How To Unmake A Frank Gehry Building and a Section of a City

My love affair with the architecture of Frank Gehry began when I stepped into his American Center in Paris in 1994 upon its opening. With its cartoon like spaces that were at once both graceful and humorous, I thought "this is something special."  (Not long after, the American Center went broke, which shows that high-priced architecture had its dangers even then.)

A few years later, Gehry pushed his style a step further and completed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the curvy project that catapulted the Canadian-born, LA-residing architect from well-known to superstar. A few years after that , I got a chance to write an article about Gehry for The New York Times Magazine in 2001, and it took my love of Gehry's architecture to a much deeper level.

Entitled "How To Make A Frank Gehry Building," the article required me to fly to Santa Monica and interview the white-haired architect at his office there, and then to fly to Cleveland to observe on the job site for several days how Gehry's building at Case Western Reserve University was actually being put together. The Times, at that point still well-heeled, had no problem flying me to two places, both round trips from New York, plus hotels and other expenses. Quite an experience for a freelancer. Click here to see the story, which for some reason seems to no longer contain the images. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/08/magazine/08GEHRY.html?scp=1&sq=&pagewanted=print

A lot has changed since then, and not only for the Times, which is now struggling to stay afloat as a viable business and is in hoc to a Mexican billionaire to the tune of $250 million.

Last week, Forest City Ratner announced it was dropping Gehry as the architect of the New York Nets arena that is at the center of the much debated Atlantic Yards, the project that would cover the now open LIRR train yards, and wipe out several of the surrounding blocks. More importantly perhaps for the public, Ratner has asked to be relieved of some of his public obligations. This after having drastically trimmed away at the project and reduced the number and composition of offices and apartments.

I have long opposed the process that created this project, as well as many aspects of the final design, even while ultimately supporting the construction of the project itself, despite all its flaws. I supported it because it got a lot of things right, including the scale of offices, housing and amenities for that location. The project sits right next to the largest collection of subway lines in Brooklyn if not the city. It is probably the most appropriate place in the city to build a lot of something. I even swallowed my dislike of how the project closed existing streets and put in few cross streets, making the project essentially a collection of street-deadening super-blocks.

But it's also true that having a Frank Gehry building sweetened the pot for me. And living just a few blocks from the site, this was not an abstract question.

The story I did for the Times helped me love Gehry's buildings even more than I had already because I understood them better. When this now 80-year-old architect started first producing shimmery curvy buildings in the early 1990s, he was not just wrapping conventional spaces with shimmery curves; he was curving the spaces themselves in ways that culminated in something he had been working toward for 50 years. As well as progressing personally, he pushed architecture in a direction it had never been able to go before, which was complete freedom in the composition of spaces. As with so many crucial changes in architecture, it was made possible by new technology, in this case computer software originally used on French fighter jets, combined with innovative styling.

Those innovations Gehry pioneered are now much more common. But the Canadian-born architect and hockey lover still has a unique style, and having one of his buildings down the street would have been good. But no longer. Ratner has dropped Gehry to save a reported $200 million. In further cost-cutting measures, Ratner is asking the city to relieve him of or at least delay making payment on most the $100 million he had agreed to pay the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for the property.

Should the MTA and the city make some sort of arrangement with Ratner? That depends on whether a new deal can be constructed that can still provide net economic benefits to the city and MTA over the long run. But any renegotiation should also extract a price from Ratner by demanding greater oversight over the future evolution of the project.  That would go a long way toward fixing the deeply flawed process whose outcome is playing out exactly as predicted by astute observers like Rob Lane of RPA.

In an essay for Spotlight almost exactly a year ago, http://www.rpa.org/2007/05/spotlight-on-the-region-vol-6-34.html, Lane, an architect and urban designer, said that cities should be in charge of city building, not private developers.

"At the heart of the controversy and debate over Atlantic Yards is an important and fundamental question: when should a development "project" be considered simply a house or office writ large, and when is it an example of "city-building," signifying an essentially different thing in kind as well as degree," said Lane, who is now completing a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard. "The process that led to Atlantic Yards had two basic flaws, both pointing to the need for a more vigorous role by that much maligned institution, government. There was too little government planning and public input in the early stages of the project, and too little public oversight for the lengthy period in which the development will take place. . . . It tries to compensate for the lack of continuous public oversight with a set of overly rigid design guidelines that cannot accommodate changes in architects, market demand or neighborhood needs."

With Atlantic Yards as a prime example, Lane said that big projects that take decades to complete were sure to evolve and mutate in ways impossible to predict, as market forces change what was needed. Sure enough, this has happened.

Speaking for myself, I would say the public sector has to act robustly in almost every development project now under way, including Atlantic Yards, the WTC site redevelopment, Hudson Yards and more. The basic model should be the city designs and supervises; the private sector builds. Right now, it's too often the private sector designs, the public sector accommodates.