Climbing the stairs out of the new subway entrance at the Atlantic Avenue/Barclays Center station, the massive oculus in the new arena’s canopy comes into view. A digital media ring inside the oculus, which will announce programming at the arena with shimmering animations, is perfectly framed, which, oddly, makes the controversial renaming (and rebranding) of the subway station to include the arena (and namesake bank) somehow more appropriate. This transit/plaza/ media-scape signals a bold new presence in Brooklyn. Though the 18,000-seat arena seemed to go up almost overnight, its erection marks the borough indelibly.
Mired in controversy for nearly ten years, the Barclays Center is the first piece and signature element of the massive new Atlantic Yards development, which will be built over the next couple of decades. In the meantime, Brooklyn has a major new piece of architecture—and a large-scale gathering place—on a scale and level of ambition not seen in the borough in decades.
On the day of the press opening, neighborhood activists, union groups, project opponents, and others gathered outside, handing out leaflets and mocking the politicians and developers, hoping to cast some shame over the glad-handing going on inside. And though their numerous lawsuits and protests have failed to stop the project, the architects of the Barclays Center, SHoP and Ellerbe Becket/AECOM, have tried to take community concerns into consideration. Few of the project’s opponents will be mollified, but the crucible of controversy has undoubtedly improved the project and pushed the architects and the developers to respond to their context with uncommon civic generosity.
Nestled in the roaring wedge of traffic between Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, the building’s curving forms and lateral banding reference the energy from the rushing traffic, turning a negative urban condition into an architectural expression. Even with all the traffic, the area is bordered by vibrant, high-density neighborhoods, which will help fill the spaces created by the arena’s new public realm. The generous plaza in front—a privately owned public space—helps define the larger area, and the sidewalks alongside the area, lined with street trees and steel bollards, feel far safer and more welcoming to pedestrians than they ever did before. Stadiums and arenas are often deadly to street life, but the architects of the Barclays Center have filled much of the ground floor with glass storefronts and windows into the interior. From the plaza, passers-by can see the scoreboard and the crowds inside watching the game, but not the court itself. A submerged practice court is also visible from the plaza.
The richly tactile, weathered steel panels, according to SHoP partner Gregg Pasquarelli, are meant to evoke the “grit and glamour” of Brooklyn. That may be a stretch, but the intricate pattern and heavy materiality of the panels signal a level of seriousness and investment on the part of the developers toward the borough. They are trying to make a good and strong impression on Brooklyn (for comparison, one only need look across Atlantic Avenue to Ratner’s cheap-looking Atlantic Center, the unpleasant to shop in mall across the street). The contrast between the fluidity of the forms—which clearly reflect contemporary digital design—and the (artificially created) patina on the plates, creates a balance of high-tech and heft that seems appropriate for Brooklyn, a place that has always had a strong sense of itself.
Inside, the story is less compelling. The interior is comparatively conventional, and during an opening day tour Pasquarelli said that the Ellerbe Beckett team (now a part of AECOM) adapted a very similar strategy for the arena’s seating as the one they used at the Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Seats are steeply pitched so that everyone is close to the action. Suite boxes ring the middle of the seating bowl, and they are separated from the seats below by only a low wall. The lack of tinted-glass enclosures and their relatively modest sizes makes them seem unostentatious. Pasquerelli said that was done to put the emphasis on the court or the stage. The entry lobby and many of the circulation spaces seem tight, and will likely be jammed during popular performances and big games. Painted almost entirely in black with grey floors, the predominantly sheetrock interiors seem drab, even at times gloomy. A few flourishes, like light fixtures that arc up in a curve in the concourse level and a patterned wall mural in the VIP entrance that recalls the facade, add limited visual interest.
The architects’ civic gestures along Atlantic and Flatbush and the building’s dynamic canopy and distinctive skin mark a promising start for Atlantic Yards, one that is only underscored by the unresolved Sixth Avenue side of the arena, which overlooks the still un-decked train trench and now vacated warehouse buildings. Many of the politicians on the stage during the recent ribbon cutting are leaving office soon. With millions of square feet, major infrastructure, thousands of units of housing, and acres of public space yet to be built, let’s hope that Ratner maintains this high level of architecture and intelligent civic engagement. Forest City has too much of the city in their hands to not be held to that standard.