In an attempt to save his Atlantic Yards project from ignominy and insolvency, the developer Bruce Ratner has trotted out another fancy fantasy of the Barclays Center, the Brooklyn Nets’ alleged future home. The latest design, by the joined forces of SHoP Architects and Ellerbe Becket, is much handsomer than the quickie renderings Ratner floated in June after dumping Frank Gehry for being too expensive. But comparing fictional arenas is beside the point by now. Atlantic Yards is too far gone to be rescued by a nice façade.
When Ratner first unveiled the Atlantic Yards project in 2003, it was to be a complex on a virtually Vatican scale, with office towers, apartment buildings, and public spaces springing from an arena—all of it designed by Gehry. Six years later, we’re left with a possible basketball court in a prairie of blight. Profound urbanistic issues—how a diffuse borough as populous as Houston would reshape itself around a new high-rise mini-metropolis, created by fiat and designed by a single architect—have given way to bickering over how to decorate a shed. SHoP’s answer to this pointless question is a clever one: Wrap it in steel basketry, evoking the photogenic “bird’s nest” stadium that Herzog & de Meuron bestowed on Beijing. It worked for China, but in Brooklyn, the bird’s nest is just another way to dress up a turkey.
Ratner and his enemies concur that Atlantic Yards is an epochal idea, though they disagree on whether carrying out the plan would redeem Brooklyn or murder its soul. So far, though, the successive proposals have followed a very ordinary New York arc, from exhilarating master plan to plodding, piddling half-measures. Instead of the epicenter of urban transformation, Atlantic Yards has turned into a ghostly landscape without a present, only a history and a costly dream. Ratner has demolished old buildings and emptied homes, committing himself along the way to putting up affordable housing he can’t afford, luxury apartments he can’t fill, and offices he may never rent. And then there’s the arena. Barclays paid a banker’s ransom to have its logo on a Gehry creation, and now that Gehry has been forced out, Ratner is peddling a different pretty picture, signed with a less coruscating but still well-regarded name.
SHoP is a fine firm that has done excellent work; New Yorkers owe it their gratitude for the evolving East River esplanade. It’s easy to understand why SHoP’s Gregg Pasquarelli jumped when Ratner called: the chance to succeed where genius failed. Besides, who would be crazy enough to turn down working on a $772 million job these days?
And yet: SHoP has hocked its reputation for the sake of a PR stratagem that seems unlikely to end in triumph. Pasquarelli is letting his firm be used to gussy up a degraded project with architectural flimflam.