Left Behinds

The anti-andrewsullivan.com. Or, the Robin Hood (Maid Marian?) of bright pink Blogger blogs.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Frank Gehry to Brooklyn: Drop Dead

Brooklyn-raised-and-residing novelist Jonathan Lethem (whose books I've never read, but which sound cool now that I look at the descriptions) wants us all to know that he is absolutely appalled by the designs for the Atlantic Yards project proposed by celebrity architect Frank Gehry (né Ephraim Goldberg).

Whereas we at Left Behinds have mostly discussed the problems with the Yards boondoggle from an economic and public policy perspective, Lethem is just aesthetically repulsed by the design. "And so," he writes in a public letter to Gehry, "I'd like to address you as one artist to another." Something about this tone struck me as amusingly snobby (in a way only a Brooklynite could get away with), but his points are clear and well articulated.

Most people, if they've heard of this proposal at all, believe you've been hired to design a sports arena, to house the New Jersey Nets, a team owned by Mr. Ratner. Anyone who's glimpsed the drawings and models, however, knows that other, larger plans have overtaken the notion of a mere arena. The proposal currently on the table is a gang of 16 towers that would be the biggest project ever built by a single developer in the history of New York City. In fact, the proposed arena, like the surrounding neighborhoods, stands to be utterly dwarfed by these ponderous skyscrapers and superblocks. It's a nightmare for Brooklyn, one that, if built, would cause irreparable damage to the quality of our lives and, I'd think, to your legacy. Your reputation, in this case, is the Trojan horse in a war to bring a commercially ambitious, but aesthetically—and socially—disastrous new development to Brooklyn. Your presence is intended to appease cultural tastemakers who might otherwise, correctly, recognize this atrocious plan for what it is, just as the notion of a basketball arena itself is a Trojan horse for the real plan: building a skyline suitable to some Sunbelt boomtown.

The key word there is "tastemakers," as in people like Lethem and Gehry and their friends and fans. You know, people with taste. "Frank," he seems to be admonishing, "you can't possibly want to go out looking like that. For God's sake, New Yorkers don't wear scrunchies. Put something decent on."

So will these "ponderous skyscrapers and superblocks" be as aesthetically offensive as Lethem claims?

Well, they ain't pretty.

As this architect blogger showed in his excellent critique of the design,

Brooklyn's Fifth Avenue Before

Brooklyn's Fifth Avenue After
It's like some giant grey Transformer clomped its foot down on Park Slope. And imagine when in a few years all those pristine white beams get coated in soot from the neverending traffic jams that are projected as a direct result of this development (have you ever tried to drive through Flatbush or Atlantic during rush hour or on a weekend?). It'll be a Transformer's giant grey dirty foot.

Jonathan, you've convinced me: It's not just tastemakers who should be appalled by Gehry's designs.

UPDATE: More frightening images, from On NY Turf (click there for full size, and more before and after pics):


  • At 12:45 AM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    You can't really separate the design and public-policy problems. One of the reasons the project will suck so much is exactly that it's so poorly designed and will never, ever be a functioning neighborhood. It would be possible to add a lot of housing to the area (well, it would be possible if Ratner were willing to foot the bill for overhauling the already overloaded sewer system, but it wouldn't be a proper boondoggle if there weren't hidden giveaways) without ripping a giant hole in the middle of Brooklyn. It wouldn't even be that hard. But very tall buildings are more profitable: apartments on super-high floors sell for a lot more because of the views.

  • At 2:03 AM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Sure, they're intertwined, but Lethem's critique prioritizes aesthetic concerns. Essentially, what really, really bugs him is that he thinks his neighborhood is pretty (or at least has its charms), and it will be a lot less pretty after Gehry and Ratner get through with it.

    Ratner investor Jay-Z (also a Brooklyn native, though the Marcy Projects are a little different from Boerum Hill) is apparently less concerned about prettiness.

    I'm not saying only the bourgeois appreciate beauty or anything like that. I'm just saying that Jay-Z doesn't appear to factor it in, at all.

  • At 5:30 AM, Anonymous Gatemouth said…

    Isn't the design really a sideshow to the real issues? I mean,

    1) Would even an inspiring design that would be a magnet unto the world and bring tears to one's eyes change anyone's position on the project? Would it justify the use of eminent domain as it now would be performing a public good?

    2) If dislking the design is a good reason for opposing the project, wouldn't liking the design be a good reason for supporting it?

    I stop now as this seems worthy of no more than a few minutes of discussion.

  • At 5:43 AM, Anonymous Gatemouth said…

    Now having skimmed the Lethem article, I see that the design is no more than a sideshow for him, as the srticle's real focus is on isssues like scale, eminent domain, etc.

    That's good, because taste is such a personal thing. Lethem is often hailed as a great authority on soul music, but while his writing is a pleasure to read(the parody liner notes in "Fortress of Solitude" are brilliant, and a gift to any discophile), his preference for Philly Soul and other soft sweet varieities of Quiet Storm calls that into serious question (I myself prefer Stax-Volt, and funk)

  • At 8:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    What's great about the Lethem article is that it is written to Frank Gehry and his ego. Lethem is using his own position as an au courant artist to appeal to a designer of buildings who seems to desperately want to maitain his artsy credentials.

    Gehry has backed out of projects before. If he realizes that this will forever scar his name, he might back out of this current Ratner disaster. Then Ratner's deck of cards will fall apart.

    Maybe then we can discuss the issues of public subsidies, traffic congestion, sewage, the strength of the housing market, et cetera, et cetera.

  • At 10:26 AM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Gate: I don't believe design is a sideshow to the real issues, if you take a broader view of design. What is wanted (what many, many people have said they want, anyway) is a project that harmonizes with existing Brooklyn on every level, not one that would be an attractive masterpiece of architecture and a light unto the world. Thinking that the latter should be the goal of design is a very modernist perspective, and Frank Gehry, the egomaniac, is a modernist to the core.

    A well-designed development would be built on actually unused land (such as the Yards themselves) not on top of people's homes nearby. It would take into account the neighborhood character of Brooklyn as well as the technical limitations of traffic and sewage. You may see these as separate from design. I don't. So yes, I would support a well-designed project. (From what you've written before, I suspect you feel somewhat similar.) It's just that to me, that's not the same as one that would look pretty on virgin land in the middle of nowhere.

  • At 2:23 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    I was emphasizing a minor point of Lethem's argument because in my reading, aesthetic concerns seemed to be what really rankled him, though he's smart enough to realize that's not the best reason to oppose the project.

    I just thought that what was interesting about his article was his aesthetic response, as well as his appeal ("artist to artist") to Gehry's pride, as Anonymous wrote. He was appealing to Gehry's interest in not having people with good taste hold the opinion that Gehry designed something tacky.

    I guess I thought Lethem came as close as anyone I've read has to articulating what cynics suspect is Park Slopers' real, elitist motivation for opposing the project. He was looking into Michelle Williams' heart and writing what he saw.

  • At 3:13 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Has there ever been any evidence that Jay-Z cares about anything but making money? I mean, have you seen his sports bar?

  • At 4:06 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    In my universe, sports bars do not actually exist, they're just preposterous rumors. So, no.

    I heard he dumped Beyonce for a younger, more slender model, so apparently he has some aesthetic response.

  • At 4:14 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    I heard he dumped Beyonce for a younger, more slender model, so apparently he has some aesthetic response.

    Editing: I heard he [ended his business alliance with] Beyonce for a younger, more slender [beard], so apparently he [has no idea what straight men actually find attractive].

  • At 5:11 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Heh. Touche. Man, everything I write in this post gets shot down. I must be really off my game this week.

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