The polemic Jonathan Liu sets up in “A Sporting Chance,” progress vs. stasis, is a phony one. Development doesn’t inherently (as is implied) represent some kind of evolution, and Lethem is hardly proposing stagnation. What’s more, Frank Gehry is only “beyond reproach” if one chooses to ignore the many individuals (Paul Goldberger) and organizations (The Municipal Art Society) who have come out against the Atlantic Yards project in its current state.
A comparison of the two pieces you ran on the Atlantic Yards development highlights some curious divisions between the writers. Nikil Saval focuses his attention on questions concerning political coalitions, rhetoric, city zoning policies, and housing. Jonathan Liu, on the other hand, focuses his discussion on architecture, sports, and the image of “history.”
These discussions intersect upon the key figure of Robert Moses. Saval acknowledges the usually overlooked fact that Moses provided New York City with an astounding quantity of public housing units, much of it centrally located. The presence of these facilities has all but guaranteed that New York City will never gentrify as thoroughly as, say, central Paris or London. This acknowledgement attends Saval’s support for “liberal projects [that help] the poor and displaced” of New York City. He evokes these things without advocating the full, problematic scope of Moses’s entire building program, which was in many respects anti-poor. By contrast, Liu derives his understanding of Moses from a more commonly touted narrative, in which Moses is held up as responsible for ugly “cookie cutter” constructions all over the city, and for massive highway-building programs that destroyed neighborhoods. A (surely not permanent) political rejection of the sorts of “liberal projects” Saval endorses has bolstered this narrative.
Yet an inspection of conditions on the ground reveals that such a narrative is in many ways quite contrived. For instance, many of Moses’ constructions—Lincoln Center, the terraces in Riverside Park, the Verrazano Bridge—are startlingly unique. Moreover, as Saval suggests, highways and other major government building programs are not alone to blame for the post-war destruction of urban neighborhoods. In fact, if anything, protecting a neighborhood from a highway has tended to facilitate gentrification, which is a process wherein all of the residents of an area—and not just those that live inside the highway corridor—are forced to leave. Through gentrification, the neighborhood is “saved” only insofar as its architecture remains.
What Liu makes clear is that architecture fascinates him far more than do the people inside of it. This bias would explain why he is able to write an entire article about the role of architecture in the Atlantic Yards development conflict—a conflict which is ultimately about housing prices—without even mentioning the word “housing.” For Liu, architecture’s primary responsibility is not to provide shelter, but rather to project certain images (conveying “history,” or “humanism,” or the “transformative power” of athletics, or whatever). Such a notion of architecture usually gets branded “post-modern,” but to make the definition more relevant to Saval’s discussion, we might instead use the term “neo-liberal,” since it is a definition that regards society as composed of image-consumers and not of human beings with a shared fundamental need for shelter.
Such a view of architecture leads Liu towards an utterly depoliticized understanding of the history of 20th century architecture. Liu regards City Beautiful architecture (Penn Station) as superior to neo-traditionalist architecture (Camden Yards) because the City Beautiful movement was a “precursor” to Modernism. Such a historical narrative, which identifies prefabrication, massive scale, and novel circulatory arrangements as Modern Architecture’s “radical” thoughts, necessarily ignores an alternative understanding of Modern Architecture as originating in early 20th century leftist political movements.
In this narrative, Modern Architecture emerges out of social utopianism in England and nascent communism in the early Soviet Union—and, later, out of overlapping leftist circles in Weimar Germany—as a broad critique of bourgeois constructions and construction methods. This critique becomes bifurcated in that on the one hand it wants merely to provide wealthy clients with a new aesthetic sensibility, while on the other hand it wants to provide the working class with, at long last, decent living conditions. In the end, the former goal overwhelms and destroys the latter, as corporations in the United States begin to see Modern Architecture, or the “International Style,” as ideally suited for post-war corporate expansion. In an iconological history, this moment is traceable precisely to the construction in 1952 of the headquarters for the Lever Soap Company (a building which Liu refers to affectionately as the “Lever House” and assesses as Modern Architecture’s “best”).
The point here is that the proposed architectural design for the Atlantic Yards Arena is “radical” only within a very narrow history of corporate self-projection. But such “radicalism” is traceable not to Modern Architecture’s radical political thought, which centered upon the housing question, but rather to late capitalist innovations in corporate mass-reproduction of images.
Liu begins his article by self-identifying as a fan of the NBA. One wonders: is it necessary that such self-identification should lead to a thinly veiled pro-corporate political position? Perhaps. After all, sports fans want their “home” team to win a championship. This calls for the best young players, which calls for money, which calls for expensive arena seats and ludicrous amounts of public funding for arena construction. Most fans, whether rich or poor, are comfortable with making such personal sacrifices.
And yet a professional sports league is by definition limited. The season, the game, the court, the rules—all this is bounded. The whole excitement hinges upon the fact that the competition is supposed to be “only a game,” the merciless hyper-competitiveness of which should not spill over into all other aspects of our lives. Liu himself, in celebrating such “old-fashioned” sporting venues as Ebbets Field or Fenway Park, suggests the importance of the stadium as a bounded, autonomous construction (neither ballpark was built as part of a “multi-use complex”). To this end, the proposed Nets arena would be acceptable if it weren’t part and parcel of a far vaster corporate building program, one which will annihilate the presence of economically struggling groups in Inner Brooklyn as thoroughly as a great basketball team annihilates a lousy one.
The most enduring image that sports in the United States have produced has nothing whatsoever to do with the triumph of corporate expansion, and everything to do with a politics of resistance: the spectacle of runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising the “Black Power” fist at their 1968 Olympic medal award ceremony. Bruce Ratner is using the overwhelming cultural popularity of sports to sell his plan for Brooklyn. He is banking on an uncritical understanding of sports as “justifying” capitalism at its most cut-throat. Yet sports are, and have always been, salvageable for the Left. Saval’s (entirely commendable) call for “renewed attention to and investment in the notion of public development” need not come at the expense of any cultural practice, be it architecture, sports, or the celebration of history.