A huge frog has landed in Brooklyn.
It’s the exceedingly strange $1 billion Barclays Center opening on Sept. 28. Rapper Jay-Z leads off with eight sold-out shows in the 19,000-seat concert hall.
The Brooklyn Nets, owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, have moved from New Jersey and will begin the season in the 18,000-seat configuration for basketball with a game against the New York Knicks on Nov. 1.
Designed by SHoP Architects PC of Manhattan, the 675,000-square-foot arena has dark bands of pre-rusted steel that undulate sensuously and senselessly around the building, alternating with reflective glass.
The armor-plate bands swirl into a stretched and twisted donut 30 feet above the wedge-shaped entry plaza at the busy intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues. A 3,000-square-foot LED sign runs around the inside of this oculus.
That much inspires gawking, as dozens of passersby were doing recently. Yet except for the bravura entrance, the gloomy exterior never comes into focus as the iconic presence it strives to be.
The exterior curviness suggests you’ll be swept theatrically to your seat. The reality is an awkwardly proportioned, wedge-shaped, dark-gray lobby that introduces a shadowy no-nonsense interior in shades of gray.
The lobby extends into a balcony inside the arena, 25 feet above the floor. It’s the only aspect of the interior that builds anticipation. You’ll be able to see the massive blinking scoreboard from across the entry plaza.
The interior was designed by a separate architect, sports specialist Ellerbe Becket, and looks it. (The firm has been bought by the giant design and construction firm AECOM Inc.) Bruce Ratner, the chairman and chief executive officer of developer Forest City Ratner Cos., jettisoned his first architect, Frank Gehry, when the cost of his design threatened to hit $1 billion in 2009, exactly when lenders were most wary.
AECOM cut an estimated $200 million out of the project, but Ratner disavowed the lumpy, airport-hanger proposal, quickly marrying SHoP to Ellerbe Becket. This sped the project into construction in early 2010, and got it built in less than three years -- which is fast given the challenges of building over a working rail yard.
There was no time to do what Gehry had done, which was make the movement and excitement of spectators visible to passersby. In the end, the arena still cost $1 billion.
Terrazzo flooring, understated concession design and tiles in the bathrooms exude a highbrow atmosphere compared with the painted concrete block, cheesy player statues and hot TV colors splashed across most arenas. There’s even an art program.
Designed to favor basketball, Barclays wraps faceted seating tiers tightly around the court. The arena can accommodate professional ice hockey but the seating configuration wouldn’t be optimal, said Stephen J. Duethman, the Kansas City-based managing principal of AECOM, on a walk-through. With hockey, the seat count would be lower than that “recommended” by the National Hockey League, according to Jolene Libretto, external-communications manager for AECOM.
The seating and aisles looked tight to me. Together with steeply raked tiers, though, spectators are commendably close to the action.
Barclays offers plenty of premium seating. Court-side patrons get access to the sleek Calvin Klein Club, where they can view players hustling into the arena through glass. Above the best seats along the sides are 101 luxury suites stacked on two levels. Loge seats near the lobby benefit from in-seat service of the 40/40 Club & Restaurant.
Brooklynites might consider themselves lucky. In Manhattan, Madison Square Garden’s owners are renovating, spending nearly $1 billion. Judging from results so far, it won’t be enough. The Barclays Center is no Garden disaster, just an extraordinarily expensive lost opportunity.
And it could be made worse. Barclays is the keystone of the $4.9 billion Atlantic Yards project. Ratner has promised to break ground in December on the first of three residential buildings that will wrap the arena.
The building is a stiff composition of stacked boxes by SHoP that makes me wistful for Gehry’s high-strung lyricism. Ratner is starting to make good on a commitment to residential affordability that was key to Atlantic Yards approval, so half the units will be rented below market.
Sadly, the Barclays Center and Atlantic Yards has become an object lesson in how form follows finance.
(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on dining, Manuela Hoelterhoff on opera.