Saturday, December 15, 2007


Daniel Doctoroff, the Deputy Mayor for economic development, is leaving Bloomberg’s side, a c-section in the municipal consciousness that may at least give us a breather from grand, industrial strength schemes for social engineering. He has retrospectively repudiated Ratner’s methods for skirting the public approval process for the Atlantic Yards (AY). It seems a nice, if sadly belated, parting gift to the City. Bloomberg, like President Bush, is losing momentum for his “Uberplans.” Soon Brooklyn may also be free of the dubious representation of David Yassky, although the idea of him as City Comptroller is an alarming one given his affinity for fat cat deals including AY. We will soon be back to the Borough President and his one-liners as public policy. So perhaps Brooklyn can catch its political breath and really sort out the AY question.

With all else that is wrong with Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project, perhaps the worst error is one of esthetics. To date Mr. Ratner has managed to give us the Atlantic Center with its slab iteration of Ebbets Field. He admits it is hideous and has gone about fixing that by plastering its slab sides with assorted garish electric signs reminiscent of a gaudy square in Tokyo. The mall that now fronts the Center is drab, lifeless, and worse still, isolated amid a sea of hostile, dangerous traffic.

The look and feel of a place matter just as much in a building as they do in the presentation of food. We eat with our eyes and that is how we respond to our environment. Former Mayor Giuliani may have more flaws than the nation yet realizes, but he was right in thinking that order begets order. By the same token, environmental sensitivity (which is often a matter of scale) begets a more caring reaction from inhabitants and visitors alike. Trash begets trash. Bad food creates a bad palate. Bland, faceless architecture makes for indifference and a feeling of intimidation.

Some human activities, like the growing of food and architecture, only succeed where a single artisan creates the product because he or she can be sensitive to what suits the time and place. We live in Brownstone Brooklyn because these houses have the individuality of the artisan’s hand. They may superficially look uniform, but in fact each house is its own solution to standing in the row of its fellows. An industrial model in architecture aims for cheap uniformity, Mr. Ratner’s forte.

Some things are not suited to the industrial model that is as much a matter of scale as it is the method of production. Bigger and more efficient is not always better. The industrial model is as likely to be noxious as it is cost effective. Industrial food, for example, may be cheap and efficient for the producer, but it may well make you fat and full of strange additives as well as supplying nutrients. The industrial model serves investors who are rarely likely to have to live with the results first-hand.

We have to ask ourselves, as Americans, if bigger is always better. Some things like making cars need large organizations to complete the task efficiently. That, however, is no guarantee of success. Once Detroit was the model for auto making. They could make cars probably, if they did not have to first support the ponderous corporate structure that impedes them. Other things, like food, are not improved when the aim is to flood a mass market with cheap, easily produced, rigidly uniform goods. What you get is lot of unhealthy processed food. On top of that you add the cost of an enormous mega-organization of fat cats like Archer Daniels Midlands. They have to be fed, preened, and nurtured while they genetically manipulate our food intake and mass produce food-based chemicals that make us fat.

We do that to ourselves, you say? Well yes, we do, but then again, like architecture, how much choice do most people have as to what they have to abide? In general, none is given to them. They look down their block as I do on Warren Street. I watched a developer put up a building in my former parking lot that bears no relation to the rest of the structures on the block. The resulting warren of condos has a lumpy quasi- deco-60s-Bauhaus look composed of concrete slab, sections of fake grey brick-face, interrupted by plate-glass, and a myriad of aluminum bits and pieces. Yum.

The fa├žade was designed to be cheap and get around zoning restrictions by employing set backs and building right up to the edge of the pavement. Everyone on the block agrees that it is, “not as bad as it could be, ” which is not much of a ringing endorsement. So goes life in a city where money does the loudest talking. Nonetheless the building’s design – both inside and out – may prove a financial disaster in the new housing market. The price of these dwellings is outrageous under the assumption that if you build it in New York, the suckers will come, or will they? Some trends go bust. Remember Corbusier, ‘architect for the twentieth century’?

John Brunner published his dystopian novel, The Sheep Look Up in 1972. In it the city of New York has been so overbuilt and polluted that the health of the public at all levels has been negatively affected. The rich live in heavily armed and guarded aeries from which they helicopter out to safer climes while the rest of the citizens form a kind of ovine rabble that is only vaguely aware of their own doom. They are the sheep.

Nowadays we don’t submit to this sort of bullying so much as we zone out when it comes to our attention. We plug our iPods into our heads or slap our cell phones to our ears. Codgers turn up their CD players. We troop off like horses with blinders to serve in the corridors of power. We hope that -- by staying numb to the natural world around us, and what we are doing to it -- we will not get hurt. Instead, we have noisy, inane phone conversations in the street. We bellow in public places about what we are eating for lunch even as we gnaw it, but not with the other person at our table. When we do look up, irony abounds.

The City of New York is now engaged in redoing the architecture of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts so that it will remind people that performance involves humans. Lincoln Center was designed in the hayday of the American Empire, 1959, as an, “icon of culture, class and excellence,” or so says in a gristly bit of purple prose. Architecturally though, they are right. Lincoln Center was a concrete series of monoliths that only a Mussolini could love. It was a monument designed for those who used the arts to match the magnitude of the place with their own colossal egoism. The human presence of the artist was incidental.

Glass walls will now replace some of the stone and concrete. The public will begin to see that Lincoln Center is not a vault for the property of the few, so much as a home for the living arts that are for all to share even as they walk by the Center. Artists – especially performing artists – are people, not monuments to their backers or cogs in some grand design of industrial uniformity. They need venues of a scale that a human can occupy, fill, and make shine. So do dwellings and businesses.

After careful study, I can find no building that Mr. Ratner has built that invites humans to make themselves present other than as invisible employees or harried consumers. Much of the plan of Atlantic Yards involves building forbidding, walled enclaves as once was true of the north end of the World Trade Center. This was the home of the financial industry’s back office. It was a bastion of self-assigned importance. You could visit for a price, but ordinary citizens were not meant to linger there. What is more, who would have wanted to do so? It was like sitting in the middle of a vertical eight-lane highway. We now propose to replace it with the same sort of erectile mistake in terms of scale. That brings us to post-modern, industrial, high-tech architecture, or, Frank Gehry.

Mr. Gehry’s architectural firm is being sued by no less a technical institute than MIT because their design for a building on their campus does not work. It is not entirely a matter of esthetics though that is a factor. The building leaks and is structurally flawed. That is not the first time Mr. Gehry’s vanity has exceeded his ability and judgment. A building of his in Los Angeles had to be ‘reskinned’ because the original material created so much heat and glare that it was a public hazard. His work is by his own admission extremely complicated and thus his firm has a hard time communicating with engineers and those doing the construction. He regards that as architectural business as usual, but then it is not his firm’s money that goes for the redesign, repair, and refurbishment.

The building at MIT, which Gehry says emulates the behavior of drunken robots, seems to be of modest height and scope so the problems are solvable for a few million dollars. Miss Brooklyn, the drunken centerpiece of the Atlantic Yards, will be a gigantic, misshapen high-rise. So getting the kinks out of her wrinkled exterior -- much less her complex interior -- may be many times as costly.

That is, of course, if she ever emerges from Mr. Ratner’s dubious financial structure. He and Mr. Gehry, however, will not get the bill, nor will FCRC. The people of NYC will get that, and pass a good chunk of it on to the state. Why do I doubt that these gentlemen can build AY right or even very well? Frankly, it’s too big for them to handle, and they have started to admit it.

Having sidestepped the public review process, Mr. Ratner now admits the new Gehry-designed Nets Arena will cause a glut of traffic at Atlantic and Flatbush. Grim news when you consider that the intersection is already impossible to pass through safely by car much less on foot. Way back in 2003, long before there was anything other than an arena in question, that was the initial objection posed by the people of downtown Brooklyn.

That problem was explained away by two mystifying diversions. The first fix was adding a dozen or so buildings that would make it all better in some vague way. Why? Because it would all be bigger (including the outrageous, ungoverned cost) and thus work better for some unexplained reason. The second fix was that the Ratner/Markowitz promised better routed and more frequent subway service to the Atlantic Avenue station. Fans, it was assumed, would prefer the subway at midnight to driving home in their own cars. The MTA has since explained that any such expansion of service is completely impossible.

We need development, housing, jobs and new industry in Brooklyn, but not at an untold cost that may far exceed the benefits. Gehry and Ratner are not the men to do this job. It is too big for them, and they both have a history that shows just that. Ratner lacks taste and Gehry, practical ability. What we need is to make these things work within the character of the Brooklyn we already have. Then the endeavor will benefit the people who already live here as well as create a new economic, social and cultural horizon for the borough. AY, as now planned, will not do that, and it isn’t meant to. It is a revenue stream for a developer and his investors. We are expected to submit to being herded and, at the right time, fleeced.

Given the current state of the economy, there is no reason to go on with Ratner’s Atlantic Yards plan. It is an ugly, dystopic, burdensome, half-baked, astronomically expensive fiasco in the making. We do need development, and it should be on a human scale that has something to do with Brooklyn, a city of light and air compared to Manhattan. The first step should be to get Mr. Ratner and FCRC out of the equation along with their megalomaniac, inept architect. Sometimes you don’t need bigger. Sometimes you just need enough. I think it is increasingly clear that Brooklyn has had enough of these two guys.

-- "If a nation expects to be ignorant and
free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will
be." Thomas Jefferson