Justin Davidson: Barclays Center Is Brooklyn’s Ready-Made Monument

By
Photo: Adrian Gaut/New York Magazine

Anyone who feels that New York has become too shiny and seamless, too crowded with lithe towers coated in satiny glass, should march over to the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues in Brooklyn, where a great, tough-hided beast of a building lies defiantly curled. Barclays Center, home of the rebaptized Brooklyn Nets, is armored in scales of rusted steel, yet somehow it’s more alluring than fearsome. The outer walls ripple gracefully, the colored flash of multi-megawatt entertainment pulses from inside, and the front plaza reaches out to yank the public in. If Madison Square Garden hunkers glumly in its concrete drum, Barclays Center is an architectural chest bump: juiced, genial, and aggressive all at once.

The arena lies relatively low on the skyline, its tanned hues a camouflage against the borough’s palette of brownstone and brick. From a couple of quiet residential blocks away, you might not even suspect it was there. But it’s hardly self-effacing. On game nights, the crowds will well up through the subway portal and flow across the plaza and into the arena’s glittering maw, passing beneath a canopy that is the arena’s most brilliantly extroverted move. The vast overhang pivots on one leg and swoops around, describing an opening vast enough for a blue whale to slip through. Light pours through; so does rain, which under the right conditions will form a mighty pillar of water. The hole’s inner perimeter is lined with a screen, which means that the hyperactive digital spectacle turns inward, rather than blaring gaudily at the city. Barclays Center was built as an excitement factory, and even if the Nets sag, there will be plenty of times like the two nights in mid-October when the team is away and 18,000 Barbra Streisand fans converge on Flatbush Avenue.

The arena is the first piece of the tormented Atlantic Yards development, and for those who remember, it’s full of promises and might-have-beens. Frank Gehry originally conceived it to nestle within a ring of wavy towers. The developer, Forest City Ratner Companies, scrapped that design when the recession hit and, in its place, offered up an off-the-shelf plan by the sports-facility specialists Ellerbe Becket that would have produced a sibling to the dreary Atlantic Center shopping mall next door.

The more artistically ambitious outfit SHoP was brought in a few months later to collaborate, and while it looked at first as if the firm’s job was to dress up a dud, it has managed to do much more. The arena won’t placate those who all along hated the idea of Atlantic Yards. It won’t erase the years of controversy and bad blood, or guarantee the success of the remaining acres. But Brooklynites of more recent vintage and fewer bitter memories may see a building endowed with texture, color, and personality — rare qualities in recent New York construction.

The preweathered-steel carapace represents a triumph of computer-driven customization and intricate geometries — no two of the roughly 12,000 panels are quite the same — yet its feel is grainy and hand-tooled. The steel wears a permanent patina of rust, which protects against further decay, although the panels may be more capricious than anyone was expecting. Some are darker than they should be; others are streaked with erratic drips. Damaged or defective panels may be replaced, but the effect will never be uniform. Water and time will blur some kinds of unevenness and magnify others.

That’s part of the attraction of weathered steel: It feels simultaneously permanent and changeable, like a canyon in mid-­erosion. The sculptor Richard Serra bends it into great walls that lean and spiral unnervingly, provoking mixtures of anxiety and attraction. The same material is often used in large plates on small buildings, in ornamental accents on large ones, or, in the case of the U.S. Steel Tower in Pittsburgh or the Ford Foundation Building on East 42nd Street, as outward emblems of structural brawn. At Barclays Center, it has multiple personalities: a self-supporting shell, a decorative wrap, and the bearer of the building’s soul.

For all its swagger, the arena makes nice to the neighbors in various ways. It offers virtually no new parking, which means fans will arrive by public transit or not at all. The ground floor is lined with stores that open toward the sidewalk. To avoid clogging roadways, trucks swing into the Dean Street loading docks and ride elevators to a massive underground turntable that positions them in their respective bays. Eventually, a trio of residential towers, also designed by SHoP, will fence the arena in and hide the less refined sections. Out front, the subway exit has a rolling roof furred with greenery, and benches disguise the security barriers around the landscaped plaza, so that the public can idle away a lunch hour by the torrents of traffic. The scoreboard is always visible from that plaza, and there’s something touchingly quaint about the idea that fans left outside in the cold would check for live updates by peering inside rather than simply glancing down at their phones.

Inside, the space is darkly chic and startlingly intimate. The courtside plutocrats’ clubs are laid out so that guests can practically smell the players’ sweat as they head for the locker rooms — the ultimate in insider privilege. Hoi polloi can nurse their cocktails at bar rails that look over the pale-wood court, which pops fetchingly against the graphite-gray interior. Along the concourses, thin stripes of cold white light slice across the ceiling, giving the corridors an ominous chic, like the headquarters of a high-tech James Bond villain. But fans can never forget what borough they’re in: Wide ribbons of glass give out onto the low-rise cityscape and the majestic tower of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank.

Back outside, pacing the perimeter, admiring the thick metal skin and the massive truss it hangs on, I wonder how accurately SHoP’s architects foresaw the overbearing expanse of rusted metal, or whether they really intended the aura of apocalyptic menace. From certain angles and at close-enough quarters, the building could be the footing of an ancient iron bridge, an abandoned parking structure, or the shell of a great robotic reptile. There’s something radically revivalist about taking the concept of industrial chic to such an extreme. We’re still not done converting the backlog of ancient factories and disused power plants into condos and museums, and already we’re creating para-ruins, buildings that seem recycled even when they’re new.

*This article appears in the October 1, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.