Gehry Grilled in Manhattan

On Saturday afternoon, architect Frank Gehry and New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff discussed architecture (and much more) before a sold-out audience at the CUNY Graduate Center, part of the newspaper’s Arts & Leisure Weekend.

For a while, the conversation glided effortlessly through Mr. Gehry’s oeuvre, complete with an introductory slideshow of renowned works–from the Guggenheim Bilbao to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

But then Mr. Ouroussoff turned his attention to Mr. Gehry’s controversial Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. The negative reaction should not have been too surprising: Some bitter residents wore antagonistic t-shirts and stickers condemning the project (i.e. “Welcome to Ratnerville”). Also in attendance, blogger Norman Oder–a critic of both the development and the New York Times coverage–reported in depth on some of the project’s specifics that the architect tried to address.

A self-professed “do-gooder, lefty type,” Mr. Gehry spoke of the future Nets arena and, and shockingly blurted out, “First of all, it’s an empty site.” A handful of jeers followed. Admitting he was getting into “deep shit,” Mr. Gehry switched gears and said that the project will be built in an “existing neighborhood.”

Pleading his case, Mr. Gehry emphasized trying to “break down the scale” of the massive development, using various materials, and dealing with residential concerns that could arise with a basketball arena nearby.

“If a guy comes home from work and he wants to cool out, he’s not barraged by imagery and bright lights,” he said.

Next, Mr. Ouroussoff brought up other less-controversial topics, but the table was set for a rowdy Q&A period, where four critics of developer Bruce Ratner’s project hurled questions at the 76-old architect. Mr. Gehry said that the developer was “politically like me,” and “if it got out of whack with my own principles, I would walk away.”

But that didn’t appease everyone.

First, a Brooklyn architect aficionado accused Mr. Gehry of operating in a “non-Jane Jacobs” manner, with superblocks destroying the “existing neighborhood.” When asked what he would build instead, the questioner ventured into a lengthy explanation that irritated some audience members who had sought a mild-mannered, 92nd Street Y sort of affair. Or at least one where the celebrity speaker gives detailed thoughts on architecture, rather than an unknown audience member.

Next, Peter Krashes, President of the Dean Street Block Association, brought up the Atlantic Yards. (Afterwards, Mr. Krashes confronted Mr. Gehry while signing autographs. Mr. Gehry said he would meet with the community group only after first getting clearance from Jim Stuckey, Vice President of Forest City Ratner).

During the Q&A, Mr. Krashes asked several uncomfortable questions. Not surprisingly, Mr. Gehry’s genial manner abruptly changed.

“It’s not fair to nail me on this here,” he exclaimed. “Let’s do it another time.”

The audience, who each dropped $35 a head to hear Mr. Gehry speak, began clapping loudly and consistently, until Mr. Krashes finally sat back down. The fourth (and final) question about Atlantic Yards mentioned “eminent domain abuse,” effectively closing the subject.

“No comment,” said Mr. Gehry tersely.

Noticeably upset, Mr. Gehry even asked Mr. Ouroussoff at one point if they were almost done with the entire discussion. Finally, the architecture critic ended the unpleasant ordeal, and Mr. Gehry quickly exited the stage.

If only the audience could have stuck to simple questions, like advice to a young architect, being a guest on The Simpsons or hanging out with Brad Pitt.

-Michael Calderone Gehry Grilled in Manhattan