AN ARENA GROWS IN BROOKLYN

The weathered steel screen with Williamsburgh Savings Bank behind. (Photo: Stadiafile) The weathered steel screen with Williamsburgh Savings Bank behind. (Photo: Stadiafile)

…AND ITS THE BEST AMERICAN SPORTS VENUE THIS GENERATION

Today I visited downtown Brooklyn’s Department of Motor Vehicles and discovered they’ve built an arena next door!  Super.  So, after renewing my driver’s license in a stunningly quick twenty minutes, (hat tip to the fine folks at the DMV), I bounded over to the new building for a first look and was very pleased.

View looking south on Fort Greene Place (Photo: Stadiafile)

Full disclosure: I was aware of the project being built but I am still shocked that the Barclays Center is a reality, given the trials and tribulations the project has gone through before reaching this point. First announced back in 2003 by Bruce Ratner’s Forest City Ratner development team, the project has endured intense community resistance, negotiated a tricky – some say illegal – purchase and subsequent demolition of existing buildings, survived a global economic recession and been redesigned three times (officially) by a succession of architects. The arena is the first piece of a development that will one day consist of sixteen residential and commercial towers and will, for better or worse, completely transform this once-bleak train yard between the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Park Slope, Fort Greene and Boerum Hill.

The new palace at Flatbush and Atlantic. (Photo: Stadiafile)

The planted roof of the new train station exit. (Photo: Stadiafile)

The original architect for the project was Frank O. Gehry, architect of the shimmering 8 Spruce Street in lower Manhattan and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, among others.  Gehry’s scheme consisted of his trademark titanium-clad, wavy towers and an embedded arena, but was ultimately rejected by the developer.  Following Gehry’s departure, Ratner made the safe decision and hired stadium architects Ellerbe Becket to redesign the arena portion of the project.  The design they produced was underwhelming and garnered little support.  Finally, digital design hotshots and darlings of the New York architecture scene SHoP were brought in to re-re-design the arena exterior with Ellerbe Becket retained for their stadium design know-how – SHoP will stay on to design the future towers as well. After all of this, the result is one of the more exciting architectural projects Brooklyn and the City of New York have seen in quite a while and possibly the best American sport venue of this generation.

The Barclays Center sits atop the Atlantic Railyards, on a triangular site formed by the acute intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues to the north, Dean Street to the south and 6th Avenue to the east. With few tall buildings nearby other than the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, Barclays Center sits as an object framed by the large boulevards that form the site.  This differs from New York’s other large arena, Madison Square Garden (MSG) which is surrounded by the towers of Midtown Manhattan.  Like MSG though, Barclays Center is located atop several subway lines and is easily accessed by subway from all parts of the city.

Because Barclays Center is such a visible object, one can fully appreciate its amorphous shape from all angles. Barclays Center consists of two primary, weathered steel-clad forms, separated at the ground and upper level by a glass curtain wall. The lower of the two steel elements culminates over the main entry in a video screen-lined oculus, the upper curls down to reveal the monk head – a white roof with the Barclays bank logo branded to its surface. The shops that occupy the arena’s ground level (Starbucks, Nets Store, Metro PCS, etc.) will open up onto the street which will hopefully keep the area around the building active when the arena is not in use. Overall the building is not as tall as I’d imagined an 18,000-seat, 675,000-square-foot arena would be.  It gives the impression of a much larger building curled up to fit into a tight space – it feels at once big and small.

View looking west on Atlantic Avenue (Photo: Stadiafile)
The varying apertures of the screen create a beautiful effect but how will they clean that glass? (Photo: Stadiafile)

Although Barclays Center is not necessarily bad for its site, if I had superhuman strength I might propose a site swap with Flushing’s new Citi Field, home of the New York Mets baseball team. The neighboring brick and limestone Atlantic Terminal Mall (a site once proposed as a new home for the Brooklyn Dodgers designed by – wait for it – Buckminster Fuller!) bears striking resemblance to Citi Field, while the robust, rusted ruin/alien spaceship Barclays Center would fit in nicely with Citi Field’s industrial site in Flushing, Queens and the futuristic World’s Fair structures of nearby Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

View looking west on Dean Street (Photo: Stadiafile)

A newly-built exit from the train station emerges from below the arena, covered by a landscaped roof, connecting New Yorkers to the new arena in a matter of minutes. A collection of benches and planted concrete bollards combine to fill out the north edge of the site.  These elements, together with the station pavilion and the canopy combine to form a public, urban space, the likes of which sports venues in this city have not seen since Ebbets Field’s rotunda.  This plaza promises to become a new gathering spot for fans pre- and post-game.

The oculus above the plaza is an elegant, dynamic feature of the new arena which will become an icon and the image of the arena for years to come.  The opening touches down on the plaza on one side, lifts high on the other and is lined on its concave side with an amorphous video screen. The placement of the video screen on the inside of the oculus is a clever move, minimizing the evening projection of this hulking edifice on the sensitive residential neighborhoods nearby.

With all the positives of Barclays Center, I still have some questions which remain unanswered:

Where will people park? Will everyone really take the subway? Maybe on basketball night most of the crowd will come from Brooklyn or Manhattan, but when Barbara Streisand is in town? It remains to be seen how parking will occur because there is little to none provided on the site.

How could they not design the interior bowl to accommodate hockey? The configuration of hockey cuts the seating capacity from 18,000 to 14,000 and would make Barclays Center the smallest facility in the NHL should a team like the New York Islanders ever wish to play there. Not being able to easily configure the arena to handle hockey is inexplicable and keeps Barclays Center from being a slam dunk.

How will they clean the glass behind the corten steel screen? Considerable time designing any glass building is spent on this question. I assume the smart team at SHoP has thought of this – perhaps the screen panels are movable or the glass operable from the inside, though neither seem to be the case. I hope there is a way other than this because the glass is already getting dirty.

Will the rust of the corten leak when it rains? And if it does, where will it go because there are no drains? One of the problems with the type of steel used here is that when wet there is rust run-off. Hopefully this has been thought out already, because there are no apparent contingencies if it does happen.

The culture that creates sports venues in the United States is both traditional and conservative.  Perhaps due to a fear of budget overruns, clients’ general cautiousness or a lack of awareness or appreciation for visual culture, American sports facilities rarely push the field of architecture ahead, and often set it back.  The formula stumbled upon at Barclays Center – stadium expert Ellerbe Becket, plus top-notch design firm SHoP – seems a successful one, and the same set up is in place for the new Golden State Warriors Arena; Ellerbe Becket’s global firm AECOM has been teamed with Norwegian/New York architects Snøhetta to design a new arena just beneath the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, north of AT&T Park in San Francisco.

We will learn more about how the Barclays Center works as an arena when Jay-Z takes the stage tomorrow night and even more when Deron Williams & Co. tip-off against the crosstown Knicks on November 1, but the bold, modern, iconic new building represents a new breed of sports venue in this country and for that we should all be excited.