Nouvel and the Carousel

Photo: Courtesy of Jane Walentas

Dumbo developer David Walentas has long treated his neighborhood with a sort of gentrifier’s noblesse oblige, and his latest attempt at patronage even comes with a starchitect halo: He’s commissioned newly Pritzker’d French architect Jean Nouvel to create an all-weather pavilion to enclose the 1922 merry-go-round Jane Walentas, his wife, spent 22 years painstakingly rehabbing and wants to place in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The Walentases bought the carousel for $384,000 in 1984, paid for its restoration, and want to donate it to the city. They even paid Nouvel’s half-million-dollar initial architect fee and have promised to pay for his building. There’s only one hitch: The current master landscaping plan for the park doesn’t include a space for the carousel and its Nouvel-designed enclosure.

In 1999, the Walentases gave Nouvel his first New York commission: a hotel and theater complex that would have cantilevered over the East River from Dumbo. Community opposition killed the plan, but since then Nouvel has built the 40 Mercer condo and designed the 75-story tower set to be built next to MoMA. His initial design for the carousel, presented to the Walentases in December, called for a glass-walled pavilion 70 feet in diameter. The whole structure would have rolled open in good weather. “I loved Jean’s design, but there’s no way they’re going to let anything that big into the park,” Jane says. The newer plan is a bit smaller. Inspired by the nineteenth-century vogue for “magic lanterns,” Nouvel imagines shadows of the carousel’s 48 horses prancing on the pavilion’s glass wall as they revolve by night. The pavilion will be “not only protection against wind and rain for the children, but also an urban event,” says Gaston Tolila, who is overseeing the project for Nouvel. “With their garland of flashing lights, carousels symbolized modernity in action. He sees them as important to the American story because they came at the dawn of electricity.”

Regina Myer, new president of the park-development authority, calls the carousel “awe-inspiring.” But her priority, she says, is to get park-infrastructure construction up to speed after years of dithering. Which means the carousel and its pavilion will just have to wait, Pritzker or not. And so the carousel still sits behind a padlocked gate in a former spice warehouse in Dumbo, awaiting its fate. “I wake up every morning and ask myself, ‘How do we get the powers that be to get off their dime?’ ” Jane says. “We’re tired and a little worn down.” And she worries that if the current state of limbo stretches too long, this prospective jewel of the park may eventually end up elsewhere. “There’s a guy in Dubai who wants to buy the carousel,” she says. “I guess they have children there, too.”

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Nouvel and the Carousel