Atlantic Cities

Why Reviewing Brooklyn's New Arena Before It Opened Was Premature

Why Reviewing Brooklyn's New Arena Before It Opened Was Premature
Norman Oder

The most photographed building in New York in recent weeks has undoubtedly been the new Barclays Center arena, which officially opened September 28 at the busy, angled crossroads of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, where downtown Brooklyn turns into Prospect Heights.

Designed by sports specialist Ellerbe Becket (now AECOM) and the buzzy New York firm SHoP, the arena presents an undulating facade of pre-rusted metal and an oculus--an elliptical opening--that extends over the entrance plaza and offers digital advertising, art, and announcements. A new portal to Brooklyn's biggest subway hub delivers event-goers up an escalator to a dramatic view of the looming frame.

Critics both amateur and professional began offering raves and pans even before the building opened, with the first of a string of eight sold-out concerts by Jay-Z, a fractional owner of the arena and of the primary tenant, the Brooklyn (formerly New Jersey) Nets.

However incisive the comments, the push to be first, at least for the pros, seems premature: they've assessed the building mainly as an urban sculpture (and borough statement) and in part as a venue for event-goers, with its tight, basketball-centric bowl and below-grade event floor.

But the arena's also an organism, ingesting up to 19,000 people at a time for concerts, shows, and games, and delivering many of them not only to the subway, but also to narrow area streets and sidewalks, making neighbors wary. (See "Fears of a Tight Fit for Brooklyn's Arena," June 8.)

Critics should have waited. Indeed, opening events this weekend produced two surprises, one happier than the other. The feared traffic jams were averted, thanks at least in part to a huge police presence, plus an override of traffic signals (with the help of pedestrian managers, not permanent), heavy promotion of transit, and the youthful but adult demographic of Jay-Z fans. (For the upcoming Barbara Streisand concerts, and Nets games, questions remain.)

The long lines to get through arena security were generally cordial, helped by seasonable weather, though they filled both the plaza and, around the block, a public sidewalk.

However, on all three nights, giddy event-goers exiting from the arena's northern doors, located far from a crosswalk, flooded wide Atlantic Avenue, forcing police to stop traffic for more than ten minutes. "This is not a street fair," one officer remonstrated. The tactic may or may not work for weekend afternoon events, when traffic is more intense.

And the arena can't realistically be decoupled from the plans for towers around it, the surface parking lot one long block away, the long-delayed eight acres of open space, and the contentious 22-acre, $4.9 billion Atlantic Yards project.


The plot of land, next to an arena entrance, slated for a 32-story tower. (Norman Oder)

The arena's bifurcated exterior--two main horizontal bands of metal separated by glass--have provoked several metaphors, many unflattering. "A lopsided bedpan," one reader told The New York Times. Others posited a "George Foreman grill" or a "hand-held stapler."

Even Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, perhaps the arena's most fervent booster, deemed the design "interesting," perhaps mourning the flashier initial proposals by Frank Gehry, in which the arena was tightly coupled to four towers.

Others have embraced the Barclays Center. "I think it's dope," one young man told me. Book critic Laurie Muchnick tweeted, "It has movement, unlike most stadiums." SHoP's Gregg Pasquarelli likened the arena to a U.F.O. created by "Richard Serra and Chanel."


View of Barclays Center from near intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues; green is roof of subway entrance (Norman Oder)

"In 50 years, if it is still standing, it will be called 'iconic,'" a Times reader suggested. New York magazine's Justin Davidson already dubbed it Brooklyn’s Ready-Made Monument: "If Madison Square Garden hunkers glumly in its concrete drum, Barclays Center is an architectural chest bump: juiced, genial, and aggressive all at once."

While Davidson praised the weathered steel as both "permanent and changeable," James S. Russell in BloombergBusinessWeek decried the "rusty" arena, suggesting the "gloomy exterior never comes into focus" and leads to an an "awkwardly proportioned" lobby.

Only Alexandra Lange, writing for The New Yorker's Culture Desk blog, stressed the corporate branding, an arena named for a bank marred by "recent scandals," and called the building a "Trojan horse" for developer Bruce Ratner's pursuit of valuable public property.

While Lange praised the arena as better than "the charmless 'airline hangar' once proposed"--an Ellerbe Becket design revised with new facade (and interiors) after a pan from then-Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff--she observed that the arena transforms neighborhood context: "Do I want those [16] towers to be built now, just to make the arena work?"

Indeed, Davidson suggested that "[e]ventually, a trio of residential towers, also designed by SHoP, will fence the arena in and hide the less refined sections." (Though plans aren't firm, Forest City aims to build the world's tallest modular structures at Atlantic Yards.)

But Davidson, like the other critics, ignores a glaring absence in current renderings of the three-tower arena block: Atlantic Yards was approved with a fourth tower, a flagship office building at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic, some 50 stories high, covering what's now the arena plaza, with the subway entrance enclosed in an atrium Gehry dubbed an "Urban Room."

However visitors embrace the oculus, the arena was never supposed to stand alone. That flagship tower--long on hold, Ratner admitted nearly three years ago--was key to the portrayal of Atlantic Yards, as it would have delivered both permanent jobs and promised tax revenues.

In assessing the new arena, it's imperative not only to look at the building, but at the broader plans for Atlantic Yards, with its troubled history and unresolved future.

Brooklyn journalist Norman Oder writes the daily Atlantic Yards Report watchdog blog and has contributed to the New York Times, Salon, Streetsblog, Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications. All posts »

Join the Discussion