Monday, June 15, 2009
Frank Gehry said during his 80th birthday interview that it would be "devastating" if the Atlantic Yards project was not going to happen. Now the official announcement finally came out that six years of hard work had been in vain. The replacement - a spiritless big box that looks like a warehouse, or an airplane hanger - was really a hard punch at the hearts of architects.
Nicolai Ouroussoff was all fired up, He described the developer's action as "a shameful betrayal of the public trust." It sent out the wrong message that "Architecture... is something decorative and expendable, a luxury we can afford only in good times, or if we happen to be very rich." Budget had won the "battle between budget and beauty," he said. I totally understand Nicolai's reaction, but his claim has arguably put budget and beauty in fundamental opposition. Does economy necessarily mean a sacrifice of aesthetics? What's the standard cost to be beautiful enough? Perhaps all those curved surfaces are really luxurious add-ons? Maybe developers are not the only ones to be blamed...
Look back to the last decade, we had a feast of hyper-formalism (iconically and ironically started by Frank himself in Bilbao). Architecture has reached an unimaginable level of extravagance. "The iconic gesture reflects the client's ambitions," architects would say. "We always try to understand the client's agenda and take it seriously." But now, clients demand something more cost-effective, everybody freaks out. "No, you are scrapping a striking addition to the city skyline! The cutback ruins the dynamic composition of tumbling glass shards!"
The most valuable aspect of Gehry's scheme though, as Nicolai pointed out, is its "fervent effort to engage the life of the city below." He enveloped the arena in the fabric of public urban life. But the concept of urban engagement doesn't lead to a certain form. It is about performance. It can be achieved in many ways. When we put performance back to the equation, budget and beauty may not be enemies. (Oh, Vitruvius was genius!) In fact, performance, as a common language, would provide a mediating middle ground between developer and architect, and even between personal profit and public good. From this perspective, the true offensive fact of the Ellerbe Becket design is not its ugliness (well, it is ugly), but the lack of public responsibility and neglect of urban needs.