attributed to the German opera composer Richard Wagner which refers to an operatic
performance encompassing music, theater, and the visual arts. ..
Term first used by RICHARD WAGNER in Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (1849) to describe his concept of a work of art for the stage, based on the ideal of ancient Greek tragedy, to which all the individual arts would contribute under the direction of a single creative mind in order to express one overriding idea. However, the term is applied retrospectively to projects in which several art forms are combined to achieve a unified effect, for example Roman fora, Gothic cathedrals and some Baroque churches and palazzi.
What Will Be Left of Gehry’s Vision for Brooklyn?
The growing possibility that much of the multibillion-dollar Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn will be scrapped because of a lack of financing may be a bitter pill for its developer, Forest City Ratner. But it’s also a painful setback for urban planning in New York.
Designed by Frank Gehry, the project was a rare instance in which the architectural talent lined up for a New York project matched the financial muscle behind it. When it was unveiled in late 2003, it seemed to signal a genuine effort to raise the quality of large-scale development in a city still stinging from the planning failures at ground zero.
So if the decision to proceed with an 18,000-seat basketball arena but to defer or eliminate the four surrounding towers is defensible from a business perspective, it also feels like a betrayal of the public trust.
Mr. Gehry conceived of this bold ensemble of buildings as a self-contained composition — an urban Gesamtkunstwerk — not as a collection of independent structures. Postpone the towers and expose the stadium, and it becomes a piece of urban blight — a black hole at a crucial crossroads of the city’s physical history. If this is what we’re ultimately left with, it will only confirm our darkest suspicions about the cynical calculations underlying New York real estate deals.
The project that the city approved in late 2006 would have included eight million square feet of residential and commercial development on an eight-acre site extending east from Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, one of the borough’s most congested intersections. For many who opposed it early on, it was yet another instance of powerful economic interests trampling on the rights of a deeply rooted middle-class community — one that had already been reshaped by waves of transplanted Manhattanites. Mr. Gehry’s involvement was simply a bit of window dressing intended to give the project an aura of enlightenment.
I sympathized with these arguments to some degree. New York has had a terrible track record with large-scale planning in recent years. Look at Battery Park City. The MetroTech Center. Donald Trump’s Riverside South. All are blots on the urban environment, as blandly homogenous in their own way as the Modernist superblocks they were intended to improve on.
But it’s important to remember that this is also the city that spawned Rockefeller Center, a 22-acre development at the core of Manhattan that became a glorious emblem of the 20th-century metropolis. For some of us Atlantic Yards presented a creative opportunity for the 21st century.
If large-scale development is unavoidable, why not enlist serious talents like Mr. Gehry to come up with an alternative to the bottom-line proposals that have been the accepted norm for decades? Finally a big developer had turned to a legitimate architectural hero for help, rather than the usual corporate hacks.
As it turned out, Mr. Gehry’s design revealed both the promise and the limits of that collaboration. The main residential blocks to the east of the arena lacked the architect’s signature ebullience. A series of mismatched towers along two sides of a central courtyard encompassing several blocks, they followed most of the usual planning rules: adhere to the street grid, pack in a good deal of retail along the street, add a dose of public space.
But if that part of the development bordered on soporific, his design for the arena block was a tour de force. Most urban sports arenas are big, windowless boxes that suck the life out of their surroundings; Mr. Gehry’s great invention was to conceal this one behind a dense array of residential and commercial towers. The most glamorous of these, Miss Brooklyn, clad in cascading sheets of glass, anchored the arena to Flatbush Avenue. Three smaller residential towers, their playful forms like unevenly stacked children’s blocks, framed the arena on the east and south.
This imaginative fusion of inside and out, with the intensity of the sports arena paralleling the bustle of the street, spelled promise. Visitors arriving by subway would spill out into a multitiered glass atrium; directly above, the voluptuous curves of Miss Brooklyn would be a counterpoint to the nearby Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower — a classic stone phallus.
Between the bases of the towers, views would open up from the street onto the concourses that envelop the arena. During a Nets game, pedestrians strolling along Flatbush Avenue would be able to catch glimpses of anguished fans inside; when the arena was empty, its dark, gaping void could have the haunting effect of the ruins of a Roman coliseum. A cold, characterless intersection might thereby be transformed into Brooklyn’s vibrant answer to Times Square, minus the saccharine Disney décor.
The first sign that something was amiss arose when Forest City began to reduce the percentage of affordable housing units in the design and add condominiums, decisions that altered the project’s character. Then the developer quietly asked Mr. Gehry to redesign Miss Brooklyn to cut costs. The delirious exterior was replaced by a less graceful design, with floors piled loosely on top of one another, their forms twisting as they rose. The atrium was reduced to an empty glass hall with a set of bleachers overlooking the street.
Meanwhile, Mr. Gehry invested more energy into designing a 20-story tower for a site across Flatbush that he hoped would balance his composition by creating a visual bond between the sides of the avenue.
Still, the core of his concept, the charged relationship between the enclosed arena and the street, remained intact.
Without the towers the arena is likely to become an enormous eyesore. Even if Mr. Gehry adorns it with a seductive new wrapper, its looming presence will have a deadening impact on a lively area. The magical peekaboo effect of peering between the bases of the towers into the arena will be lost. The atrium, once a vital public space, will be reduced to a barren strip of pavement.
No development at all would be preferable to building the design that is now on the table. What’s maddening is how few options opponents seem to have.
We could wage a public campaign to stop it. We could pray that Forest City Ratner comes up with more money. But given that the city approved the plan, we cannot prevent the developer from building the arena. Nor is there any way of preventing Forest City from selling off pieces of the property to other investors, who could then come up with any design they liked, as long as they abided by zoning and density guidelines.
Mr. Gehry, on the other hand, could walk away.
In the old days, when he was still a budding talent with an uncertain future, he walked off jobs when a client began pushing things in the wrong direction. This was not simply an act of vanity; it showed that the quality of his work mattered more to him than a paycheck.
Years later, he has been backed into a familiar corner. There’s much more money at stake here, and I expect that he is torn between a sense of loyalty to his client and a desire to make good architecture.
But by pulling out he would be expressing a simple truth: At this point the Atlantic Yards development has nothing to do with the project that New Yorkers were promised. Nor does it rise to the standards Mr. Gehry has set for himself during a remarkable career.