museum stands at the confluence of capital, art, and tide.

Now let’s head uptown to the New York Times tower, a glass Niagara that churns and foams as it hits the ground. The wrapping billows to enclose a sunny, sexy atrium. The crumply exterior alludes to the publication’s paperbound history; its motion intimates a more fluid future; and the image of a tower trying to escape from itself reminds journalists that news takes place everywhere but in a reporter’s cubicle.

Finally, we head over to Brooklyn for the village-within-a-city called Atlantic Yards. An office tower rises to within one foot of the Williamsburg Savings Bank’s height, nodding to an icon of the Brooklyn skyline even as it reshapes that horizon with panache. The building resembles a statuesque diva, its sweeping skirts of glass and baroque metallic robe parting to reveal a dramatic atrium. Or, in another version, it consists of blocks piled high, nudged out of alignment and twisted around a structural core. At the tower’s feet sits an oval arena clad in rippling blue steel, and fifteen more buildings of assorted sizes and degrees of Gehry-ness march off in double file.

It’s a lovely daydream, this jaunt through a more architecturally brazen town than the one we actually inhabit. New York and Frank Owen Gehry should have made a perfect match. What better way to express the city’s exceptionalism than through architecture of overweening flamboyance?

Well, the East River Guggenheim doesn’t exist, and the Times makes its headquarters in a sober tower by Renzo Piano, caged in ceramic rods. Atlantic Yards evolved from an exciting ideal to a battleground for the soul of Brooklyn to a sinkhole of betrayal and mediocrity. Over the years, New York has been tantalized by Gehry projects, tossing away the best and keeping a paltry scattering of seed pearls: a corporate cafeteria in the Condé Nast Building, a boutique interior for Issey Miyake, the handsome but hardly epochal white-glass headquarters of IAC in Chelsea, and the Beekman Tower, a conventional high-rise rental in a flowing metal toga. Perhaps, if all goes better than expected, a nonprofit organization will drum up the money to build a playground he designed for Battery Park.

The map is dotted with Gehry coulda-beens. At ground zero, his home for the Joyce Theater has less and less chance of materializing. The Theater for a New Audience in Brooklyn, on which Gehry was to collaborate with Hugh Hardy, will instead be an all-Hardy affair (if it gets built at all). The Astor Place hotel he conjured for Ian Schrager is a dim memory.

By far the worst disappointment is Atlantic Yards. For years, opponents of the project, appalled by its scale and hostile to the developer Bruce Ratner, warned that Gehry was providing a fig leaf of avant-gardism to cover a real-estate magnate’s obscene greed. A project so debased couldn’t generate good architecture, they insisted. In 2007, the author Jonathan Lethem wrote an open letter pleading with Gehry to walk away. “These buildings,” he wrote, “have emerged pre-botched by compromise, swollen with expediency and profit-seeking.”

But for Gehry, Atlantic Yards represented an irresistible chance to do for an urban district what he had done for the museum and the concert hall: establish a new archetype. In his desire to believe, he made the mistake of trusting Bruce Ratner, or at any rate got himself so enmeshed that the developer’s company, Forest City Ratner, once represented 35 percent of Gehry’s business. When I visited the architect at his Los Angeles studio in April, he described Ratner as “a decent guy. He goes to concerts, buys art, can quote from Joyce. He wants an architectural legacy.” Gehry insisted to me that he has a nose for cynics, and that Ratner wasn’t one. “We turn work down if it’s not real, or if people have a warped image of what I do. This stuff works only when there’s a true partnership between client and architect. If they’re trying to build a monster on the landscape and they’re just using me to get more approvals, I usually opt out.”

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