All the Brittle Towers: On the State of Brooklyn Architecture

Laura_images9

It’s pretty simple to figure out the state of Brooklyn’s housing market these days: Just look up. The past decade has seen unprecedented vertical construction. Towers in various states of completion loom silently over us all as we wait for the bus, stumble out of bars, or wander down to the waterfront. Given that the people buying those condos will be pricing us out of our borough sooner rather than later, it’s almost painfully metaphorical.

It wasn’t always this way. For 80 years, Brooklyn had one tallest building: The Williamsburgh Savings Bank (512 feet), a beautifully ornate tiered tower whose clock face is visible basically anywhere south of the Flushing stop on the G. It’s friendly despite its size, more Grape Ape than Godzilla. Since 2009, Brooklyn has crowned two different tallest buildings: first, the GKV Architects-designed rental building The Brooklyner (514 feet), then SLCE Architects’ 388 Bridge Street (590 feet). Next year, it will likely shift again when Avalon Willoughby West opens its doors; it’s projected to stand about six feet taller than 388 Bridge.

These buildings, and many others like them, have been part of a boom that added more than 10,000 units of housing in Brooklyn between 2010 and 2014, and is expected to add 21,000 more between 2015 and 2019, according to a CityRealty study. That housing isn’t especially affordable: The least expensive unit currently available in 388 Bridge is a two bed, two bath condo for $1.6 million.

In short, we’re living through a historic alteration of the visual and human landscape of Brooklyn, with more people living higher up than ever. But what kind of legacy are these buildings leaving? In a decade, what will it mean to say that something looks like “Brooklyn”?

According to Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger, nothing good. On a recent afternoon, we gave Goldberger, who has written a dozen books on architecture, as well as articles for the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Vanity Fair, a call to ask him what he thought about all this new construction.

“They have a look, most of them–and it’s very hard to generalize here,” he said, “but a lot of them have a kind of almost brittle sleekness about them that I don’t particularly like, and doesn’t feel in sync with Brooklyn, which has always had a sumptuous quality to a lot of its architecture.”

From the Burj Khalifa to The Shard, the last decade in the world’s skyscrapers has been characterized by daring in design and materials, often to a fault. But at least they have goals. Even Manhattan, which has put up plenty of relatively anonymous buildings in recent years is reaching ambitiously for the sky, if not for international design awards.  Brooklyn’s tallest buildings don’t even make the list of the top 100 tallest buildings in the city (1166 Avenue of the Americas, a building you’ve probably never heard of if you don’t happen to work there, is 600 feet tall).

Brooklyn’s crop of new buildings are utterly forgettable: not especially tall, not visually interesting, not technically innovative. On the most basic level, they’re not much to look at: interchangeable glass towers with interchangeably ridiculous, marketing-first names.

Laura_images_17

“One thing that makes me sad,” said Goldberger, “is that Brooklyn architecture used to be so good. . . The best brownstone neighborhoods in New York are in Brooklyn, not Manhattan. So much of the greatest architecture in New York is in Brooklyn, not Manhattan. And yet, in terms of what’s happening now, that’s not the case. What’s being built in Brooklyn now is mostly real estate speculation, not super high quality building like there once was.”

Here, Goldberger says, is the hidden story of Brooklyn real estate: The real money is going into things that are old, not new. “Classic brownstones in Park Slope and Fort Green and Crown Heights–those are the prime things. When anything in Brooklyn goes for an amount of money that makes people’s eyebrows raise, it’s invariably a classic brownstone, or some kind of townhouse or mansion, not a new apartment.” Anyone who lives near a brownstone that’s sold and then undergone a painstaking, months-long renovation knows what Goldberger is talking about. The most exacting construction isn’t going into condo towers, it’s going into restoring the precise, historically accurate kind of steps and iron bannisters onto a $4 million Prospect Park brownstone.

“Again, to sort of make a generalization that’s not entirely fair, most of the recent buildings look cheap,” said Goldberger. “And that’s true at various scales. In Bed-Stuy, in Prospect Heights, in Crown Heights, you’re beginning to see a certain amount of development at a relatively small scale, and it’s good that it’s consistent with the neighborhood in that way. But the buildings still look kind of cheap. In Downtown, appropriately, there’s more high-rise development, but those still look cheap, also. Not that everything in Manhattan is exactly the gold standard, but you do feel that there’s a little more care but into quality and details.”

How did we find ourselves in a situation where the city is throwing up a huge amount of cheaply built housing? That’s simple, says Goldberger: There’s a demand for it.

“I think there are more and more people in a certain kind of, I guess you’d have to call it professional class, a certain kind of life,” said Goldberger. “And that is driving this very different market. I think that’s much more underlying Brooklyn than international investment,” which is driving the Manhattan market. Specifically, he said, the large developments like those along the Williamsburg waterfront provide these people with the kind of “grit-free urban experience” today’s yuppies are after.

“The real problem we have in New York today is that the economy is driven by people making money in finance, who like being in a cool urban environment and not living in Scarsdale or Greenwich, however the things that make it cool and urban, which is the presence of writers and artists and musicians and dancers and so forth, those people are all being driven out by the whole thing,” he said.

Around Brooklyn

See More

4 COMMENTS

  1. The real problem is the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, The Brooklyn Partnership, HPD and Forest Ratner. Eminent domain by Empire State Development where classic buildings and small businesses are torn down, crappy buildings go up in their place. So, what you end up having is buildings like the Toren and other Donald Capoccia & L&M Development buildings with a ton of construction defects. But, these developers donated the most $$, and sit on the REBNY board. Then you have no oversight by HPD or the Buildings Dept and how many ppl have been arrested in both of these agencies. The Mayors office ignores these issues. Then again, Delbasio ignored all these issues when he was Public Advocate.

  2. Demand and affordability is the problem. At one time I thought of what it would be like to build a 19th century brownstone, with the same detail, material and most importantly craftsmanship in 21st century Brooklyn. The cost in 2015 would be insane. I would be better off building an inexpensive eight unit building.
    The reality of the economics of building in Brooklyn make great architecture a true luxury and if real estate is your business, then it is a boondoggle. Think Howard Hughes.

    • The root of the changes is well beyond the basics of demand and affordability–particularly in Brooklyn. In the 1950 there were a quarter million more people living in Brooklyn (higher demand) and housing was at its most affordable from working class families (greater affordability). There are other forces are work, and foreign investment is a major player in Brooklyn. Our social scientists, including economist are absent or seem clueless in the discussion. But some of the fault for current lack of affordable housing results from the City centralizing almost all political power under the mayor’s administration–having rendered local democracy dead. (Community boards are not local representative governments by any stretch of the imagination.)

      The deBlasio plan that focuses on creating more units just doesn’t get to addressing the real causes, it will just add flame to the fire.

LEAVE A REPLY