In spite of all the acreage they have to offer, the biggest building sites in New York have cultivated more cynicism than anything else. And when the developer Forest City Ratner swapped an ambitious Frank Gehry basketball arena at Atlantic Yards for a pedestrian design by Ellerbe Becket, even the most jaded cried foul. And so it seemed almost poetically appropriate that Bruce Ratner’s next step would be to try and re-insinuate himself into the public’s graces by mesmerizing us with a sinuous, snake-like wrap by SHoP Architects, the architectural equivalent of indie film stars.
Critics have charged Ratner with a classic case of bait-and-switch, but even under the new lineup, the arena’s prospects look dim. Ellerbe Becket is still on board, leaving many to wonder how meaningfully SHoP can reshape the design. And recently the city’s Independent Budget Office reported that the basketball arena stood to be a $40 million net loss to the city over 30 years, even as city subsidies to the project have ballooned to more than $772 million. Somewhere in the shuffle the original idea of a carefully orchestrated ensemble of great buildings well-knit into the community has been sidelined.
Together with the cringe-making face-off between developer Larry Silverstein and the Port Authority at ground zero, it is all too clear that ambitious public/private partnerships are currently beyond this generation’s skill set: Developers mistrust government’s staying power to see a project through to the finish; the public wants its voice heard, values mirrored, and vanities appeased; and officials just want to pose for the cameras at the groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting. It’s a recipe for dwindling expectations.
And from up close, it is downright painful to watch architects jerked around like some Manchurian Candidate’s puppets. Would more regulation help ease along the process and prevent eleventh-hour surprises? Is mandated accountability in order? Developer, architect, planner, and now professor Vishaan Chakrabarti, formerly of the Related Companies and recently named director of an expanded real estate development program at Columbia University, thinks not.
In a telephone interview, Chakrabarti said, “New York is a tricky place. It’s not a beauty-contest city like San Francisco. We don’t regulate design. And the reason has to do with our attitude about art. Most New Yorkers understand that along with some good art comes lots of bad art.” He also noted that in New York you can’t get away with bait-and-switch tactics more than once, or you’ll get a reputation. “People have long memories in this town,” he told me.
Chakrabarti’s very long view, so accepting of the mediocre and confident that the truly artful will rise above and endure, sounds more wise than cynical. Goethe described architecture as frozen music, an expression that suggests not only majesty and inevitability, but also motion so slow as to be invisible. Perhaps rather than try to force these gigantic projects into instant being, we should allow them to evolve more glacially like great performance pieces, with equally lasting consequences.