Architects Live In Class Houses: Piano Vs. Gehry

When Frank Gehry abruptly pulled out of a 2000 competition to design The New York Times’ new headquarters, the paper quickly looked elsewhere. Before long, the paper splashed a design by winning architect Renzo Piano across the front page. But as Mr. Piano kept accumulating prestigious projects, The Times’ developing partner Bruce Ratner never let Mr. Gehry out of his sight.

Now, years later, Mr. Gehry is having his moment in the headlines as chief architect of Mr. Ratner’s most ambitious project to date.

“I never sought after work in New York,” Mr. Gehry told The Observer. “I met Bruce Ratner when we were doing the Times thing. And then one day he called and brought me this.”

“This” is the colossal and controversial development project organized around a Brooklyn Nets arena at the Atlantic rail yards in downtown Brooklyn.

Mr. Gehry and his one-time competitor Mr. Piano are not the house architects of New York City. That distinction belongs to Skidmore Owings and Merrill, the lofty developer to Manhattan’s biggest guns in business and real estate.

But the new New York that is taking shape—with its ambitious towers, its cities within a city like the far West Side, Ground Zero and the Atlantic Yards—belongs to these two. So far, the two émigrés seem to be splitting the pie like a couple of New York old-timers.

A spate of the city’s oldest and most august institutions—cultural bedrocks like the Morgan Library, the Whitney, Columbia University and The New York Times—have all chosen the Pritzker Prize–winning Italian architect Renzo Piano to spruce up some of New York’s most revered real estate for the 21st century.

Directors and officials at those institutions gushingly describe Mr. Piano’s designs with adjectives like “understated,” “appropriate” and “elegant,” as if he were a well-bred and well-mannered suitor coming from overseas to claim their darling’s hand.

On the other, shinier side of the coin, relatively new multimillionaires like Bruce Ratner of Forest City Ratner developers, media mogul Barry Diller or parvenu patrons like the B.A.M. Local Development Corporation, have turned to the Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry, also a Pritzker winner, who is most famous for the epochal Guggenheim building in Bilbao, Spain.

His unorthodox and unapologetically iconic designs, such as the model for Mr. Ratner’s proposed Nets Stadium and the mini-metropolis that surrounds it, seem to be his clients’ way of signaling to the old social lions that they’ve arrived.

But the projects taken on by the two architects also reflect the changing cultural landscape of New York, where relatively new museums and theaters have benefited from the rezoning for cultural districts that have drawn renowned architects—and many New Yorkers—away from Manhattan and into the boroughs.

“The cultural hegemony perceived as being in Manhattan is now dispersed,” said Kate D. Levin, the city’s cultural-affairs commissioner. “It’s sort of ‘If you build it, they will come.’”

If Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s abrasive approach to the infamous Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 chilled innovation among the city’s outlying cultural institutions, the same ones have felt encouraged by the new one, which not coincidentally is run by a man with a deep resume of personal contributions to arts organizations as well as a jones for massive development projects like Mr. Ratner’s basketball arena.

The code word “basketball” should be enough to tell you that Mr. Gehry isn’t designing a project directed at Manhattan’s cultural elites.

Some observers noted that when they sought to contrast Mr. Gehry with Mr. Piano.

“Renzo has a quiet spirit, while Frank’s kind of scrappy,” said Jan Rothschild, an official at the Whitney Museum of American Art, who holds both architects in high regard.

“In New York, it’s not easy to get things built,” Ms. Rothschild said. “And if you’re serious about getting things done in the gnarly political process, you need an architect who listens.”

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, apparently satisfied with Mr. Piano’s listening skills, approved his plan for the Whitney in May.

Mr. Gehry still has to face community boards and landmark committees for Mr. Ratner’s $3.5 billion Atlantic Yards project, with its Brooklyn Nets basketball stadium, 1.9 million square feet of office space, housing for roughly 15,000, and skyscrapers as high as 60 stories piercing the now-unperturbed Brooklyn skyline. Mr. Gehry said that, along with the tempting challenge of the undertaking, he was attracted to the idea of working for Mr. Ratner, who he called a like-minded “liberal do-gooder” intent on making a statement in Brooklyn.

“There are not many prototypes for doing something like this,” said Mr. Gehry, adding that his New York clients “come to me when they know that they are looking for something not the ordinary, and that’s kind of the common ground between them.”

Mr. Ratner’s story is ordinary enough in the real-estate world. The son of Polish immigrants, who himself immigrated to the big city from Cleveland, he pulled himself up by his penny loafers. Afer becoming New York City’s consumer advocate at age 25, he turned to development to help make ends meet producing large-scale—though admittedly lackluster—projects in Brooklyn like the MetroTech complex and the Atlantic Center.

Since then, he has acted as developing partner with the city’s most venerable institutions, including The Times for Mr. Piano’s design. But when it came time for Mr. Ratner to find an architect for his very own project—his basketball team—he apparently didn’t want just anyone.

“In many ways, it was time for Gehry,” said Jim Stuckey, the executive vice president for commercial development at Ratner Forest City, who said Mr. Ratner had met Gehry during interviews for the New York Times project. “The way he has helped transform cities worldwide … we wanted to work with him one day. And this was it. I hope and believe that it is going to send a signal that this is something special. “

Likewise, when Barry Diller’s InterActiveCorp decided in 2003 that Mr. Gehry was the right man for its Chelsea headquarters.

After all, only one architect has landed an architectural spaceship of curved titanium sheathing in a Spanish wasteland, turning the town into a celebrated cultural-tourist attraction, or trudged like a veritable Fitzcarraldo seeking to bring culture to backwoods Brazilian towns on a doomed scouting expedition for the Guggenheim.

It is tough, to say the least, to imagine Mr. Piano—who loves to talk about his work in terms of the Sacred and the Profane—slashing a machete through the brush, not to mention venturing across the East River. Indeed, Mr. Piano’s New York undertakings tend not to stray far from Central Park.

Perhaps the best illustration of the different interests, ambitions and temperaments of the two architects is their convergence in the 2000 competition to build the New York Times Building, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2007.

Mr. Gehry was reportedly the favorite going into the final weeks of the competition, but his friends and colleagues said he grew increasingly frustrated about the corporate approach of The Times, including requirements that he open an office in New York and fly in from his headquarters in Santa Monica at least once a week. The site was also part of the 42nd Street Development Project, so city and state officials held a certain sway over Mr. Gehry’s proposed skyscraper.

In the end, Mr. Gehry pulled out of the competition, though he maintains that it was a purely logistical decision. “It was a deadline issue,” he said.

Some of his friends say otherwise.

“He was really offended by those people,” said David C. Levy, who worked closely with Mr. Gehry as the former president and director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, referring to the Times executives. Mr. Levy recalled a conversation that he’d had with Mr. Gehry soon after the Times negotiations fell apart, in which Mr. Gehry summed up The Times’ attitude as wanting to build offices on spec for maximum profit, and not caring if he built a box with a mouse hole in it. “Frank Gehry is not interested in a box with a mouse hole in it. You have to be interested in architecture with a capital A,” said Mr. Levy. “He said he walked into that room and then walked right out. The atmosphere was that this project wasn’t going to work out.”

Soon after, on Oct. 13, 2000, The Times published Mr. Piano’s shimmering model of the new Times building on the front page.

The Times building and the Morgan Library were Mr. Piano’s first efforts in New York, and they lent him a cachet that served as a secret password for entrance into the city’s upper-crust cultural institutions. Impressed with his flexibility and eagerness to please, the commissions kept rolling in, amounting to an Italianate influence on the city that hasn’t been seen since the introduction of pizza.

“I have seen the learning curve, and he has adapted to it quickly,” said Bruce Fowle of Fox and Fowle Architects, which is working with Mr. Piano on the Times building. “He has a good understanding of what makes New York tick—what sells and what doesn’t sell,” Mr. Fowle added. “His conceptual ideas come from a deep inner sense about appropriateness.”

Fans of Mr. Piano in those institutions said they were first attracted to the architect by his masterpieces like the Menil Collection in Houston and the Pompidou Center in Paris, but they also admired his talent for cutting through red tape.

“He has always been very deft and very intelligent and sensible about dealing with the political and psychological and historical realities of the place where he is building,” said Charles E. Pierce Jr., the director of the Morgan Library, which selected Mr. Piano to undertake its $102 million–plus renovation in 2001. “He obviously had to acquire these skills within the New York context.”

Land-use lawyers and consultants who have worked with Mr. Piano on several of his New York projects likewise testified to his very real reverence for the city’s landmarks and his unique ability to make both museum directors and board members happy.

“He [Piano] has a different style of dealing with clients than I do,” Mr. Gehry acknowledged, adding that he admires Mr. Piano’s work. “I did a decent museum in Bilbao and never got asked to do another one again. The marketplace is telling you what they want. The marketplace feels more comfortable with what he is doing. I don’t know why.”

Rick Bell, the executive director of the American Institute of Architects New York, suggested one possibility.

“What’s great about Gehry’s buildings is that they bloom like flowers, and maybe they will fade—maybe the celebratory nature won’t be the same after 50 years. I don’t think anyone thinks Renzo’s buildings are coming down so fast. The question is what is their longevity, and that is maybe what the people on the board are thinking.”

Mr. Gehry, who designed a building for his “friend” Issey Miyake and a cafeteria for Condé Nast, seems to have more of an affinity for clients with something to prove.

“Buildings like his say that there is something special and wonderful here,” said Jeanne Lutfy, president of the B.A.M. Local Development Corporation, a nonprofit group seeking to promote a cultural district in downtown Brooklyn around the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “The theater was interested in elevating, in making sure their place was going to be special,” she said, referring to the Theater for a New Audience. “You have an opportunity to stand out more in Brooklyn.”

Not everyone wants such conspicuous buildings in Brooklyn. Mr. Ratner’s plan for the Brooklyn rail yards met with heated protest from residents who thought the new skyline would threaten the borough’s earthy brownstone charm.

But many have argued that Mr. Ratner’s project better protects the borough’s traditional residents.

“There is an interesting thing about the Manhattanization of Brooklyn. The people who are forced out,” said Mr. Stuckey, “have been gentrified out by a lot of people who are opposing this. So I ask, who is really bringing Manhattan to Brooklyn?”

Indeed, Brooklyn has, over the last decade, attracted people who traditionally lived in or once wanted to live in Manhattan. City officials said that the influx has given a boost to start-ups in the city’s cultural scene and helped them compete with the old powerhouses, which they could one day join or replace at the top.

“In a way, New York City is so young,” said Ms. Levin, comparing the city to the great cultural cities of Western Europe, where old-money collections can be traced back to a lord or even a Pope in the family. “We think the Morgan library is old, but it isn’t. The generational cycle of New York culture is pretty new.” Architects Live In Class Houses: Piano Vs. Gehry