Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Great Man Theory of Architecture

R. Buckminster Fuller and Walter O'Malley with a model of the stadium, from via flickr
By design, much of the discussion about the project in the mainstream press revolves around the world famous architect Frank Gehry’s design. But this is not the first time that a star architect has been called in to sell a big project on this site. In 1955, Walter O’Malley, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had a plan to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn. “With the help of the Borough President, O’Malley found the perfect site for his new stadium…the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues”. O’Malley also found the perfect architect: he sought out and commissioned perhaps the most advanced American architect of the time, Buckminster Fuller, to design the new stadium. (Mr. Fuller went on to win the AIA Gold Medal in 1970; Frank Gehry won it in 1999).

Why wasn’t it built? Even in 1955, the proposed site at Flatbush and Atlantic was extremely problematic. O’Malley defended his selection of this site by claiming that “many people would travel to stadium events using public transportation, improving traffic in the congested area”. But Robert Moses, yes that Robert Moses, while sympathetic to the desire to keep the Dodgers in the city, knew that this was the wrong site for a stadium. Moses’s success in projects like driving the BQE through Brooklyn (even though famously stymied in Brooklyn Heights) taught him a thing or two about local traffic. He knew that people would continue to drive to games, and that the local streets would be overrun with cars. A stadium on this site, he is quoted as saying, would create “a China wall of traffic”. And while Moses was not at all reluctant to use the powers of eminent domain for public projects, even he did not believe that eminent domain could or should be used to acquire land for a private stadium. In addition to reasons “of law and sound policy”, Moses argued, the property-acquiring powers of a state agency should not be used to encourage “speculation” in baseball enterprises. In a letter to O’Malley, Moses wrote: “The natural question everyone will ask about the Atlantic Avenue site as you describe it is.....if you really want to stay in Brooklyn, why don’t you buy the property at a private sale?”.

Besides the stadium, there have been many plans by great architects that were never realized in New York. It is well known how difficult it is to get anything built here. But we also appreciate why New York is a great place, and the two are related. The emotional connections people have to their streets, the sense of ownership of the public places, and New Yorkers’ attitudes about engaging in issues of importance all contribute to a dense atmosphere of meaning in the public realm. Robert Moses could have some success, in a previous era, by claiming he was working for the needs of the public over individual/group territories (after all, besides the highways pushed through, he created hundreds of parks and true public spaces). But we are wary of projects that ignore the rules to do something “good” for us but that also, by the way, are required to be economically “feasible” for a private developer who does not have to show his hand.
There is a problem with looking at this project as just one more chapter in the biography of a great architect: it masks the real issues critical to the development of cities. The process by which we provide housing, jobs, public space and transportation has very little to do with the skills of an individual architect. So here’s the litmus test for this project: would we even be having this discussion if the architect wasn’t a star? (Quick: who designed Rockefeller Center?) We don't believe that the only way of solving the city's problems is to cook up a process in private. And on that, we’re also telling our elected officials: if you think that somehow a star architect, in some kind of “partnership” with a well-connected developer, who is in some kind of “partnership” with the ESDC can make this project, as currently conceived, politically palatable, you just haven’t been paying attention. If Brooklyn Heights could improve the plans of an unelected Robert Moses, brownstone Brooklyn can improve the plans of an unelected Forest City Ratner.

We’ll never know how things would have turned out if Mr. O’Malley had successfully persuaded the state to condemn the property, and Buckminster Fuller had designed the stadium in our neighborhood. Our sense is that the stadium would not have aged well, but perhaps the Dodgers would still be in Brooklyn. However, had O’Malley built his stadium here, it is extremely unlikely that brownstone Brooklyn would look as it does today, and might be looking a whole lot more like the Yankee Stadium area in the South Bronx. So we lost the Dodgers, but we gained some great neighborhoods. Instead of second guessing the loss of the Dodgers, things could be worse; we could be asking ourselves: “Who lost Brooklyn?”.