It is surely a sign of America’s current state of philosophical eclecticism—or maybe just our deep confusion—that the architectural news in this country has been dominated in recent months by two contradictory developments: the success of the New Urbanists in helping shape the post-Katrina reconstruction and the stunning revival elsewhere of the megaproject.
Since the floodwaters receded, Andrés Duany, Peter Calthorpe, and others have been charretting much of the Gulf Coast into submission, preaching the gospel of walkable neighborhoods and transit-oriented development (and front porches). The more fascinating story, frankly, is taking shape on the other side of the cultural divide, in the territory where Robert Moses and Le Corbusier once tread. In each of the two biggest cities in the country, Frank Gehry has been handed a commission whose size and scope would lead both of those men to sit up and take notice.
In Los Angeles it is the entire first phase of the $1.8 billion redevelopment along Grand Avenue for the New York-based Related Companies, replacing a bunch of—what else?— parking lots across the street from Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. In Brooklyn it is a $3.5 billion Atlantic Yards project for developer Bruce Ratner’s Forest City Ratner Companies, which will include not just the 18,000-seat arena for the NBA’s Nets but also more than a dozen different buildings, the tallest of which tops out at about 60 stories. Both projects will be helped along by a substantial public subsidy.
More than four decades after the revelatory appearance of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, two of the greatest have charged ahead with a gargantuan building effort, thick with skyscrapers designed by a single architect. You might think of them as outposts of a new theme-park approach to architecture and development: Gehryland Brooklyn and Gehryland L.A.
Each of these jobs is so ambitiously large that it’s hard to think of a true precedent. Rockefeller Center was designed by a diverse, competitive, and rotating cast of design talent, led by not only Raymond Hood but also Wallace Harrison, Donald Deskey, and others. Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasília was a classic tabula rasa, with neither an existing landmark nor a vocal neighborhood group within 200 miles. The college campuses handed over to single architects—such as Principia College, in Illinois, designed by Bernard Maybeck—tend to be isolated cocoons. The World Trade Center had a single chief architect, yes, and 10.5 million square feet of office space, but it didn’t carry with it the expectations of celebrity architecture and cultural revival: it was a big, dumb commercial development, period.
The source of this windfall for Gehry is complex. It is a product of starchitecture celebrity and developer hubris (and anxiety). There is also the peculiar kind of envy unique to the relationship between cities: Does L.A. want to be New York? Does Brooklyn want to be Manhattan? In the latter case the emotional stakes are raised by the fact that the project revolves around the relocation of the Nets from New Jersey to Brooklyn—a small cosmic payback for the loss of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the razing of Ebbets Field almost 50 years ago, but a significant one nonetheless.
Indeed in both cases Gehry’s brief is essentially to give a sense of primacy to places that have lacked it. Brooklyn has leaned on Manhattan, architecturally speaking, since the boroughs were brought together into one city. Downtown Los Angeles—we’ve been told again and again, often by writers from New York—has been a concrete paradox, the center of the world’s first centerless metropolis. These projects loom larger, in other words, than even their sheer size would indicate.
There is also the singularity of Gehry himself. He is an architect who a) has Bilbao and now Disney Hall tucked under his belt; b) has transformed his office, with the help of largely faceless partners Edwin Chan and Craig Webb and others, into a streamlined, dependable icon-emitting machine; and c) is not a severe Prada-wearing egotist but rather a kind of rumpled genius with a talent for self-effacement and a knack for speaking the developers’ bluntly monosyllabic language. None of his celebrity-architect competitors can match him in all three of those categories.
Gehry’s complexity, at least viewed through the prism of his triumph in Bilbao, clearly makes him attractive to people like Ratner and Stephen Ross, who leads Related. He can be a tough negotiator—check out the deals he struck with Related and Forest City Ratner if you have any doubt about that, particularly the lack of a supporting architect of record on either project—but he is also so marked by self-doubt and the residue of therapy that he practically carries a couch around with him. In the new documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry, by the architect’s longtime friend Sydney Pollack, the most prominent figure after the director and the subject is Gehry’s psychiatrist. “I’m very insecure about it,” he told a Columbia University audience last fall, referring to the Atlantic Yards design. “It keeps me awake at night.”
Ratner and Ross have both won praise for “daring” to embrace cutting-edge architecture. But their decision was based more on an odd mixture of ambition, desperation, and conservatism. The latter characteristic is especially interesting when you consider that both projects came close to including other architects. The Grand Avenue plans feature a pair of prominent towers in its first phase, and it was long assumed that the shorter of the two would be designed by a young architect with close ties to Gehry—probably Michael Maltzan or the firm Daly, Genik Architects. In Brooklyn, Gehry says Ratner has nixed his pleas to throw a few bones to another smaller firm.
So it has been odd, to say the least, to hear Gehry describe his efforts to lend each project some visual diversity by mixing up the finishes, the scale, and the architectural forms. Wouldn’t it have been easier—and more fun, at least for us critics—to achieve that diversity in a less forced manner, allowing Maltzan in L.A. and some other young architect in New York to take part? That cross-generational discussion would have been fascinating. In L.A., given the way Gehry dominates the local architecture scene, it might have been downright Oedipal.
In the end, the most fascinating issue is how you sell a megaproject to the public, the city, and the press in the post-Jane Jacobs era. This has been an especially tricky proposition in Brooklyn, where neighborhood opposition has been fierce and even Gehry has said he has tried to convince Ratner to lop off some of the plan’s square footage.
Indeed the preliminary designs for each project suggest not a complete amnesia about the lessons Jacobs taught but an odd urban-planning hybrid for an age philosophically large and forgiving enough to accommodate Rem Koolhaas and Andrés Duany, the Mini Cooper, and the stretch Hummer. In Brooklyn as in L.A., Gehry talks about balancing foreground modesty against background bulk, about making the sidewalk scale feel humane and welcoming while cramming in all those millions of square feet in towers pushed to the far corners of the site. On Grand Avenue the shopping pavilions between the two towers will be the size of McMansions. The goal in both projects is to mimic a kind of organic urban growth.
Gehry, who began his career in the office of planner Victor Gruen, has always felt he is a more subtle and thoughtful urbanist than people give him credit for. But when you harp on the details of the sidewalks in a project of several million square feet, you can never quite convince people that you aren’t engaged in a sort of architectural bait and switch, selling modest scale and delivering architectural bulk. A battleship is a battleship, no matter how cozy some of the staterooms happen to be.
This is when Gehry’s angst and self-doubt become most valuable, as a public-relations and marketing tool, and also when you begin to realize just how perfect a choice he was for these two developers, if not for the project and the cities themselves. When Gehry shows the models for the Atlantic Yards to a community group or a reporter, there might come a moment when he imperceptibly readies his hand atop one of the residential towers, back by the intersection of Vanderbilt Avenue and Dean Street. Then just as he is saying that what he really wants to do is convince the client to make the design more modest in scale, he pulls that part of the model off with a dramatic flourish, magically providing light and air to the miniature Brooklynites walking on one of the model’s interior paths. He holds that chunk of tower in his hand and says he’s worried, he’s concerned, if you ask him the whole thing ought to be smaller, it would just work better that way. And somewhere, as his handpicked architect gets to the end of this tremendously effective monologue, Ratner smiles.