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?”.


Anonymous NoLandGrab said...

As usual, another excellent post.

Before the myth is revived that Bruce Ratner's proposal is located on the SAME site as the O'Malley ballpark, it should be noted that the O'Malley ballpark was planned for a site northeast of the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush, where Ratner's Atlantic Center Mall now stands.

See the re_lapse animated timeline of the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area (ATURA) for a visual aide.

12:22 PM  
Anonymous t said...


9:40 PM  
Anonymous Stuart Schrader said...

Your aside, "after all, besides the highways pushed through, [Moses] created hundreds of parks and true public spaces," is true enough, but it should be remembered that Moses's construction of parks was often strategic. It would be a mistake to separate the seeming good the parks have brought to the city from all the bad widely associated with Moses. They are two sides of the same coin.

For example, Flushing Meadows/Corona Park, which might be considered the crowning parkland achievement of the Moses era, was designed specifically as a buffer between the commuter-suburb ring and the city. The purpose was to concentrate business in NYC's central business district, maintain high-level housing stock in proximate commuting distance, and prevent the development of business subcenters that would draw the commuters away from Manhattan (while encouraging industrial subcenters). It was believed that if cheap housing, with its attendant populations for whom Moses & pals had no love, were allowed to metastasize beyond the city's borders, the commuters would be forced to live farther away, making the commute untenable and weakening the draw of the central business district. Thus the parks were designed as a way to stop the eastward expansion of cheap housing. Flushing Meadows/Corona Park, catalyzed by the Worlds Fair, fulfilled a plan created by F. L. Olmstead, Jr., and the RPA over a decade earlier. Part and parcel of this process was the deindustrialization of Manhattan; it was also believed that blue-collar workers should not be commuting on trains from eastern suburbs when white-collar workers could take their place. The destruction of manufacturing jobs has always been justified with claims of new job creation, but of course hotel bellhops and arena soft-drink sellers have never achieved the even the modest financial success that those in manufacturing did. Meanwhile the idea of pushing manufacturing far afield still animates development in NYC even though it is an obsolete notion: when factories close down in Brooklyn, they don't reopen on Long Island or in Elizabeth. Capital, not labor, is mobile, and the replacement manufacturer of widgets once made here is now somewhere in Asia.

Anyway, keep up the excellent work and see Robert Fitch's The Assassination of New York for more info on Moses and parks.

10:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of Gehry's past "genius"
Gehry fries pedestrians, eggs with solar death ray
Sunlight reflected from the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles has "roasted the sidewalk to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to melt plastic and cause serious sunburn to people standing on the street". The fix: dull the building's highly reflective surface. Or -- meep-meep! Paging mister Christo! Need some orange curtains over here.
Ice, $62M building imperil sidewalks
Case Western takes precautions with Gehry's sloping roof

CLEVELAND, Ohio (AP) --The shiny, swirling $62 million building that houses the business school at Case Western Reserve University is a marvel to behold. But it is sometimes best admired from afar.

In its first winter, snow and ice have been sliding off the long, sloping, stainless-steel roof, bombarding the sidewalk below. And in bright sun, the glint off the steel tiles is so powerful that standing next to the building is like lying on a beach with a tanning mirror.

The peculiar Peter B. Lewis Building was designed by Frank Gehry, the internationally renowned architect who also created the titanium-covered Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain.

"You might have to walk on the road to make sure you don't get hit by ice," said Adam Searl, a junior at Case Western's Weatherhead School of Management. "Maybe they should have thought about it before they had built the building. It's Cleveland. We get ice. We get snow. We get rain."

The building is about five stories high. Instead of walls on the south side, it has a curving roof, made of 20,000 stainless-steel shingles, that seemingly tumbles to the ground.

On a sunny day, the building produces a shimmering glare, with patches of concentrated heat. In Cleveland's winter, though, sun glare isn't the problem. The city has had more than 86 inches of snow this season, and is on a pace to break the 1995-96 record of 101 inches.

3:06 PM  
Anonymous john massengale said...


We probably agree on many things, including what a travesty the Ratner / Gehry plan is, and what a great neighborhood Park Slope is, one of the best in America (designed and built, btw, with relatively few architects). But the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush is not Park Slope, and the irony of quoting Robert Moses (ROBERT MOSES!) in a great-man-debunking post could hardly be stronger.

Few people have done more for New York than Moses, but none have done more damage. It's not only the obvious things like the Cross Bronx Expressway (perfectly chronicled by Caro in The Power Broker), but in the massive projects all your opponents cite as evidence of why we need "another Moses" today. "Robert Moses was right, Jane Jacobs was wrong," they say.

I've recently walked around several of them, including Washington Square South, and the massive area Moses tore down behind the Municipal Building in Manhattan. They are terrible, anti-urban non-places.

And if you know Moses, you know his concern in the quote you cite was not the place but the flow of traffic. He was happy to sacrifice neighborhood after neighborhood to the flow of traffic. As I'm sure you know, he wanted to run a highway across Manhattan and through Washington Square, but Jacobs and others stopped him.

We live in a different time. If we don't drive less Mose's riverside highways are going to be under water. And the cost of gas is not going to go down. Nor are we going to discover a wonder fuel like biofuel: slight cultivation of biofuel is already contributing go starvation around the world. Our future will be and must be less driving, more walkability and more public transportation.

There are few places better suited for that than the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic, currently a non-place if ever there was one. It is a gaping, ugly hole in the urban fabric that no one wants to walk by. The builders of the Williamsburgh Bank correctly saw that it is one of the best places in Brooklyn for density, and that it should not continue the wonderful rowhouse fabric of Park Slope and Fort Greene.

10:37 PM  

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