This morning Nicolai Ouroussoff fired off an anguished response to the announcement that the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn may be gutted. Ouroussoff goes so far as to publicly urge Frank Gehry, the project’s architect, to walk away from the project. The lessons of the aesthetic collapse of the Atlantic Yards project are manifold (that’s assuming the reductions in project scope and budget go through), but one question worth asking is, When are these large-scale projects ever a good idea?
It’s hard to tell if Ouroussoff is more upset because Frank Gehry’s excellent design is being compromised, or because he’s embarrassed that New York can no longer get big projects right. Well, join the club. Chicago has had its fair share of mediocre multi-building projects as well. The recently completed Lakeshore East project is an architectural junk heap. Developer Jerry Fogelson wants to cram 4 billion dollars’ worth of unnecessary buildings into the South Loop, among them a 70-story office tower. At least New York has the Rockefeller Center, Ouroussoff’s sole example of a multi-building project that succeeded aesthetically. Chicago is still stuck with the Illinois Center, a set of menacing black towers that exude a kind of spooky calm, like Darth Vader meditating. And speaking of outsized projects, Evanston has successfully executed multi-building projects before, but the 523-foot condo tower developers James Klutznick and Tim Anderson want to build seems, on paper at least, to be one step too far. Blair Kamin said the tower, twice as tall as any other building in Evanston and the tallest in the Chicago suburbs if completed, isn’t entirely a bad idea in concept, but the design "lacks the élan of a comparable minimalist statement, Boston’s John Hancock Tower."
Frank Gehry’s design residential towers in Atlantic Yards had élan, but cost-cutting has drained the life out of the buildings, according to Ouroussoff. However, even the original design had some questionable elements. Ouroussoff praises Gehry’s original plan to integrate the 18,000-seat basketball stadium and the residential towers. However, bunching together a stadium and private residences may be a good marketing idea ("steps away from the Nets!"), but the arrangement seems unlikely to facilitate a productive and vital urban experience.
Gehry’s design is so intricate, so polished and personal, that changing one element ruins the entire plan. But maybe that’s the Atlantic Yards’ true weakness. Maybe the problem lies in having one architect designing everything at once. Rockefeller Center was designed by a consortium of architects from three different firms, all supervised by Raymond Hood, who was more of a big-concept guy than a designer who would work out the details of restroom placement. Another large-scale project that is better positioned for success is Enríque Norten’s design for the Rutgers University campus in New Brunswick. Rutgers can’t raise all the money for its ambitious campus redesign at once, so Norten is going to come back to the project from time to time over the next decade, adapting it to changing circumstances, including, I would expect, the evolution of his own design aesthetic. Brooklyn is evolving rapidly–maybe too rapidly–so what may seem like a good idea in March 2008 might strike residents in March 2010 as a cumbersome piece of overdevelopment.
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