Atlantic Yards: Can prefab be fabulous?

Will the prefab tower at Atlantic Yards look like real architecture, or will it be Lego-like?

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From left: Bruce Ratner and a rendering of Atlantic Yards’ first residential tower
The most remarkable thing — perhaps the only remarkable thing — about the recently released plans for a residential high-rise at Brooklyn’s much-debated Atlantic Yards site is not the design itself, but rather the manner in which the project will be built.

Conceived by SHoP Architects for Forest City Ratner, the building will be made up of prefabricated units constructed off-site and then assembled on the premises. The prefab component of construction should allow for considerable savings.

The project, known for now as B2 (as in “Barclays Two”), is part of Bruce Ratner’s $4.9 billion, 22-acre Atlantic Yards development. The architectural centerpiece of that project will, of course, be the Barclays Stadium, which SHoP also worked on while preserving the general (and mediocre) vision of Ellerbe Becket, the firm that originally designed the arena after Frank Gehry was very publicly sent packing.

B2 is the first of what will eventually be three residential high-rises that will stand on the southern and eastern elevations of the Barclays arena, along Dean Street, Sixth Avenue and Flatbush Avenue.

The building will contain 350 of the development’s 1,500 units (half of them for low- and middle-income families). At 32 stories, it promises to be the tallest prefabricated, modular structure ever built.

The building’s design was in no small degree determined by the guidelines established by the Empire State Development Corporation, the state entity backing the project, which required a complicated series of setbacks.

To judge from the renderings, the stiffly geometric results, with their shifting, syncopated planes, recall the same Deconstructivist aesthetic that inspired a number of buildings on West 42nd Street, among them the Condé Nast building at 4 Times Square and the Reuters building at 3 Times Square — both designed by Fox and Fowle.

Perhaps feeling that the pared-down geometry of the structure needed some enhancement, the architects have emphasized the semi-autonomy of each zone by casting it in a different color. In any case, its severe geometry doesn’t look as though, when completed, it will work well with the demonstrative curves of the Barclays arena itself.

Though a relatively young firm, SHoP has been quite busy around New York (and around the world) in recent years. I am especially partial to their Porter House, an entire alien structure that cantilevers over the southern side of an old factory building at Ninth Avenue and 15th Street. This building is interesting not only for its shape and position, but also for its striking use of white accents against the gunmetal gray of its façade.

Also distinguished is the soon-to-open Pier 15 at the South Street Seaport, part of the East River Waterfront Esplanade, the first part of which opened last summer. Though the esplanade itself, which SHoP designed, does not overcome the unpleasant fact that it is just beneath the FDR Drive, this new pavilion, which gleams with a reddish fire at night, manages to channel such Miesian glass-box masterpieces as the Farnsworth House and the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin in a somewhat deconstructed idiom.

In addition, the firm has designed an audacious model for a new building for the Fashion Institute of Technology here in New York, and also an educational building in Botswana, Africa.

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The desire to prefabricate American housing has been a dream of developers ever since Augustine Taylor invented the balloon-frame house around 1833, which made it possible for anyone with a hammer to replicate the work formerly done by skilled craftsmen and build a decent dwelling in little time.

By 1906, Thomas Edison had developed the single-pour concrete system, and two years later, 22 different models of housing were being sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co.

Soon, Modernists like Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Buckminster Fuller were designing such prefab habitations. More recently, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban (he of the Metal Shutter House in Chelsea) created inexpensive housing made of freight containers in order to aid earthquake and flood victims.

But no one has attempted anything on the order of SHoP’s B2. The construction, which is to begin early this year, is as yet untested on anything of this magnitude.

Ratner claims to have spent two years studying modular construction and anticipates that it will cut building costs by as much as 25 percent. His intention is to have 60 percent of the work — including prefabricating 1,000 steel-frame modules — done in a factory. The modules will then be transported to the site and assembled.

Naturally, his idea has created friction with the construction unions, which initially threatened to sue on the grounds that the 17,000 jobs they were promised as part of the Atlantic Yards deal have never materialized.

Aesthetically, the great question surrounding B2 is whether, when completed, it will look like real architecture, or like something that’s just rolled out of one of the recently unveiled 3-D printers.

Will this development make it possible for good architecture to be produced at bargain-basement prices — or will it prove to be the greatest gift of technology to fans of so-called value engineering? Even more than lackluster design, value engineering is the besetting sin of architecture in the five boroughs, and it produces that sinking feeling that corners were cut, and the cheapest materials were used, to save the most money.

Yet, if anything, New York probably needs its buildings to be more expensive rather than less. Some projects, like the Urban Glass House at 330 Spring Street (which the nonagenarian Phillip Johnson conceived in collaboration with Annabelle Selldorf ) have an excellent design. But their effect is thoroughly vitiated by the paltriness of the manufacturer.

Perhaps the problem with value engineering is not the attempt to save money, but the attempt to create something that looks ritzy — when in reality, it’s anything but that. That problem is unlikely to beset the four youngish principals of SHoP (whose name derives from a rough acronym of their last names: The twins Christopher and William Sharples, William’s wife Coren, Kimberly Holden and her husband, Gregg Pasquarelli). Thus far, they have managed to design some attractive, well-made buildings.

In this regard, their efforts differ from such recent developments as Lot-ek’s several projects that look, and are, cheap, as well as the general mass of new buildings that cost more than they should — and still look cheap.

Surely the project revealed by SHoP looks, from the initial renderings, to be far duller and more conventional — in purely formal terms — than what Gehry had proposed. However, Gehry’s project was overrated, for all the usual mid-cult reasons — adulation of fame and the tendency to associate newness with importance — attendant upon the labors of starchitects. And B2, though perhaps not better, is surely not worse.<