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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

An open letter to Nicolai Ouroussoff

The New York Times lead architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff has come out definitively against the Atlantic Yards Project in its current form. He sites as reasons, the fact that star architect Frank Ghery and his designs will not be part of the proposed project as of a recent announcement and the fact that the developing company Forest City Ratner has most likely made the decision months ago while telling the city (which provides a portion of funds for the project) that everything was still as promised when it wasn't.

Of the new design and project, Mr. Ouroussoff states,

"If it is ever built, it will create a black hole in the heart of a vital neighborhood."

he continues describing the current plan as:

"A colossal, spiritless box, it would fit more comfortably in a cornfield than at one of the busiest intersections of a vibrant metropolis."

Mr. Ouroussoff goes even further stating simply,
"Building this monstrosity at such a critical urban intersection would be deadly. Clearly, the city would be better off with nothing."

Mr. Ouroussoff seeks to call our attention to another problem, that of the vicious cycle of 'bait and switch" that occurs when a developer promises grand multifunctional design only to deliver on the bare minimum of their promises, or none at all. And Mr. Ouroussoff names names, in detailing which groups (politicians, developers) are responsible for these constant disappointment in urban development and he even names himself (as a critic) somewhat responsible when he writes:

"Typically, a developer comes to the city with big plans. Promises are made. Serious architects are brought in. The needs of the community, like ample parkland and affordable housing, are taken into account. Editorial boards and critics, like me, praise the design for its ambition. Eventually, the project takes on a momentum of its own."

Mr. Ouroussoff's article is an amazing rejection of Atlantic Yards by a person in a position to sway important opinions as he is the lead architectural critic of the New York Times, especially when he admits his own complicity in the momentum of projects like this. Now people likely won't agree with me (I don't totally agree with me) on this but to a degree I am impressed and uplifted that Mr. Ouroussoff was willing to be sincere enough and equally aware of his complicity in a terrible process and yet still inject himself as a culprit, although to a much smaller degree than the developer, local government and I guess the rest of us citizens for not demanding more of our local government.

To include yourself as a party to this terrible overblown and under approved project, still takes guts Mr. Ouroussoff.

Now the part where I become conflicted to a personal degree is where I want to point out how hypocritical it is of the lead architectural critic of the New York Times to basically say I played a part in the process of selling the public on celebrity/aspirational architecture that is out of scale for it's intended surroundings and may actually be harmful when complete; but then end his article as if we all need alter our behavior and learn from this failing project.

To end on that note is to cast responsibility on everyone as if we are all equal players in this play. Yes the public needs to hold local government accountable in many instances. But to put the accusation on us so to spread blame is wrong because the responsibility for this lay with a few. The public needs to be well informed and the public needs to be able to vote. In the Atlantic Yards proposal the public has had no binding vote, and the amount of straight information about this project has been sorely lacking (especially in the beginning) except for a dedicated few local groups; Notably, Norman Oder's Atlantic Yards Report and Daniel Goldstein's Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, both of whom have written about this topic and this article with facts and information.

To their credit they seem less willing to brow beat you on your new position regarding Atlantic Yards but I'm not them and I am tired of people in positions of responsibility not being responsible and then offering a "what we all need to learn from this..." message when in fact we all didn't support this mess.

So saying that we need to learn to be better in effect, when choosing our architectural reimaging, on a project where developers and politicians didn't include the public in the process, and casting only a flickering piece of the white hot light of accountability on yourself, when you yourself Mr. Ouroussoff, have the architectural bully pulpit in New York City is disingenuous to say the least.

A throw away mention that the same developer behind this Atlantic Yards projected bait and switch is the same developer who built the recently constructed, 80 52 storied, tax break having, skyscraper headquarters for the New York Times, which you Mr. Ouroussoff lauded as having a "healthy sense of civic responsibility", may resolve the calls of conflict of interest officially, but for whatever reason Mr. Ouroussoff, you in fact championed this developer's plan for Atlantic Yards when it seems evident in your current piece that you willful ignored the faults of the development's design essentially, limits of space, finite resources in the neighborhood, traffic (to say nothing of eminent domain). You over looked all of that by essentially saying its going to be great in the end and it will increase great architecture in the city and that's what matters overall.

This city allows building without regard for architectural impact frequently, primarily because the priority is to increase tax revenues. In many ways that mentality makes cents. But it's interesting to me that you express so much desire for "thoughtful architecture" in mega projects and say so little about the ongoing boom and blight of "fedders" brick boxes littering the outer boroughs, which I think even you can see from your 80 52 story glass tower. The outer boroughs are drowning in poor architecture and it lowers the value of those neighborhoods by creating depressing streetscapes like these:

or these:

or these:

(the above photo is of the Atlantic Center development built by the people who want to build Atlantic Yards)

But more often then not there is no alarm sounded when actually blighted neighborhoods are finally renewed and get them buildings like these monstrosities that arguably are destined to depreciate and become blighted again.

To write a piece that says "we've seen it all again" and then imply that it's our collective fault as a city, when in fact the emperor's new clothes are blessed and certified by people like you, is dodgy at best. So often you and critics like you are the eloquence in the argument for these monstro-cities. That's not a small role. Your words lend legitimacy to these projects.

Overall I think what we really need to do collectively is decide whether persons such as yourself should continue to hold any relevance in the process. As with the Atlantic Yards proposal, perhaps our expectations of critics who are supposed to not only praise ambition but inform the public "demands a profound shift in mentality" as well.


  1. I agree totally. Very well written.

  2. Wow, you're much nicer than little O deserves. He works for an organization (NYT) that tried to shove this through in the face of principled, intelligent and at times inspired critiques the monstrous ego trip richly deserved. Getting on the train now looks profoundly CYA. And thank you for pointing out that "we" don't need to learn these lessons: WE've been preaching this for 6 years, thank you!

  3. thank you for posting this - i tried to say as much in the comments section of the Times blog, but they don't approve comments that are critical of the Times apparently :)

  4. Your post is the perfect response to someone who can't believe he got duped by FCR.

  5. If the Times' article has a comment section, you must post some of this there with a link. Well said! (Also, Amy, I've been critical of the Times on their site and comments have been posted. They are moderated so it takes some time until approved depending on time and section of paper.) Also, sending this to NO is imperative!


  6. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts about how this project has been presented to us. Most important for us all who are concerned is that we don't assume this is a done deal and as much as possible keep up with events, and alert like minded people. @Cathryn: I've noticed this letter circulating so I think Mr. Ouroussoff knows where to find it if he wishes to read it.
    Here's wishing for better developments.


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