For decades, New York has been constrained like Gulliver in Lilliput, a world-class giant tied down by tiny regulatory ropes and vocal community boards, unable to stand up to its true height. Long gone are the glory days of great public and private works—from Central Park to the city’s bridges and tunnels. Today, forget about the Second Avenue subway in your lifetime, or a nonstop rail line out to the airport. When the Italians built cathedrals in Pisa and Milan, they aimed for maximum splendor; somehow we’ve developed an allergy to splendor. Maybe in Italy, but not on our own dime, and not in our backyard.
That is, not until last week, when plans for the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards, a megaproject of office towers, housing, parks, and sports facilities, were unveiled. Now, right there at the improbable intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues, across from where Walter O’Malley proposed a new Ebbets Field for the Dodgers about 50 years ago, Frank Gehry has designed a basketball arena for the Nets, at the head of a tree-lined boulevard of mixed-height structures that would tickle the heart of Robert Moses. After decades of urban-design near-paralysis, the city faces the equivalent of a Rockefeller Center in Brooklyn—a new skyline of building blocks set askew within six acres of parks that would stitch together a section of the city long scarred by a gash of railroad tracks.
The New Jersey Nets are up for auction, and of the three remaining bidders, a group headed by developer Forest City Ratner proposes an 800,000-square-foot, 20,000-seat arena as the centerpiece of an ambitious mixed-use development, six city blocks long. Four office towers would cluster around the arena itself, with a running track that, in the winter, converts to an ice-skating rink. A long colonnade of towers would line Atlantic Avenue, terracing down to a landscaped park bounded by low-rise residential buildings, scaled to the existing brownstone neighborhood just to the south. The towers would straddle the rail yards, like Park Avenue over its rail lines. The phased project calls for 2.1 million square feet of offices, 310,000 square feet of retail, and as many as 4,500 apartments. Bruce Ratner, the primary developer of the MetroTech Center about a mile down Flatbush, has made building in Brooklyn a specialty.
Sometimes, quantity can mean quality. The proposal represents a great affirmation of Brooklyn in the simple critical mass of a huge project at this location, Atlantic Avenue Terminal, where nine subway lines and the LIRR converge, at a cultural nexus that includes the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But the real reason Brooklyn could challenge Manhattan (and New Jersey) is the nature of the Gehry design. Developers have long engaged major-league architects to promote their projects, but often with mediocre results. Not so with Gehry: Witness his latest triumph, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, an apparition of billowing stainless steel that has almost singlehandedly revived downtown L.A. Brooklyn has been coming back for years now, but the ensemble that Gehry and design associates Tensho Takemori and Anand DeVarajan have proposed promises a great synergistic leap forward. What Gehry unveiled last week is merely a sketch of the development that may come, but the design promises to be what urban planners call a “destination” project: the kind of place you’d want to see even if you’re not a basketball or hockey fan.
Office and apartment towers are among the most intractable building types, a product of multiplication tables. Design freedoms are limited to the lobby and façade. Gehry’s misaligned stacks, however, generate energy and defy the overcontrolled geometries that usually stifle buildings and neighborhoods; the upper reaches of his buildings suggest the haphazard quality of medieval towns. There may be a tree-lined civic promenade—à la Park Avenue—but mid-block, the project gives way to paths of discovery in a sequence of interlocking parks designed by Philadelphia landscape architect Laurie Olin. Uniquely angled façades face episodic enclaves of green.
At the entrance to the project—the arena—Gehry lifts the mass on columns, as though the buildings were on pointe, to create a generous urban space. He elaborates the façades here with flowing curvilinear shapes that wrap the volumes like an Issey Miyake cape.
Of course, Gehry’s sketch represents only an embryonic stage, and anything could happen to its good design intentions. But the DNA is in place, and if built as proposed, the ensemble could add a provocative, unexpected edge to Brooklyn’s skyline and huge momentum to the borough’s ongoing roll.
Back in Manhattan, The New Museum is providing a big boost to the eastern edge of Soho with the design for its new home. Now in a loft structure on Broadway, the museum has regularly presented emerging artists, and director Lisa Phillips has wisely pushed its mission into architectural territory. After a search among designers of the post-Gehry generation, the Japanese firm SANAA was chosen, and partners Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa have proposed, coincidentally, a museum not dissimilar in form to Gehry’s Brooklyn towers: prisms stacked askew. The difference is one of sensibility: Gehry revels in messy vitality, whereas the Japanese architects opt for luminous minimalism. Gehry materializes; SANAA dematerializes.
The New Museum, looking like a chest of drawers after a burglary, will go up on the Bowery between Rivington and Stanton streets, and will rise like a monumental mystery: With only a half-dozen windows, the 60,000-square-foot building doesn’t reveal on the outside much of the inside, though at night, spillover light will illuminate the façades.
Inside, above the first two floors, three white-box galleries rise three stories. The architects here reiterate New York’s usual mantra, the white cube, a gallery paradigm that so dominates the city’s artscape that it has pushed other approaches to the brink of extinction. But given SANAA’s résumé in Japan of vaporish buildings dissolved nearly to ether, the promise is that the architects, like extreme-sports athletes, will take these clean, well-lighted spaces to the something approaching nothingness. They’re off to a good start. They jog the boxes out of line to introduce skylights, and natural light will bathe the spaces from above.
Unfortunately, the boxes respect a rigid separation of floors, so there is no continuity between floors—or exhibitions—as at the Guggenheim, just the elevators and a back stairway. Still, the design offers a rarefied sensibility that is fresh to New York. Success will lie in the details, and in the relationship the architects can establish with New York’s tough crowd of contractors. The design needs construction perfection to succeed.