Ghost of Gehry: Third try for Brooklyn arena design


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If there’s one part of developer Forest City Ratner’s giant plan for the Atlantic Yards site in Brooklyn that might actually get built, it’s the proposed 18,000-seat Barclays Arena for pro basketball’s Nets, who now play at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. Originally the arena, like the entire Atlantic Yards complex, was to be designed by Frank Gehry, but earlier this summer Forest City fired F.O.G. and replaced him with the Kansas City firm Ellerbe Becket, whose preliminary designs elicited both yawns and howls of protest.

This morning, the developer released yet another batch of arena renderings, produced by Ellerbe Becket in collaboration with the young, talented New York firm SHoP. Here are some quick thoughts on the third version of the arena, which rather than banish the ghosts of Gehry’s design seems in part to revive them:


--The announcement itself was peculiar, coming not in the New York Times or any other media outlet but via old-fashioned press release. Clearly Forest City was not going to spoon-feed any renderings to the NYT given recent pieces condemning the developer for getting rid of Gehry, but it’s still something of a surprise that another New York publication didn’t get the nod.

--All of this may be for naught, as there’s still a good chance that Atlantic Yards -- the whole blessed thing -- is dead in the water. On the other hand, if the rest of the project does go forward, who will design the remaining buildings? How will the SHoP/Ellerbe Becket design relate to those bigger architectural volumes?

--The new architect pairing is, no matter how you slice it, an odd one, matching Ellerbe Becket’s Midwestern love of barn-style ‘fieldhouse’ arenas with the fluid (and politically savvy) approach of Manhattan-based SHoP. For some background on SHoP, here’s a profile I wrote on the firm for Metropolis magazine back in 2001.

--And the renderings themselves, which show an arena wrapped in three meandering horizontal bands made of mesh-like ‘weathered’ steel? They are certainly an improvement over the first Ellerbe Becket design, an oddly scaled hangar that seemed to have been airlifted from Hoosier territory to the middle of Brooklyn. The slices of glass peeking out between the steel bands will offer glimpses of the arena interior to people outside -- something Gehry’s design featured as well. This is a proposal that rejects saccharine nostalgia in favor of something more bracing and contemporary, and my guess it will grow only more assured along those lines if SHoP is given time to refine its concept.

--Still, perhaps because the design was produced rather quickly -- SHoP has been on the job only since June -- the arena seems to sag deflatedly from certain angles, rather like a basketball needing some air, which can hardly be the kind of architectural symbolism the Nets were hoping for. And despite its improvements, the new scheme clearly falls short of the far more fleshed-out Gehry plan, which was full of unorthodox vitality and related better to its urban context than most observers realized.

--Moreover, opponents of Atlantic Yards are right to be concerned that the developer pulled a bait and switch number by replacing Gehry with Ellerbe Becket -- a worry that will hardly to be put to rest by the decision to bring on SHoP. At the same time, taking the commission is a decided gamble for the SHoP partners, given how many relationships their new client has already poisoned and how unpopular the development remains in many part of Brooklyn.


--Bonus points to Twitter user @cthon1c for noticing this rich bit of irony: Renderings of the arena’s suites show them furnished with Gehry-designed chairs. Tribute? Or dis? Hard to tell... (If I’m not mistaken, it’s Gehry’s Cross-Check chair).

--And finally: That dramatic ‘oculus’ that the architects propose to punch through a canopy above the arena’s main entry plaza? Might need some tweaking. At least as it’s rendered now (see below), it makes that part of the building look a bit like a bottle opener for a Brobdingnagian-sized beer.

--Christopher Hawthorne

Renderings by SHoP Architects