Sunday, December 03, 2006

Progress in Brooklyn


Here we go again. You can’t stop progress, so the plan for closing streets and building the most dense 22 acres in New York City, including a 20,000 seat arena and 3,800 parking spaces in an area surrounded by Brownstones, at one of the most congested intersections in Brooklyn is actually fine. Why? Because it’s progress. Sound familiar?

Jonathan Liu recently wrote in
N + 1 Magazine: “The authenticity of a place as volatile and heterodox as Brooklyn, and New York in general, lies in incongruity, the disorienting juxtaposition of century-old brownstones and Gehry’s warped, twisting towers. …to reject Gehry on the basis of “context,” seems a disavowal of the progress of urban life itself.”

Well, here’s some breaking news: the so-called “progress” of urban life has not been a history of unequivocal success. Left to their own devices, the forces of business expedience in urban areas have often overwhelmed quality of life issues, the possibilities for meaning inherent in existing structures, and the potential that existing structures have for adaptive reuse. To define New York's sense of place as based on ”incongruity” and “disorienting” is an exceptionally superficial read. While a range of scales is part of the urban form here, our urban morphology is better defined by walkable streets, public open space, and coexisting mixed-use forms where no one factor overwhelms the others. Architects - visionary, progressive or otherwise - don’t make real streets; they merely contribute to their success or their demise. And while an “architecture of nostalgia” may not claim to make urban history, the history of urban form is not defined by any style of architecture, but by these streets.

So now Mr. Liu
suggests that Mr. Letham and Mr. Ratner retire to some presumably smoke-free room to hash out their differences and arrive at a suitable design for the site. He writes: “Mr. Lethem and the opposition could steer the city toward any number of them (other options for the site) if they held their collective nose and negotiated directly with the developer” or, easier yet, “engage in the process and ask Frank Gehry, a fellow artist, for better. It may not be as engorging as obstructionism, but it is at least the stuff history is made of”. Thanks for the history lesson Mr. Liu, it actually is news to us that the history of urban form in the city is really a reflection of concerned individuals negotiating directly with developers and their architects. And here we thought all this time that that there was some means of bringing public pressure to bear to do the right thing through the institutions of the press, the political systems, and the courts.

We do want progress in Brooklyn, and we should know how to get it right: there is such a thing as a design process that could bring us the development we deserve. It typically begins with planning. Perhaps Mr. Liu could speak with the development team about that?

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